Monday, Jun 10, 2024

A Mystery for the Ages

 

How Josef Stalin Helped Found the State of Israel

 

As Purim approaches, at a time when Israel faces betrayal from world leaders posing as allies, and from prominent American Jewish figures driven by political ambition, it’s heartening to reflect on a pivotal venahafoch hu moment that marked Israel’s early history as a Jewish state.

In the days leading up to the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel was even more internationally isolated than she is now, help came from Above through a most unlikely source: notorious mass murderer and Jew-hater Josef Stalin. Historians still struggle to unravel the mystery of why this arch fiend became a benefactor of a people he detested.

 

It began in November 1947, with a speech at the United Nations that shocked the world, recounts historian Martin Kramer in Mosaic magazine.

The General Assembly had been locked in debate over the proposed partition of then-Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The Arab nations made it clear they adamantly opposed the proposal, while the vast majority of Jews embraced it.

World War II had ended just two years earlier. The Jewish people were still reeling from the scope and horrors of the Nazi slaughter, and from the plight of hundreds of thousands of survivors who had emerged dazed and broken from the camps, bunkers and forests.

250,000 Jewish survivors were crammed into displaced-persons camps in Germany and Austria, the vast majority desperate to reach the Jewish homeland where they could begin rebuilding their lives.

Seeking to appease the Arabs, the British who ruled Palestine refused to lift their blockade of the country’s ports that during the war had turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. The Royal Navy, intercepting overcrowded ships filled with Holocaust survivors headed for Palestine, shipped the “illegals” to harsh detention camps in Cyprus.

Some Jews of the yishuv reacted to the continued ban on Jewish immigration by taking up arms against the British. The Irgun and Lechi were the most militant of these groups, launching an insurrection which sparked a cycle of killings, executions and retaliations. The British eventually caved and announced in February 1947 that they would terminate their Mandate and refer the problem of Palestine to the United Nations.

In May, the UN General Assembly moved to create a special commission, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), whose job was to “ascertain the facts” and recommend a “solution to the problem of Palestine.”

 

Soviet Ambassador’s Speech Rocks UN  

This is the complex landscape on which Soviet ambassador to the UN Andrei Gromyko mounted the General Assembly dais in 1947, and delivered a historic speech on Resolution 181 that stunned the room into silence, recounts Kramer.

Gromyko’s opening marks were predictable enough, in line with Soviet animosity toward British “imperialism” and its growing sphere of influence in the Middle East. Stalin’s representative castigated the British Mandate, which he said had failed in its mission, allowing the country to deteriorate “into a semi-military or police state.” The Mandate had to be terminated, he insisted.

But then, to the astonishment of all, Gromyko began to dwell upon the Holocaust and the victimization of the Jews—a subject that was virtually taboo in Soviet Russia.

“As a result of the war, the Jews as a people have suffered more than any other people,” the Soviet ambassador stated, adding that their losses amounted to “almost complete annihilation.”

“The total number of the Jewish population who perished at the hands of the Nazi executioners is estimated at approximately six million,” Gromyko said. “The Jewish people are therefore striving to create a state of their own, and it would be unjust to deny them that right.”

During the war, Gromyko continued, the Jewish people had been subjected to “indescribable sorrow and suffering. And now, hundreds of thousands of Jews are wandering about in various countries of Europe,” many lodged in DP camps where they “are still undergoing great privations.”

“The time has come,” the Soviet ambassador proclaimed, “to help these people, not by word but by deed. This is a duty of the United Nations.”

 

Dramatic Turnaround

Up to this point, the Soviet position had been that the solution for hundreds of thousands of homeless Jewish survivors lay in resettling them in Europe. But a dramatic reversal of that vision was now playing out.

“No Western European state,” Gromyko asserted, “has been able to assure the defense of the basic rights of the Jewish people. This is an unpleasant fact, but unfortunately it must be admitted. It explains the aspirations of the Jews to establish their own state in the region where the Jewish people have been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period of history.”

“It would be unjust to deny the right of the Jewish people to realize their aspiration,” continued Gromyko, “particularly in view of all they have undergone during the war.

To hear Stalin’s representative lamenting over the suffering of the Jews and advocating their right to a homeland baffled most of the delegates. But then came a second bombshell.

The Soviet Union, said Gromyko, would still prefer a “single Arab-Jewish state with equal rights for the Jews and Arabs.” But if the UN commission found this “impossible to implement, in view of the deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs,” there was a “justifiable alternative: the partition of Palestine into two independent single states, one Jewish and one Arab.”

“Nothing had prepared us for this windfall,” wrote Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. “Moscow was reversing its traditional posture by proposing the option of a Jewish state. I had come to the United Nations with pessimistic assumptions about the balance of forces. Now, for the first time, our political sky was lit up with a gleam of hope…”

Millions of listeners were glued to their radio sets as the electrifying debate came to an end, the vote was called and the outcome announced: Resolution 181 had been adopted by the UN General Assembly with 33 countries voting in favor; 13 countries against; and 10 countries abstaining.

