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April 11, 2018 2:51 pm

The New York Times Doubles Down on Its Defense of Stalin

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For the second time in less than a month, The New York Times is trying to make Joseph Stalin look like less of an antisemite than he really was.

A museum exhibit review by Times art critic Jason Farago last month had inaccurately claimed, “It was after World War II, and especially after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, that Stalin’s erratic stances toward Jews turned into full-bore anti-Semitism.”

I wrote in The Algemeiner in response at the time:

It’s a distortion of historical truth to blame “the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948” for Stalin’s antisemitism. Stalin allied with Hitler and Nazi Germany in 1939 in the Hitler-Stalin pact until 1941. Joshua Rubenstein tells some of the story in his introduction to the 2001 book Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was published by Yale University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Rubenstein notes that two leaders of the Bund, a Jewish socialist group, Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, were arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1939 and again in 1941; the Soviet Communists murdered Alter in 1943, and Erlich died in Soviet confinement in 1942. Rubenstein further notes that as early as the late 1920s, under Stalin “Hebrew was prohibited,” by the late 1930s, “Yiddish books were removed from libraries.”

It’s hard to find more clear-cut cases of Times inaccuracy. … The Times says Stalin only turned into a full-bore antisemite after Israel was established in 1948; in fact, Stalin banned Hebrew, jailed Jewish leaders, and allied with Nazi Germany, all years before 1948.

Now the Times has doubled down on its original inaccurate claim, publishing, in its April 8 Sunday Book Review, a review by Adam Hochschild of Never Remember: Searching For Stalin’s Gulag’s In Putin’s Russia, by Masha Gessen. Hochshild writes:

the striking thing about Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, as the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen observes in her new book, “Never Remember,” is that “Russians exerted the force of state terror against themselves. … The millions who died anonymously in the Gulag were not necessarily members of ethnic or religious minorities, or even homosexuals: The population of the camps largely corresponded to the population of the country.”

Although at times the dictator’s venom did target particular groups, like Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and, at the very end of his life, Jews, this is largely true.

For Hochshild to claim that it wasn’t until “the very end” of Stalin’s life that Stalin targeted Jews is false. Stalin died in 1953 at age 74. The Hitler-Stalin pact was reached in 1939, when Stalin was 60 years old and more than a decade away from the end of his life. The Bund leader Alter was murdered in 1943. The teaching of Hebrew was prohibited in the 1920s.

Why does The New York Times cling so insistently to this inaccuracy about Stalin and the Jews, repeating it even though it has been shown to be false? And this from a newspaper that, far from airbrushing or minimizing antisemitism on the contemporary American right, seems instead lately at pains to call attention to it. The Farago review claiming that Stalin only became a full-blown antisemite “especially after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948” gives away the game: it’s about blaming Israel, and Zionism, for antisemitism, rather than blaming the antisemites.

Hochschild doesn’t mention Israel in the Times review, but a quick Google search discloses that he signed a 2016 letter calling for “a targeted boycott of all goods and services from all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and any investments that promote the Occupation.” His call would apply to “all commercial and residential Israeli-sponsored entities located outside the 1949 Green Line” — in other words, to a considerable swath of Jerusalem as well, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Hochschild himself is evidently in his 70s, so it’s certainly possible that someone may eventually claim that Hochschild’s own venom only targeted Jews toward the end of Hochshild’s own life. May he live long enough to find his way to a more accurate and reasonable understanding of both Stalin and Israel.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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