On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, a non-binding recommendation to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nations openly rejected the plan vowing forcibly to resist any attempt to implement partition. Among the supporters of Resolution 181 were the US and the Soviet Union. Given the Soviet Union’s avowed hostility to Zionism, the Soviet vote “came as a great surprise, as a bombshell,” recounted Moshe Sharett, then head of the Jewish Agency’s political department.
Soviet Hostility Towards Zionism
Soviet opposition to Zionism began in November 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution and the signing of the Balfour Declaration, noted historian Robert Wistrich. The Balfour Declaration worried Soviet leaders after pro-British articles appeared in the Russian Jewish press and pro-British demonstrations were held in Petrograd and Odessa, causing fear that France and Britain could use Zionism against them.
Russian leaders were equally concerned after appeals by the Central Zionist Committee in Russia urged Russian Jews to oppose the Soviet regime, opined historian Ran Marom. They were anxious that a brain drain to Palestine might weaken their ability to recruit Jewish masses into the Red Army during the Civil War. A national separatist movement was similarly seen as a threat while the Soviet regime was fighting for its very existence. They also felt that with the Jews and Zionists supporting nationalistic movements, other nationalities in the country might follow their example and be influenced to secede from Russia.
Marom added that the Bolsheviks blamed Russian Jewish sympathy for Zionism for the decline in their own socio-political and economic system. They worried that secular Jewish intelligentsia—doctors, pharmacists, architects, engineers, and experts in banking, commerce, foreign affairs and the secret police would immigrate to Palestine.
Soviet Rationale for Supporting Zionism
What then precipitated the Soviet decision to support the establishment of Israel in 1947? There were several factors, Wistrich contends: The Jews were anti-British, in the frontlines of the armed “anti-colonial struggle,” and Russia wanted to play an active role in the Middle East. Furthermore, her southern flank was becoming more vulnerable to increasing East-West tensions; and there was concern that the West would control oil from the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. After the devastation of Russia’s oil industry during the Nazi occupation, this became a major concern, according to historian Arnold Krammer.
Most importantly, Wistrich asserts, this was an opportunity to weaken ties—and perhaps cause a rift—between the US and its allies. The Middle East was the most obvious place to provoke this split to prevent the British and Americans from strengthening their Cold War alliance—especially since a dispute already existed about the future of a Jewish state.
US President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee were at odds over whether the remnants of European Jewry could immigrate to Palestine. The British wanted to stop the movement of Jews from reaching Palestine. The Russians believed that after the Holocaust, the British would be criticized in the West for trying to keep them from entering their ancestral homeland. Thus, the Russians did not interfere with the Brichah, the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine from Europe. The Russians used this alleged sympathy for the Jews as a moral cudgel and public relations weapon against the West, observed Wistrich and Krammer.
Soviet Ambassador to the UN Andrei Gromyko’s Scathing and Hypocritical Criticism of the West
Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Ambassador to the UN, proclaimed on May 14, 1947 that the “aspirations of an important part of the Jewish people are bound up with the question of Palestine, and with the future structure of that country.” The “suffering and miseries of the Jewish people are beyond description... and it would be difficult to express by mere dry figures the losses and sacrifices of the Jewish people at the hands of the Fascist occupiers.”
The UN “cannot, and should not, remain indifferent to this situation,” he declared, because it would be “incompatible” with the “high principles of the U.N. Charter… This is a time to give help, not in words, but in deeds.”
The fact that not one state in Western Europe could protect the Jews from the Nazis and their allies or “compensate them for the violence they have suffered…explains the aspiration of the Jews for the creation of a state of their own… And it is impossible to justify a denial of this right of the Jewish people….”
On November 26, 1947, Gromyko went further by reversing his government’s long-standing support for a single, federated bi-national state: “The representatives of the Arab States claim the partition of Palestine would be an historical injustice. But this view of the case is unacceptable, if only because, after all, the Jewish people has been closely linked with Palestine for a considerable period in history. Apart from that—and the U.S.S.R. delegation drew attention to this at the Special Session of the General Assembly—they could not overlook the position of the Jews as a result of the recent world war.
“The solution of the Palestine problem into two separate states,” he said, “will be of profound historical significance, because this decision will meet the legitimate demands of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of whom…are still without a country, without homes, having found temporary shelter only in special camps in some Western European countries.”
To reassure the Arabs, whose historical roots in Palestine he acknowledged, and who resented Russian support of a Jewish homeland, Krammer said that Gromyko prophetically added that “The U.S.S.R. delegation is convinced that Arabs and Arab states will still, on more than one occasion, be looking towards Moscow and expecting the U.S.S.R. to help them in the struggle for their lawful interests, in their efforts to cast off the last vestiges of foreign dependence.”
The US, British and UN Embargo on Selling Weapons in the Middle East
The Soviet’s willingness to accept a two-state solution prompted Ben-Gurion to intensify efforts to acquire desperately needed arms from Eastern Europe, writes Krammer. Haganah agents, who were dispatched to buy arms, ran into a number of obstacles. The Jewish Agency did not represent a recognized government, only an underground army. After the US, the British and the UN declared an embargo on selling weapons in the Middle East, the FBI and the British disrupted gun-running operations, heavily funded by American Jews. Eastern Europe, and especially Czechoslovakia became the key suppliers of military equipment with Soviet approval.
Czechoslovakia needed an infusion of foreign currency, but exporting weapons is a political, not simple, trade. Their motivation seems to have been the promise of closer ties to Israel by a “pro-Soviet socialist government.” Using Czechoslovakia to funnel weapons and material gave the Russians the ability to blame the Czechs for “ideological errors” if and when the relationship between the Soviet bloc and Israel soured. according to Krammer
Gromyko’s use of the Holocaust to tweak the West was a bold and risky move, Wistrich argues. Russian Jews murdered in the Soviet Union by the Nazis were counted as Soviet citizens and not as Jews. Except for Poland, more Jews were killed in the Soviet Union than anywhere else. Cooperation and, at times, active participation in the process of Jewish destruction by Latvians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and White Russians was so pervasive that the Soviets were no better at protecting their Jews than the West was. This argument, had it been raised at the time, might have justified Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Eliahu Elath, director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Office in Washington, DC (1945-1948) and a member of the Jewish agency’s UN assemblies (1945-1948), recognized that “Soviet tactics were motivated by considerations of short-term policies in the Middle East and in its relations with great Britain.”
A Final Note: Once Israel was no longer perceived as a potential source of influence in the area, the Soviets adopted a neutral policy toward the Zionist state between 1948 and 1952. After the defeat of its clients in the Sinai Campaign until the Six-Day War in June 1967, Israel became a target of Soviet propaganda that ultimately lead the Russians and their Arab allies to passing UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975 equating Zionism with racism.
By Alex Grobman, PhD
Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written extensively in books and articles on the Palestinian Arab conflict. He is a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and a member of the Advisory Board of The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He has trained students how to respond to Arab propaganda on American campuses. One student, who worked with him for three years, became president of Harvard Students for Israel.