The Soviet Pathos of Antizionism

2024-02-11 15:00:16

The government of South Africa recently charged Israel with “genocide” in the International Criminal Court, but the libel we hear hurled at the the Jewish state as it’s fighting an anti-terror campaign in Gaza is not new. In a fascinating Quillette article, Izabella Tabarovsky traced the genealogy of antizionist rhetoric in the English language to a Soviet propaganda brochure published in 1984:

The claim that Israel is committing a genocide against Palestinians is among the longest-running lies told about Israel. “Genocide Israeli style”; “Zionist-engineered genocide”; “the ‘final solution’ of the Palestinian question”—these may look like snippets from some recent campus proclamation, but they are not. They appeared in a Soviet pamphlet titled “Zionists Count on Terror.” Published in 1984 by Novosti, a Soviet foreign propaganda arm masquerading as a news agency, this pocket-sized brochure was meant to promote the Soviet view of Israel and Zionism to English-language audiences.

Brezhnev-era Soviet propaganda, Tabarovsky notes, employed the near full range of tropes used by today’s Palestine activists:

Soviet propaganda painted Zionism as a racist, fascist, Nazi, settler-colonial, imperialist ideology that opposed everything that socialism and communism stood for. […] Israel was now Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa at once; a tool of American imperialism and the shadowy force steering the West to do the Zionists’ bidding. Following the traditionally paranoid Soviet political style, and borrowing a page from antisemitic conspiracy theory, Soviet propagandists presented Zionists as being everywhere and running everything at once.

Before appearing in the English-language hate manual, Tabarovsky continues, antizionist agitprop was already on full display in the 1969 bestselling pamphlet Caution: Zionism by the Yuri Ivanov. Where Ivanov got his ideas we don’t know, but there is a hint.

The USSR didn’t take any chances on language and ritual. In Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, anthropologist Alexei Yurchak explained how Soviet propaganda conventions were developed throughout the country’s history. In the late 1920’s and 30’s, Stalin put an end to artistic experimentation with revolutionary form. He staged elaborate theatrics of debate on “legitimate ideological representations” in which he made himself the avatar.

After Stalin’s death, the avatar was removed, but the production of ideological cliches continued to take place at the highest levels—now behind closed doors. Members of the Politburo took turns refining language chunks that became the staple crop of Soviet political discourse under Late Socialism. Party cadres were instructed in language use in party schools and low level functionaries figured out how to copy the cannon on their own.

To the average Soviet citizen, Yurchak explains, rearranging chunks of “hypernormalized” speech to reproduce the official lingo was a habit; the performative aspect of language and ritual became increasingly important relative to its meaning.

Yurchak talks of aesthetics of the Late Socialist propaganda that was internalized by the Soviet subject and decades later remembered with the mix of cynicism and awe that cements Soviet nostalgia. Sentences built out of long noun chains and predictable phrasing conveyed a sense of stability. Even the true believers felt the schism between reality and the language handed down by the officialdom, so the masses laid thick layers of irony in their speech. Once, under the reformist Gorbachev, the rhetoric became outdated, the pathos unnecessary, and the system fell.

Neither Yurchak nor any of his sources talked of Jews or how the Soviet language on Israel was developed—Yurchak’s primary interest was Soviet domestic affairs. Antizionism fell within the Communist discourse of worldwide revolutionary liberation that, as Marx taught, was inevitable. Given that the middle eastern conflict was a central feature of Soviet propaganda—Yasser Arafat’s physiognomy, giving speeches or smooching Brezhnev, was the staple crop of the Soviet newscasts, likely developed, with the aura of inevitability in mind, at the highest levels and handed down for replication.

English speakers look for stable meaning and dictionary definitions. Hence today’s Zionists, like me, complain that the charge of “genocide” is ludicrous. What we have to keep in mind is that it was a product of the culture where political speech was primarily a ritualistic exercise. Ritualistic exercise it remains.

Antizionism is a performative ideology—think of the obviously staged Pallywood videos, like the one of an alleged Israeli massacres that show a crowd of Palestinians running but no Israeli soldiers in sight. Or Quds News posting a picture of a never fired bullet with the caption “Displaced citizens sheltering in Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis shared a photo of Israeli snipers’ bullets fired at the hospital.”

It’s not that it’s hilariously wrong but that the post reveals something about antizionist relationships with the truth. Quds News have to know that the bullet wasn’t fired. Could it be that what they are telling us is not “this bullet was fired by the IDF at a hospital to murder civilians” but “Imagine the sons of pigs and monkeys committing genocide! Now go avenge the babies!” The second statement constitutes emotional truth and can’t be reasoned with.

The Palestinian movement enjoyed relative success with the rhetoric gifted to it by the USSR. It continues to revel in all of the Late Socialist glory of comfortable predictions of the final and total victory of the “Intifada revolution” and “free-free-free Palestine.”

Contemporary conventions of intersectionality dictate that the Palestinian movement has to be Palestinian-led. Along with Communist liberationism which some Westerners find relatable, the pro-Palestinian movement now utilizes slogans like “Yemen-Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around” that smack of tribal dynamics of wounded pride and revenge as they block airports and Holocaust museums to flex their muscle. They are not winning hearts and minds, but the ability to get away with crimes like blocking major throughways speaks to their power and their high ranking on the intersectional totem poll. It’s largely coincidental, but there is a Soviet-like immovability to their tactics.

The Soviet Union didn’t vanish under the weight of antizionism. It broke up once the people saw that a discourse that references the real world was possible. In the West, antizionism fits neatly into intersectional wokeness. Here, to fight antizionism means to fight wokeness, the shifty ideological fixations that created the environment in which lies and performative Jew-hate thrive.




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