On Feb. 1, 1972, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issued a directive “On further measures to fight anti-Soviet and anti-communist activities of international Zionism.” The social sciences section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences soon established a permanent commission for the coordination of scientific criticism of Zionism, to be housed at the academy’s prestigious Institute of Oriental Studies. Over the next 15 years, the IOS would serve as an important partner in the state’s fight against the imaginary global Zionist conspiracy that Soviet security services believed was sabotaging the USSR in the international arena and at home. In 1982, the IOS would grant the doctoral status to one Mahmoud Abbas, upon the defense of his thesis The Relationship Between Zionists and Nazis, 1933-1945.
Abbas’ dissertation has been a subject of considerable interest over the years. The thesis isn’t publicly available: By all accounts, it is kept in an IOS special storage facility requiring special authorization to access. But if one visits the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, one can easily get the Palestinian leader’s so-called avtoreferat—an extended dissertation abstract. Written to the standards of the Soviet State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles and authored by the candidate, the 19-page document outlines the dissertation’s relevance, methodology, main arguments and unique contribution to the field. It also provides a literature review and lists the individuals and institutions that were involved in shepherding the work through to completion. It therefore offers a peek not only into Mahmoud Abbas’ academic accomplishment, but also into the system that produced it.
Using the social sciences to support political and ideological agendas set by the Communist Party was a matter of course in the USSR. Entire academic disciplines had been established to grant scholarly legitimacy to the state’s guiding ideology. “Scientific atheism,” for an example, was tasked with proving scientifically that God did not exist and that religion was the opiate of the masses. “Scientific communism” was supposed to supply scientific proof that communism was the superior stage of social and economic development and would supersede both Soviet socialism and global capitalism. When, instead, capitalism superseded Soviet socialism and the cushy budgets that sustained these disciplines vanished, they, too, quietly dissolved.
As a field, “scientific anti-Zionism” never took root in the Soviet academy as broadly as the other two subjects. Like them, it died as soon as its primary client—the Soviet state—disappeared. Soon a million Soviet Jews resettled in Israel and the newly independent former Soviet states restored diplomatic relations with the country.
I grew up in Akademgorodok—a suburb of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk that was home to the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences. Adults around me lived and breathed science—real science, like physics and biology. It was well-known that portions of the academy were corrupted by ideological agendas. The antisemitism in its math division and elsewhere was a fact of life. Humanities and social sciences in particular were ruled by ideological priorities. But seeing the intellectual corruption that is evident in the story of Abbas’ dissertation is disturbing nonetheless.
Worse, the “scholarly” fakes produced by Soviet “scientific anti-Zionism” are still with us. They float on the internet in multiple languages, inflaming the anti-Zionist fantasies of both the far left and the far right. Contemporary Russian right-wing presses reprint and peddle them right next to that other Russian contribution to humanity, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—undoubtedly contributing to the American white supremacist David Duke’s conclusion that Russians could help solve the “crisis faced by the White World” because Russians understand “the power of International Zionism.”
Meanwhile, large portions of the American academy are busy adopting an anti-Zionist agenda that is grounded in the very same tropes and explanatory logic that infused its Soviet counterpart. Judging from Cary Nelson’s exhaustive Israel Denial and other writings, the output of these well-known American professors is no less of a profanation of scholarship than what was produced by their late Soviet predecessors. One way to gain a glimpse into the processes that whitewash crude anti-Israel propaganda through the scholarly apparatus is to examine Mahmoud Abbas’ avtoreferat.
“With the deepening of the crisis of capitalism in our time, the crisis of the ideology of Zionism and the inadequacy of its ideological concepts become increasingly obvious.” Thus begins Mahmoud Abbas’ dissertation abstract. “The vast majority” of Jews around the world, he writes, explaining the contemporary relevance of his work, “reject Zionist dogmas” about emigration. “The natural and objective process of Jewish assimilation” continues throughout the world, spelling out the coming failure of the Zionist project.
Despite this crisis, however, warns Abbas, Zionism remains a “shrewd and dangerous enemy of socialism and the national liberation movements.” Its role “as one of the storm troopers of world imperialist reaction is not diminishing,” he writes, deploying a widespread Soviet cliché that was meant to evoke Nazi Germany. On the contrary, “global imperialism, with the United States of America at its helm, increasingly bets on [Zionism],” particularly as it seeks to dominate the Middle East and subvert the socialist bloc. “The reactionary, aggressive essence of international Zionism and, first and foremost, its crucial component—Israel’s ruling Zionist regime—appears today in its most crude, expansionist and racist form. Violence, terror and extremism are becoming Zionists’ main methods of action.”
Back in Soviet times, my eyes would have glazed over this relentlessly formulaic Soviet-speak. But today, I appreciate its twisted brilliance. Here, in a few lines, is every major buzzword that a piece of Soviet anti-Zionist writing was supposed to incorporate and repeat. In this corner of the Soviet academic universe, the scholar’s task was not to ask new questions or propose new ideas: It was to adopt a prescribed posture, apply the right jargon, and arrive at the same conclusions as his predecessors. Not only would candidate Abbas not lose points for lack of originality; his dissertation would not pass muster had it been written in any other way.