The Soviet Union had voted “yes” for partition, with its satellites Belorussia, Ukraine, Poland, and Czechoslovakia following suit.

The UN Resolution, marking the first formal international endorsement of a Jewish state set off powerful mixed reactions across the globe, notes Kramer. Hailed by the vast majority of Jews and by many humanitarians, it was furiously denounced throughout the Arab world.

 

Crucial Military Aid

During the next two years, the Soviet Union continued its unwavering support of partition. Although the United States had voted for the resolution in November 1947, by the following March it had declared partition impossible to implement. In its place, Washington proposed a “temporary” UN trusteeship.

Countering the American bid to walk back its commitment, the Soviet Union stood firmly behind the partition plan. Gromyko trashed the American proposal of a UN trusteeship as guaranteed to consign Palestine “to a state of virtual colonial slavery.”

Despite his antipathy for Jews, Stalin not only voted for the Partition Resolution of 1947, he was the second world leader –after US. President Harry Truman—to vote for Israeli statehood in 1948.

After Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan attacked Israel, sparking Israel’s war of independence, President Harry Truman, following State Department urging, placed an arms embargo against Israel “and other belligerent parties in the conflict.”

Remarkably, it was Stalin who came to the rescue: he allowed the new Communist government in Czechoslovakia to sell arms to emissaries of the Haganah, Israel’s armed force. These shipments of weapons played a significant role in Israel’s successful routing of Arab forces.

According to the written memoirs of Abba Eban, Israel’s first UN ambassador, without the Soviet vote in favor of partition (together with the votes of four satellite nations), and without the arms provided by the Soviet bloc, “we couldn’t have made it, either diplomatically or militarily.”

Golda Meir, in her memoirs, echoed these sentiments, noting that without the arms from the Eastern bloc, “I do not know whether we actually could have held out until the tide changed, as it did by June 1948.”

 

Diplomatic Support

The Soviets continued to back Israel in subsequent conflicts, particularly during Israel’s War of Independence. As Israel gained the upper hand over the Arabs, proposals for a truce or a peace settlement were urged upon the Jewish state.

In one scenario detailed by Kramer in Mosaic magazine, the Soviets backed Israeli opposition to a “peace proposal” whereby the UN’s partition plan would be drastically modified, calling for the transfer of the entire Negev to Transjordan.

The proposal was introduced by UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat. Soviet foreign minister Molotov objected, advising Stalin that “this would put four-fifths of Israeli territory into the hands of Transjordan”—another way of saying the territory would be under British control.

“Comrade Stalin agrees the proposal should be rejected,” Molotov scribbled on the document.

According to Kramer, the Soviets also supported Israel on the question of Palestinian Arab refugees. Bernardotte proposed Resolution 194, that the Arabs be given the right to return to the territory of the Jewish state. The Soviets offered a counterproposal: “the Jews be given the opportunity to come to an agreement with the Arabs on this matter in the course of peace negotiations.”

Near the end of the war, in December 1948, the Soviet Union and its satellites voted against Resolution 194. (The United States voted in favor.)

[Bernadotte was viewed by some as a puppet of the British and the Arabs, a man with pro-Arab sympathies who sought to use his position to foist disastrous proposals on Israel. Members of the radical “Stern Gang” (Lechi) assassinated the Swedish count on Sept. 17, 1948.]

 

Soviet Support Turns To Hostility

As is well-known, Soviet support for Israel was short-lived, morphed into hostility, and has largely been forgotten. Already by the end of 1948, Stalin had launched what historians refer to as “a secret pogrom” against leading Jews accused of Zionist conspiracy.

“From the 1950s onward, the Soviet Union did its utmost to erase the fact of Soviet support for the creation of Israel from official history and from Arab memory,” writes historian Kramer.

Yet, the facts are indisputable. Some force unquestionably drove a paranoid, murderous dictator who hated Jews to give his support for a Jewish state in 1947, and to maintain that backing at a very critical moment in Israel’s history.

One theory advanced in “In Stalin’s Secret Pogrom,” by authors Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov, is that “Stalin was anxious to see the British out of the Middle East and even harbored a belief that the new Jewish state would join the Soviet bloc.”

Other experts dispute this claim, arguing that even if the Soviet aim was to push Britain out, by 1949 this goal had been largely achieved with the termination of the British mandate and Israel’s decisive military victory over its Arab neighbors.

Britain’s final withdrawal from the Middle East would take another decade, but the waning of its power and influence in the region began with the creation of Israel.

 

Golda Meir in Moscow

With regard to the theory that Stalin harbored hopes that the Jewish state would join the Soviet bloc, a remarkable incident in Moscow in 1948 put that notion to rest.

In 1948, Golda Meir arrived in the Soviet Union as Israel’s first envoy. “On her first Shabbbos in Moscow,” Kramer writes, “tens of thousands of Jews filled the streets around the city’s main synagogue, and they did so again on the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur.”

