Many pundits, journalists and activists who have embraced the complete myth that the 21st century Russian superpower is an anti-Zionist stalwart, remain dumbfounded that Vladimir Putin extended an invitation to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to be a guest of honour during Russia’s most sacred national day, Victory Day on the 9th of May.
Many point out that during the Cold War, such an invitation would likely have never been extended. In so far as Brezhnev was the Soviet Union’s most prominent statesman during the formal Cold War period, this is true. During Brezhnev’s time in power, the USSR remained a virtual all-weather ally of Arab Nationalist governments and consistently condemned Israel’s state ideology of Zionism, including at the UN when the USSR led a bloc of non-Muslim nations in joining with Muslim majority countries in condemning Zionism as innately racist in 1975 – at a time when Leonid Brezhnev was the undisputed most powerful leader in the world.
But while Brezhnev remains a fixture of much of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union’s longest serving leader Josef Stalin had a distinctly different policy towards Israel. Throughout Stalin’s time in power, Zionism remained officially condemned as a form of “bourgeois nationalism”. According to both Soviet and modern Russian terminology, the Jewish identity is an ethno-national identity rather than a religious one. Because of this, while the USSR as an officially atheist state, Stalin and his comrades looked to aid world Jewry by proposing an alternative to both bourgeois Zionism and European far-right antisemitism.
The result was Stalin’s creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a socialist Jewish entity within the USSR that was meant to attract both Soviet and world Jewry to a place that was both free of European antisemitism and bourgeois Zionism. Crucially, while bourgeois Zionism was correctly described by Soviet thinkers as a colonial project, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was Soviet land freely given as a home to Jews by the Soviet government.
Due to its comparatively isolated geography, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast never became a preferred destination for European Jews even after the Holocaust (although the population of the Oblast did increase after 1945). It was around this time that Stalin’s Soviet government attempted to pivot its position on Zionism in order to attain influence over the European Jews who were migrating to British Mandate Palestine.
Contrary to liberal Zionist propaganda from the late 20th century United States, the Soviet government did not discriminate against Jews nor anyone else on an ethnic basis. Against this backdrop, Moscow did not express immediate strong feelings about Jewish migration to Palestine. To put things in context, the only people who did express worry about Jewish migration to Palestine in the 1940s were indigenous Arabs who rightly feared of being displaced in their own land and the collapsing British Empire which saw the coming Jewish/Arab conflict in British Mandate Palestine as yet another late-colonial headache at a time when the British economy was in post-war tatters.
Because of this, Stalin championed the UN’s controversial and never approved partition plan which would see British Mandate Palestine divided into an Arab state and Jewish state. The Nakba of 1948 made the plan redundant as the Jewish immigrants to Palestine declared themselves the ‘State of Israel’ while Jordan and Egypt became official protectors of the remaining Palestinian Arab territories that were not formally annexed by the new Israel.
In 1949, the UN debated whether to recognise the new self-proclaimed ‘State of Israel’ and the USSR under Stalin was one of the foremost champions of recognising the new controversial entity. Not only was the Soviet Union the first country in the world to recognise Israel as a state, but the USSR’s closet allies of the era including Czechoslovakia gave the new Israeli regime arms that were used to fight Arab armies during the first Arab-Israeli War
While the USSR remained a champion of anti-imperialist Arab nationalist movements throughout this period, Stalin’s’ government did not embrace the Arab narrative regarding Zionist colonisation of Arab lands, preferring to proffer a narrative that both indigenous Arabs and recent Jewish arrivals to the Levant could both participate equally in an anti-colonial struggle struggle. While this view ultimately proved naive, Moscow’s thinking was based on the logic that felt an Arab world dominated by Britain and France would be necessarily anti-imperialist and so too would many European Jews who early in the 20th century gravitated towards Marxist-Leninist politics as an alternative to the inter-world war far-right nationalism that gripped most of Europe.
Stalin died in 1953 having spent his last years balancing Soviet policy between the Arab world and the new Israeli entity. It was only in 1956 when Israel showed its willingness to cooperate with the old world empires of Britain and France in a war against Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt that the USSR began to pivot its position to one of pro-Arab Nationalism and anti-Zionism. For further context, the US also condemned the tripartite Anglo-French-Israeli aggression against Nasser’s Egypt in 1956 because the US sought influence in the post-colonial Arab world along the same lines as the USSR.
Thus, while for most of the Cold War the US and USSR were bitter rivals over influence in the Middle East, for a brief but crucial moment in 1956, the Cold War rivals combined to halt aggression from two declining western European empires and one upstart Middle Eastern regime.
The Soviet pivot away from Tel Aviv and towards the Arab world happened gradually and likewise, the US pivot towards Tel Aviv happened equally gradually. In the early 1960s, President Eisenhower’s successor in Washington, John F. Kennedy was adamant that Israel did not attain a nuclear weapon. But by the late 1960s when the assassinated Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson became US President and all of this changed. Under Johnson’s Presidency, the US went so far as to help Israel cover up its wanton attack on the USS Liberty which resulted in the death of 34 US sailors and the wounding of 171 Americans during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. By the late 1960s the die was therefore cast and the USSR became ever more close to Arab Nationalist governments while the US became closer and closer with Israel.
Today, Israel is closer to the US than ever before, but its relationship with Russia has pivoted back to the realities of the Stalin era. While Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit with Putin has been described by many as the most prominent meeting between an Israeli and Russian official, such people forget that in 1948, future Israeli leader Golda Meir paid a visit to the Soviet Union where she was mobbed by a sea of supporters, all under the approving eye of Stalin’s NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB).
So if anything, one could argue that Stalin’s government was far more pro-Israel than Putin’s. After all, Stalin supported the partition of Palestine, was the first head of state in the world to recognise Israel as a state, he invited one of Israel’s ‘founding mothers’ to the Soviet Union where she freely mingled with Soviet citizens on the streets of Moscow and the USSR armed Israel at a time when the western powers had not yet made up their minds about what to think of the Middle East’s newest entity.
So while Putin has become an expert at balancing good relations between Israel and Palestine, Syria and Israel, Turkey and Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey etc., when it comes to the ultimate balancer of the Middle East who did quite a lot to help Israel get off the ground, Putin has done far less than Stalin.