Israel and Russia: A Complicated History
JNS.org – Amid all the diplomatic maneuverings in the months that led up to the creation of the State of Israel 70 years ago, none are more curious than those undertaken by the Soviet Union.
It’s fair to say that Soviet support was a necessary condition for the emergence of an independent Jewish state in what was then British Mandate Palestine. The Zionist leadership certainly understood this, with both Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion courting Soviet foreign ministry officials as World War II came to an end. But until the middle of 1947, the Soviets remained firm opponents of partitioning the country into Jewish and Arab states.
The about-turn in favor of partition was announced by Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations, in May 1947, in a remarkable speech that upended decades of Communist doctrine by speaking of “the Jewish people” and decrying the sight of “hundreds of thousands of Jews wandering about in various countries of Europe in search of means of existence and in search of shelter.”
So began a period of two or three years when the idea of a Soviet-Israeli alliance was discussed as a serious prospect. Indeed, Gromyko turned out to be one of the most aggressive advocates of the Zionist cause at the United Nations, impatiently reminding the American delegation in March 1948 that “the only way to reduce bloodshed is to prompt and effective creation of two states in Palestine.”
“If the United States and some other states block the implementation of the partition and regard Palestine as an element in their economic and military-strategic considerations,” said Gromyko, expressing the sort of indignance that might come from an American delegate today, “then any decision on the future of Palestine . . . will mean the transformation of Palestine into a field of strife and dissension between the Arabs and the Jews and will only increase the number of victims.”
The principal reason behind this brief flash of Soviet support for Israel was geopolitical. The USSR had come to the end of the war without a coherent policy towards the Arab world, but with a basic distrust of the pan-Arab pretensions of the newly-formed Arab League. Moscow was also keen to hasten the decline of the British Empire in the Middle East and saw the State of Israel as a potential ally in its emerging contest with America. So for once during that terrible decade, the diplomatic stars had aligned in favor of the Jewish people, and the votes in favor of partition cast by both the United States and the USSR was one of the last examples of international consensus as the Cold War took hold.
The story ended, as we all know, with Israel firmly in the camp of the United States and the Soviet Union as the principle backer of Arab rejectionism. The Gromkyo who admitted at the United Nations in 1947 that it was “difficult to express in dry statistics” the “sorrow and suffering of the Jewish victims of the fascist aggressors” was the same Gromyko who served as Soviet foreign minister when that same world body passed a resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism.
In any case, Israel’s leaders understood pretty clearly by the early 1950s that the Soviet embrace could easily turn into a noose. In his monumental history of the State of Israel, the late Martin Gilbert writes of an October 1955 conversation between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in which the former complained that Israel had “lost everything” with regard to its relations with Soviets “without gaining a thing” from the Americans. At the same time, Sharett was under no illusions about Soviet totalitarianism, telling Dulles that Israel only maintained an embassy in Moscow “in order to encourage the Jews of Russia to hold out — so that they can see before them a mark and token that the day will come when their link with Israel and the Jewish people will be renewed.”
By the time that day actually came, Israel’s embassy in Moscow had been shuttered for more than 20 years. Still, Sharett’s broader hope was fulfilled as nearly 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel in the decade following its collapse in 1990, bringing to a democratic resolution the so-called “Jewish Question” confronted by tsarists and revolutionaries alike for over a century.
Even without the issues of antisemitic persecution and bans on Jewish emigration to deal with, Israel’s present-day relations with Russia are complicated by many of the same issues that prevailed during the Cold War — foremost, its continued investment in Syria’s Assad dynasty. Some might argue that’s a good thing, in that Vladimir Putin will act as a restraining influence on Assad and on the Damascus regime’s allies in Iran. But it also demonstrates that the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Russians continues in the sphere of international politics. Seventy years after Israel’s creation, Russia remains the world power that is closest to the Jewish state’s most implacable enemies, providing them with diplomatic and military sustenance — and keeping those old memories alive.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.