I will start with an anecdote from my family’s refusenik years. This happened in 1981. In retaliation for submitting the application to emigrate to Israel, my father, a medical researcher and a writer, had been banished from the Soviet science community and expelled from the Union of Writers, and my mother, a university teacher and translator, had also been fired. We had already been refuseniks for almost two years, and the family savings had been depleted. My father drove a gypsy cab at night and did various odd jobs to put food on the table. Then he heard about an entry-level research position at one of the many Moscow research institutes. A doctor of science formerly with a professorial rank, clearly overqualified, my father applied, hoping for a small miracle. He was received by the head of one of the research departments, a Jew and a party member. This “official” Soviet Jew asked my father, “Do you know what I need?” And he answered his own question: “I need a patriot. And you are a traitor. A traitor and Zionist! You and your sort ruin it for the true patriots, the honest Soviet Jews. If I had the right, I would execute you with my own hands!”
The early 1980s were a bleak time for Jewish self-expression in the USSR. The country was mired in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and the relations with the West were openly hostile. The sluices of Jewish emigration had been shut. Not only Israel and its allies, but also self-conscious expressions of Jewish pride and Jewish spiritual and intellectual self-awareness, were now deemed “Zionist” and targeted for public ostracism and vilification. The term “Zionist” had ousted and outperformed Stalin-era anti-Jewish code words such as “bourgeois nationalist” and “cosmopolitan.” Under the façade of fighting “anti-Zionism,” brainwashed Soviet young people acted on their antisemitic urges. A non-Jewish teenager at my Soviet school tried to beat up a Jewish kid because “the Zionists have taken over the Golan Heights.”
In 1982–1983, the Soviet media were beset with anti-Israeli hysteria over the war in Lebanon. There were as many as 15,000 refuseniks in the USSR, perhaps more. Of the country’s 1.8 million Jews, how many were undecided? How many were scared, reluctant to risk a measure of stability for the promise of Jewish freedom? The Soviet propaganda against Israel and Zionism would reach a crescendo in 1983 with the creation of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public. Its declaration, signed by a group of eight Jewish war veterans, academics, and members of the artistic intelligentsia, appeared in Pravda on April 1, 1983. On the newspaper page, the declaration was surrounded by reports that the peace initiatives of Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were gaining “ardent support on all the continents” and that Tel Aviv’s “criminal designs toward Syria” had been “exposed.” I quote from the declaration of the Anti-Zionist Committee:
The declaration concluded with a mission statement that the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public would “enable an even more decisive struggle against the ideology and political practice of Zionism, for social progress and peace on earth.” The members of the Committee also included such well-known Soviet Jews as the actress Elina Bystriskaya, the composer Matvey Blanter, the Yiddish writer Aron Vergelis, and even the chief rabbi of Moscow, Adolf Shayevich. The chairman of the Committee, Colonel General David Dragunsky, was twice the Hero of the USSR; he would outlive the country by a year. This Jewish war hero who, as they used to say in my childhood, gorel v tanke, survived a burning Soviet tank hit by a German missile, became the Jewish public face of Soviet anti-Zionism. General Dragunsky had a younger brother, Zinovy, who had been a corporal during World War II and, allegedly, was later mixed up in underground business affairs. While the general never retracted his statements against Israel or repented for the harm he had done, not long before his death he admitted that he did not “write” some of the anti-Zionist statements that appeared under his name.
I was almost 16 when the formation of the Anti-Zionist Committee was announced, and I remember the public appearances of its members and the disgust that we refuseniks felt toward them. In my teenage refusenik idealism, I was shocked that there were Jews who would actually stoop so low. I remember lying awake at night and thinking that only in a cursed country like the Soviet Union did they have such warped Jews who were willing to turn against Israel. I was wrong.
The stories of a Soviet Jewish scientist who privately practices anti-Zionism and a Soviet Jewish general who performs it in public bring to light the phenomenon that I have been observing since the years of my family’s refusenik limbo — and for much of my adult life outside the former USSR. In the weeks following the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel, I have come to regard this phenomenon — Jewish anti-Zionism and activism against Israel — as Jewish political apostasy. Like Jewish religious apostasy — as old as Jewish civilization itself, or at least as old as diasporic living — Jewish political apostasy is driven variously by a combination of fear, cowardice, opportunism, survivalism, and, in rare cases, by the proverbial zeal of the convert.
