Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism, or hostility and animosity toward Jewish people, played a significant role in the diplomacy and geopolitics of the Cold War. European anti-Semitism has its roots in medieval religion and culture; Jews suffered persecution and prejudice in Eastern and Western Europe right through the twentieth century. The Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II represents the most heinous expression of European antipathy toward Judaism. Revulsion at the atrocities of the Nazis resulted in a subsequent decline in anti-Semitism in Europe. However, the end of the Holocaust did not mean an end to anti-Jewish feeling in the world. The status of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union remained an important issue throughout the late twentieth century, and the establishment of Israel in May 1948 resulted in the growth of anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the Arab world and the global Muslim community, sentiments that remain strong today. Cold War anti-Zionism, the rejection of the Jewish claim to Israel/Palestine, often included elements of anti-Semitism and attacks on the Jewish people themselves.

The rise of modern European secular culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not result in the disappearance of anti-Semitism. Indeed, it remained an ugly part of the European cultural landscape. In fact, Theodore Herzl's Zionist movement grew as a response to the continued exclusion of Jews from late nineteenth-century European culture. In the 1890s, Herzl's arguments for a separate Jewish state proceeded from his realization that Jews would always be regarded as alien in Europe. Fifty years later, the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust focused world attention on the plight of the European Jewish community, and the state of Israel was established in November 1948 as a Jewish homeland.

Zionism was not the only response of European Jews to anti-Semitism. Many embraced socialism and communism as ideologies that held the promise of acceptance and equal treatment. Indeed, Zionism and socialism were often linked. In Russia, many Jews actively supported the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and embraced the resulting Soviet state. However, traditional Russian anti-Semitism often flared in the Soviet Union and was remolded in Soviet terms. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin grew frustrated with the support of Soviet Jews for Zionism and contemplated the creation of a separate enclave for them in eastern Siberia; he also acted to limit Jewish educational and professional opportunities. Soviet limitations on Jewish identity continued in the 1960s, and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War many Soviet Jews—known as refuseniks—wished to emigrate but were denied permission, ostensibly because of their knowledge of state secrets. During the 1970s, the United States made Jewish emigration a priority in negotiations with the Soviet Union, and many Jews left Russia. Jewish dissidents such as Natan Sharansky continued to pressure the Soviet leadership in the late 1970s and 1980s, often to their peril. However, it was not until the advent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Soviet Jews received the freedom to depart.

The Zionist movement, begun by Herzl and his followers in the late nineteenth century, had sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine through land purchases and emigration from Europe (to increase the Jewish community already present). The first Jewish kibbutzim, or collective farms, were established in the first decades of the twentieth century. Jewish immigration continued unabated as the region passed from Ottoman Turkish to British control after World War I. The increase in the Jewish population of Palestine resulted in considerable Arab resentment and anti-Jewish sentiment. From the Arab point of view, the Jewish presence would unjustly result in the displacement of Arabs and in the reduction of Arab power and influence in the region. Anti-Jewish riots took place several times in the 1920s, as the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, encouraged action against Zionism. A general Arab uprising in 1936 contributed to a change in British policy, and in 1939 the British drastically cut Jewish immigration.

The establishment of Israel transformed the situation. While the global Jewish population viewed Israel as a haven in their ancestral homeland, the Arabs considered it an unjust seizure of Arab territory by the Western powers on behalf of European Jews. Arabs questioned why European atrocities against the Jews should result in a loss of Arab sovereignty over Arab land. None of the newly formed Arab states—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon—voted for the United Nations (UN) resolution that created Israel. The state was created in the Middle East over Arab objections. When the new nation was proclaimed in May 1948, all five of these states immediately invaded Israel, initiating half a century of Arab-Israeli warfare.

As Israel fought successfully in the various conflicts of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, anti-Jewish feelings among the Arabs increased. Anti-Zionism represented the core of the Arab position. Indeed, none of the Arab nations of the Middle East recognized the right of Israel to exist until the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1978. Anti-Zionism, however, was often combined with anti-Semitism, as Arab rhetoric attacked Judaism and the Jewish people. For example, Lebanese and Syrian cartoons at the time of the 1967 War depicted caricatured Jews being expelled from Israel and mounds of Jewish skulls in the streets of Tel Aviv. At the same time, Israeli rhetoric vilified the Arab people. The existence of Arab refugees fanned the flames. Such refugees, mostly Palestinian Arabs who had fled Israel during the 1948 War, lived in a number of large camps located in Syria, Gaza, Jordan, and the West Bank. Dispossessed by the Israelis and not accepted by any of the Arab states, the refugees seethed with anti-Jewish sentiment. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964, drew its members largely from their ranks.

While some anti-Jewish rhetoric during the Cold War had a religious overtone and called on Arabs to fight the enemies of Islam, the Arab governments largely adopted the socialist, anti-imperialist positions of Arab nationalism. Zionism and Judaism were attacked as racist and imperialist, and Israel was denounced as part of an American imperial plot for global domination. With the Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the seizure and occupation of Arab territories in the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, such charges intensified. Much of the developing world, recently liberated from European colonialism, responded to such Arab views; Muslim nations already had an obvious reason to sympathize with the Palestinian refugees and with the Arab cause in general. The Soviet Union cleverly fostered anti-imperialist arguments as a way to reduce American influence among developing nations. The trend resulted in the global isolation of Israel, best illustrated by the 1975 UN General Assembly's resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism and recognition of Yasir Arafat and the PLO. Global anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism continued to grow, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 accelerated its pace.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the accompanying decline in global socialist movements, Islam has become an increasingly important source of identity in Arab resistance to Israel. Anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist views in the Middle East and around the world have acquired a more religious character in the years since the end of the Cold War.

Robert Kiely


Further Reading
Perry, Marvin, and Frederick Schweitzer. Anti-Semitism: Myths and Hate from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.; Service, Robert. A History of 20th Century Russia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
 

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