Golda Meir gave a vivid description of the scene in her memoirs:

“A crowd of close to 50,000 people was waiting for us. For a minute, I could not grasp what had happened—or even who they were. And then it dawned on me. They had come—those good, brave Jews—in order to demonstrate their sense of kinship and to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel. Someone pushed me into a cab. But the cab couldn’t move, because the crowd was cheering; laughing, weeping Jews had engulfed it. I stuck my head out of the window of the cab and called out, “A dank eich vos ihr seit geblieben Yidden,” Thank you for having remained Jews!”

One of the Israeli diplomats present recalled that the spontaneous outpouring of Soviet Jews’ love for Israel, while deeply moving, produced “a sinking feeling in our hearts because of the fear that this conduct had crossed acceptable limits . . . and whose outcome would be tragic.”

Subsequent events in the USSR bore out these apprehensions. With each passing month, the Soviets grew more alarmed at the mushrooming of pro-Israel sympathies at home and corresponding awakening of Jewish identity. Stalin was alarmed by the ripple effect his own pro-Israel policy was having on two-and-a-half million Soviet Jews.

The subsequent bitter persecutions of Soviet-bloc Jews in the early 1950s advanced from the “show trials” and pitiless executions of prominent Jews to the hallucinatory “Doctors’ Plot,” through which Stalin schemed to annihilate Soviet Jewry. [See Sidebar]

The evil derangement and heinous crimes of this mass murderer highlights all the more the extraordinary and miraculous burst of sanity that put him on the right side of history for a brief moment, long enough to make a difference.

*****

 

Stalin’s Maniacal Footprint

The Bolsheviks under Stalin persecuted any form of non-Soviet national identity with a vengeance. The Yevsektsia, the Jewish arm of the propaganda department of the Communist Party from 1918 to 1930, shut down shuls and yeshivas, outlawed the teaching of religion and tightly restricted the printing of Jewish books.

As years passed, Stalin grew progressively more paranoid, ordering the execution of hundreds of people, including members of his own inner circle that he was convinced were plotting against him. This slaughter is in addition to the millions whose death Stalin orchestrated through government-manufactured famines, forced population transfers, gulag slave labor camps and outright massacres.

During his final years, Stalin’s hatred of Jews erupted full force. He closed Jewish cultural institutions, jailed and executed prominent Jewish figures, and purged all Jews from positions of authority in the security apparatus.

His paranoid suspicions about Jews being treasonous tools of the Zionist state climaxed with “The Doctor’s Plot.” The Soviet dictator accused Jewish physicians of plotting to poison Soviet leaders as well as ordinary citizens. The propaganda succeeded, sparking fear and revulsion toward the Jews. This lay the groundwork for Stalin’s twisted scheme to exterminate Soviet Jewry.

Fortunately, the world-class maniac died in 1953—many suspect by poisoning—and his anti-Jewish orders died with him.

*****

Death of a Dictator

Several newspaper accounts of Stalin’s final days, including in the London Times and France Soir, describe a riveting series of events that led to his demise in 1956. The drama began at a dinner meeting Stalin held with several top aides.

He began the meeting by rehashing his usual denunciations of “Zionist imperialist plots” and the “doctor’s plot.” He then moved on to the main thrust of his agenda; the need for mass deportation of the Jews to Central Asia and Biro Bidzhan where they would die of frigid temperatures, starvation and hard labor.

A hushed silence followed the speech. Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s loyal lieutenants, asked hesitantly whether all Jews were to be deported.  “A certain percentage,” Stalin replied.

Another presidium member, Vyacheslav Molotov, whose Jewish wife Paulina had been earlier exiled to the Kazakhastan wilderness, mustered the courage to ask, “Would not the expulsion of Jews have a negative impact on world opinion?”

Another aide, Yefremovich Voroshilov, ventured a step further. Just days earlier, four government agents had arrived at his home to arrest his Jewish wife.  Voroshilov, with gun in hand, had chased them away. But he knew they would be back; his wife was doomed.

In a dramatic gesture of defiance, he now threw his party card on the table, stating he no longer wanted to be a part of the Communist party.

Enraged at this act of defiance, Stalin bellowed that he alone determined who remained within the party.  Livid-faced, he ranted on and on. Suddenly, eyes bulging, he collapsed on the floor.

For twenty minutes, no one moved. Finally, someone dashed out to locate a doctor. In one of history’s supreme ironies, not a single doctor could be found. In the wake of the trumped up doctors’ plot, the city’s doctors had either been either executed, imprisoned or were in hiding.

Stalin was carried unconscious to his private apartment. Soviet party leaders surrounded him as he gasped and struggled to breathe. That night, March 5, 1953, the mad reign of one of history’s greatest mass murderers finally came to an end.

A month later, in April, authorities officially repudiated the “doctors’ plot.”  Two of Stalin’s aides who had assisted him in fomenting the conspiracy were arrested, put on trial and shot. Although the struggles of Soviet Jews were far from over, and so many lives had been broken by Stalin’s reign of terror, the larger community had been saved.

The timing of Stalin’s collapse which began on March 1, 1953, coinciding with Purim that year, remains a watershed of inspiration for Jews the world over.

 

 

 

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