A Convergence of Political Interests: Isi Leibler, the Communist Party of Australia and Soviet Anti-Semitism, 1964-66

Article excerpt

For many years, Western attitudes towards Soviet anti-Semitism were polarized around the Left/Right continuum. Supporters of the Soviet Union, including many Jews, claimed that anti-Semitism had been legislatively abolished, and that Russian Jews were experiencing equal rights for the first time in their history. Conservatives, in contrast, claimed that the Soviet Union had brutally suppressed Jewish religious observance and Zionist activities, and all forms of Jewish collective or national expression.

The Soviet Record

The Soviet Union's actual record prior to 1948 appears to have been mixed. On the one hand, Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet Union, had consistently and vigorously condemned anti-Semitism. In addition, action had been taken by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s to stamp out manifestations of anti-Semitism) On the other hand, Stalin began in the late 1930s to suppress and destroy Jewish cultural activities and institutions. There was also a clear impression that the arrests and show trials of 1936-1938 were directed primarily against Jews. Further, government tolerance of popular anti-Semitism appears to have influenced the considerable collaboration of Soviet citizens with the Nazi Holocaust. (2) Nevertheless, many Jews retained leading positions in the Soviet apparatus, and the common struggle against fascism, including the formation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1942 to attract foreign Jewish support for the Soviet Union, led to some improvement in the Jewish situation. However, this relative honeymoon was to be short-lived.

Between 1948 and 1953, Stalin implemented an aggressive anti-Jewish campaign. The remnants of Yiddish culture in Moscow were eradicated, the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were murdered, and virtually all prominent Jewish artists, scientists, and intellectuals were purged. (3) Stalin's anti-Jewish obsession culminated in the Czech Slansky show trial of 1952, (4) and the Doctors Plot of 1953 when six prominent Jewish doctors were arrested and accused of plotting to kill Stalin and other Soviet leaders. It appears that at the time of Stalin's death, he was on the verge of implementing a plan to deport a large proportion of the Russian Jewish population to Siberia. (5)

Following Stalin's death, conditions temporarily eased for Soviet Jews. Thousands of Jewish political prisoners were granted amnesty, the imprisoned doctors were released, and diplomatic relations were restored with Israel. (6) But Nikita Khrushchev's ascent to power in 1955 halted the brief "thaw" or period of liberalization. Khrushchev not only refused to restore the Jewish cultural institutions destroyed under Stalin, but also took active measures to hasten Jewish assimilation. Under his rule, the number of synagogues was rapidly reduced, the baking of matzos and the performing of circumcisions were greatly restricted, and virulent public campaigns were conducted against the Jewish religion and its practices. For example, the October 1963 publication of the violently anti-Jewish tract, Jews without Embellishment, by Trofim Korneyevich Kichko from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences provoked international condemnation. In addition, Khrushchev gave vent to his own anti-Jewish prejudices in meetings with foreign Communists and dignitaries.

Perhaps of most concern was the active scapegoating of Jews as alleged "speculators and illegal traders in State property". A disproportionate number of offenders convicted of such economic crimes were Jewish. The Jewish origins of such offenders were also given considerable press publicity, and Jews were far more likely to receive death sentences. To be sure, most Jews were far safer under Khrushchev than under Stalin. At least, they no longer had to fear wholesale dismissal from their jobs, or arbitrary arrest. Yet equally, no attempt was made to restore equal citizenship for Jews. In fact, a "numerus clausus" was introduced to deny them equal access to higher education and sought-after areas of employment such as the army, the diplomatic service, and the upper levels of government and party. …