From its inception as a state and a country, Israel has had to fight just, patriotic wars against enemies bent on its destruction and erasure. But never before — not in 1956, 1967, 1973, or subsequently — has Israel faced not only troops at its borders but also such vast armies of political and intellectual enemies in the places of the largest post-Shoah Jewish communities, particularly in the United States. In the weeks since the start of the Israel–Hamas war, those of us whose hearts ache for Israel have found it excruciatingly difficult not to react emotionally to the virulent public conduct of those individuals of Jewish origin who rally against Israel under the international banners of anti-Zionism.
As Israel lives through perhaps her most difficult time in history and fights for her secure future — as Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza still hold hostages — it is especially difficult to resist the urge to separate oneself from the Jewish enemies of Israel by calling them bad Jews, disloyal Jews, or, to borrow the ruthless term introduced by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, un-Jews. Demarcation lines between Jews who regard Israel as a central or essential coordinate of the Jewish condition and Jews who, in their blind rage or sober calculation, imagine a better world without Israel, are not new. And yet, in today’s climate of open animosity toward the very idea of the State of Israel, it is important to be clear about the roots and stems of the political apostasy of American Jews.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, alarming numbers of Jewish academics rushed not to defend Israel or voice empathy with Jewish victimhood but to enact various performances of anti-Zionism. For instance, Benjamin Schreier, a professor of English and Jewish studies at one of the oldest land-grant universities, tweeted on October 10, 2023: “The AJS [Association of Jewish Studies] is caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of liberal Zionists and bloodthirsty genocidal Zionists.” In times of war, this student of Jewish culture found meaning in appropriating such a Menshevik shibboleth. Both collectively (through the activism of such organizations as Jewish Voice for Peace or IfNotNow) and individually, Jewish political apostates inflict real damage by poisoning young minds and promoting hatred of Israel.
There is a particularly grave danger in the activism of committed anti-Zionists from among the ranks of Jewish educators, academics, public intellectuals, and clergy. They call themselves Jews and give their own work — and the work of non-Jewish anti-Zionists — a veneer of intellectual, professional, or spiritual legitimacy. Some of the Jewish political apostates use their origins, in some cases even ancestral connections to the Shoah, as a validation of their anti-Zionist views. Tal Frieden, a self-described “Jewish organizer,” outlined their path to anti-Zionism this way: “I started to think of my grandparents’ stories of the Holocaust as a reason to oppose any nation that aims to expel, oppress and wipe out another group of people.” Marione Ingram, a German Jew who has lived in the United States after having survived the Shoah, has referred to Representative Rashida Tlaib, an avatar of congressional forces seeking to sever U.S. support of Israel, as a “hero.”
And there is also the case of Israeli-born academics and public intellectuals who have found greener pastures and cozier perches in the United States and contribute, whether or not they claim to represent anything more than a personal perspective, to the cacophony of Israel-bashing. Take the example of Linda Dittmar, author of the memoir Tracing Homelands, who was born in 1935 in Mandatory Palestine and taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. On October 11, 2023, at a campus event convened by the extremist organization Students for Justice in Palestine, Dittmar spoke of having been “‘deeply inculcated’ into Zionist ideology from an early age” and characterized her current reaction as “a mix of shame and rage.”
In their apologetic or defensive moments, some of the Jewish anti-Zionists wax nostalgic for a bygone era when a plurality of American Jews, especially within Reform Judaism, were not Zionists. Present-day anti-Zionists deliberately blur the line between the past non-Zionism of many American Jews and today’s active political struggle of some American Jews against Zionism and Israel. As Jonathan Sarna, a leading historian of American Jewry, explained in “Converts to Zionism in the American Reform Movement,“ “well into the 1930s the majority of Reform Jews, and certainly their rabbis, preferred to associate themselves with an ambivalent non-Zionism.” That was 90 years ago! In the words of Thomas A. Kolsky, author of Jews Against Zionism: “The rebellious rabbis were not wild-eyed radicals, but respectable defenders of American classical Reform Judaism.” The fundamental fact that today’s Jewish anti-Zionists consistently ignore is that mainstream Jewish American religious or intellectual opposition to Zionism had largely ended in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel.
At the same time, today’s Jewish anti-Zionists love to root themselves in the history of the Jewish socialist movement, specifically the Bund and its American successors, and in the activities of Jewish communists and left-wing socialists of the 1930s to the 1960s. Should one be surprised that even in its current, glossier format, Jewish Currents, a magazine historically allied with the Communist Party USA and its offshoots, still today continues to employ and empower the Jewish ghosts of Menshevik and Trotskyite anti-Zionism? A selective fabrication of roots comes across with exceptional clarity in “A Brief History of Anti-Zionist Jews,” published in Left Voice — self-described as a “revolutionary socialist news site and magazine” — two weeks after the October 7 attack. The overview presents “a long history of Jewish socialists fighting against Zionism which offers lessons for today’s struggle,” but it makes no reference to the Soviet anti-Zionist machinery.
Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism, recently described her path to activism against Israel in the following way: “I went to private Jewish school as a child, learned Hebrew, my teachers in the 1970s were Holocaust survivors. I believed Zionism was some kind of socialism, went [to Israel] in 1983, stunned by anti-Arab racism & reality, met Marxists & became an anti-Zionist Jew & socialist ever since.” Some of today’s Jewish political apostates, either directly or by proxy, find inspiration in reading Marx on the Jewish question, or they rely on early Soviet sources from the 1920s. Today’s Jewish political apostates might even reproduce a phrase from the speech of the Communist Party of Palestine representative Hadjar (pseudonym of Muhammed Ashkar) at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International that convened in 1935 in Moscow: “The Communist Party creates the national front of all Arabs against imperialists and Zionists.”
While today’s Jewish anti-Zionists are prepared to acknowledge their ideological debt to varieties of socialist or communist discourse, they conveniently obfuscate their principal Soviet sources, and specifically their rootedness in the Soviet anti-Zionism of the 1960s–1980s. Consider “Approach to Zionism,” one of the mission statements of Jewish Voice for Peace:
This text exhibits many tenets of the Soviet anti-Zionist discourse. It betrays direct ideological and rhetorical connections to Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda but fails to acknowledge them. One can only wonder why.
Students of Jewish history and culture have already done a lot to chronicle and catalogue the Soviet state-sponsored enterprise of anti-Zionism. I lean on the foundational work of Jonathan Frankel, the late London-born historian who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also on the recent academic and polemical work by American, British, and Israeli authors, especially Izabella Tabarovsky and David Hirsh. In 2019, Tabarovsky warned,
Another truly important lens for a deep understanding of Jewish political apostasy is Marat Grinberg’s splendid book The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf, which includes a section about Soviet anti-Zionist literature in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. By analogy with Nazi racial anthropology, Grinberg characterized the Soviet anti-Zionist publishing industry as “pseudoscience,” adding that it is “sadly proving to be enduring and effective long after the demise of the Soviet Union.”
Indeed, most of the Soviet ideological and rhetorical roots of today’s anti-Zionism may be located in the period that followed the Six-Day War. Israel’s “miraculous victory,” as Vladimir Nabokov described it in a 1967 letter to his former classmate Shmuel Rozov, an Israeli architect, simultaneously resulted in the birth of the Jewish National Liberation movement in the USSR and the creation of institutional Soviet propaganda against Israel. In this brand of Soviet anti-Zionism, pathologically twisted parallels between Israel and the Nazi state, between Zionism and Nazism, were commonplace, and all Soviet Jews had to endure them in their daily life. Some Jews collaborated in the creation and dissemination of these lies.
Elena Stein, director of organizing strategy at Jewish Voice for Peace, intoned at a rally on November 9, 2023, “I’m here on behalf of thousands of American Jews who say: Not in our name!” She then went on to describe her grandmother’s survival in the Shoah. In Stein’s account, as the descendant of a survivor, she had “spent years and years agonizing over the question of where were the neighbors, why did they just stand by.” Her conclusion: “It is with all of my Jewish ancestors at my back … we refuse to be neighbors who just stand by.” A more literal — and pernicious — equating of Israel with Nazi Germany could hardly be imagined, even by the Soviet propagandists themselves. Putin, no less, who has long positioned himself as heir incarnate to the Soviet regime, likened Israel’s military operation in Gaza to the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. In doing so, the butcher of Ukraine reanimated the Soviet anti-Zionist custom of comparing the IDF to the Wehrmacht. And here is Sasha Senderovich, who as a young man emigrated from Russia and is now a professor at the University of Washington, commenting on the IDF’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza: “I dunno, this little video gives off a serious ‘Red Cross visits Theresienstadt’ vibe, if you ask me ….” (To my knowledge, nobody asked him.)
What is driving American Jewish anti-Zionists to commit acts of political apostasy as Israel feels increasingly isolated internationally? Is it self-propelled fear of career or reputational damage? Anxiety over the threat to the hard-earned American Jewish (bourgeois) status quo? Panic over the alarming rise of antisemitism and a visceral sense that the U.S. might start to look a lot like the USSR in that regard? On November 1, 2023, Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg interrupted President Biden at an event in Northfield, Minnesota, with these words: “Mr. President, if you care about Jewish people, as a rabbi I need you to call for a cease-fire right now.” Unlike her Soviet Jewish predecessors, this American rabbi and her fellow Jewish anti-Zionists enact political apostasy on their own volition, without an apparent fear of official retribution or ostracism.
While the response to the present war in Israel has added evidentiary teeth to our understanding of the Soviet ideological and political roots of American anti-Zionism, it is equally crucial to note that today’s American (and Canadian) Jewish anti-Zionists behave in ways that replicate the behavior of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews in the 1960s–1980s — less “Jews of silence” (pace Elie Wiesel) and more Jews of public anti-Zionist spectacle. That’s the most tragic part of this story, one that also augurs a heretofore unchartered terrain of Jewish retrenchment and assimilation.
But there is also hope in this story, because Jewish tradition keeps the doors open for teshuvah (return), and also because history has rendered Soviet anti-Zionism a despicable ideology and a futile political enterprise. To illustrate this fact, one need only see how it operated in that era and what impact it had on Soviet Jews. The formation of the Anti-Zionist Committee was announced at a time when Jewish aliyah from the USSR stood at a near standstill, and when, in the general context of state-sponsored antisemitism, the only Soviet Jews who were persecuted for being Jewish were refuseniks and clandestine teachers of Hebrew. Some of the refusenik activists, such as the fearless Ida Nudel or the “mighty” Vladimir Slepak, whom I was privileged to know as a young man, became “Prisoners of Zion.”
The original declaration of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public came out on April Fool’s Day in 1983; the timing may have been a coincidence, or perhaps it was a function of the morbid sense of humor of the Pravda editors or party apparatchiks. In retrospect, the joke was on the Jewish anti-Zionists themselves. Statistics of the Jewish population in the USSR expose more convincingly than I ever could the historical fallacy of Soviet anti-Zionism. According to the data of Mark Tolts, a leading expert on the demography of Jews of the former USSR, a total of 1.4 million people immigrated to Israel from the USSR and its successor states between the late 1960s and the present. The majority of ex-Soviet Jews living in America and Canada, including several of today’s vociferous Jewish political apostates, left the USSR on Israeli aliyah visas. During the finale of Jewish history in the former Russian Empire and USSR, the Jewish population dropped from 2,170,000 in the Soviet Union of 1970 to just south of 200,000 in the successor states today, and it continues to dwindle. The outflux of tens of thousands of Jews from Russia and Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has offered further statistical proof that Soviet anti-Zionism has been a colossal failure.
Today’s Jewish members of the organizations we might ruefully call the Anti-Zionist Committees of the American Public refuse to learn from the failures of their Soviet predecessors. Whether or not they realize it, American anti-Zionist Jews are the useful idiots of the anti-Zionist Soviet legacy, linking arms with forces that undermine their safety in a world increasingly hateful to them as Jews. They are cashing in the only ticket to safety that they and their children are legally guaranteed to have for as long as Israel remains a Jewish state and a national homeland of all Jews. In their opprobrious stance against Israel, Jewish political apostates find themselves on the enemy side of Jewish survival.
This article was published on December 26, 2023. All translations from the Russian are by the author.