In the third, and last, paragraph of the opening section, Abbas presents the reader with another set of Soviet clichés. Presaging contemporary American progressives by decades, he notes that the “unmasking of the reactionary ideology and politics of Zionism constitutes a pressing task of all progressive, anti-imperialist forces and is inextricably connected with the defense of peace … democracy and social progress.” All honest people of the planet must fight “the hateful ideology and practice of racism … against racial and national discrimination, Zionism and antisemitism, which are fomented by capitalist reactionary forces.”
Thus far, Abbas’ dissertation abstract reads like a typical Soviet anti-Zionist text, and it raises a question: What do incantations about the crisis of Zionism, capitalism and imperialism, and condemnations thereof, have to do with the stated topic of the dissertation—the relationship between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s?
We find the answer in the next couple of paragraphs. The history presented in this thesis, writes Abbas, helps understand “the origins” of Israel’s “aggressive and racist policy vis-à-vis Palestinians and the Arabs in other countries.” It also forces one to confront “a rather important theoretical question” about Zionism and fascism as “related social-political phenomena” arising at this time of “an overarching crisis of capitalism and the imperialist colonial system.”
In Soviet parlance, the word fascism was frequently used interchangeably with Nazism. What we have here, then, is a thesis that seeks to draw a parallel between Zionism and Nazism in order to demonstrate, with full scholarly authority, that contemporary Israel’s supposed racist, aggressive, and reactionary nature is not a bug but a feature, and that Zionism’s ugly baby, the State of Israel (a supposed present-day reincarnation of Nazi Germany), is irreparable and irredeemable.
In 2007, Abbas’ dissertation adviser, the Arabist Vladimir Kiselev, published an article in the Friendship of the People University Gazette titled “Meetings with Mahmoud Abbas.” In Soviet times, the university, known colloquially as Patrice Lumumba (the murdered Congolese independence fighter whose name it bore), served as a training ground for the up-and-coming political elites of the postcolonial world. Educated in the spirit of late-Soviet Marxism-Leninism, graduates were expected to ensure that their countries remained in the Soviet orbit, supported the Soviet posture on critical international issues, and provided Moscow with other crucial services in its face-off with the capitalist camp. It was here that Abbas, already a promising PLO leader with a master’s degree from the University of Damascus, began his Soviet educational path.
Recalling their first meeting, Kiselev wrote that the dissertation topic Abbas proposed stunned him. Collaboration between Zionism and Nazism, these two “polar opposites”? Kiselev was shocked that such a thing could even be possible, let alone proven.
We can safely assume that Kiselev’s shock was feigned. By the time Abbas arrived in Moscow, Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda had been spreading tales about Zionist collaboration with the Nazis for nearly two decades. IOS’ Israel Department, which Kiselev had come to head in 1971, had been established with the express purpose of leading the new “scientific anti-Zionism” effort. Kiselev would therefore have been deeply acquainted with the Soviet story of the supposed Zionist-Nazi collaboration, which went like this: In the 1930s, the Zionist movement in Palestine established contacts with the leadership of Nazi Germany. While Zionists claimed that the reason for the contacts was saving German Jews from impending disaster, the fate of the German Jews didn’t really matter to them. Their real motive was getting hold of the German Jewish money to infuse it into their colonial venture in Palestine, co-run with British imperialists. The Nazis, for their part, agreed to what would come to be known as the transfer deal, because they, too, had imperialist aspirations in Palestine and in any case wanted to rid Germany of Jews.
To be making money off the back of poor Jewish masses in collaboration with their future murderers was bad enough, Soviet propaganda continued, but there was more to the story. Beyond tactical considerations driven by shared imperialist interests—first and foremost, the profit motive (a condemnatory term in Soviet parlance)—Zionists and Nazis had a more intrinsic connection. It had to do with their deep-seated belief in racial superiority: Aryan, in the case of the Nazis, Jewish in the case of Zionists. It was this fundamental shared belief that motivated Zionists to collaborate with Nazis in the Holocaust, said Soviet propagandists, who then introduced the story of Rudolf Israel Kastner.
Packaged in the most sinister way possible, the Soviet rendition of this controversial and painful episode will be familiar to those who follow the obsessions of the contemporary anti-Israel left, where it survives to this day. Kastner, a leader of a Hungarian Zionist organization, the Rescue and Relief Committee, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the rescue of Hungarian Jews. He succeeded at saving a fraction—about 1,700 people. The rest—around 425,000 Jews—were sent to death at Auschwitz. In 1955, an Israeli court declared Kastner, who had been a senior official in Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s government, to have been a Nazi collaborator. The verdict was later partially reversed, but it was too late for Kastner: he was assassinated soon after the trial.
Debates as to whether Kastner was a collaborator or a rescuer continue to this day. But the complexity and human drama of this story interested Soviet propagandists only to the extent that it could be exploited for their purposes. Mixing and matching elements of the story at will, they concocted a fiction in which Kastner not only deliberately collaborated with Eichmann in the murder of Hungarian Jewry but did so with full knowledge and approval of Zionist leadership worldwide. The Zionist movement, the Soviets claimed, secretly welcomed the slaughter because it would strengthen its case for a Jewish state. The old and the infirm, who couldn’t do anything for the Zionist colonial enterprise, particularly needed to go. Kastner, a committed Zionist, obliged.
It is a monstrous claim implying a massive and sinister conspiracy, and there isn’t a shred of proof for it. Even if we conclude that Kastner was, in fact, a collaborator rather than a tragic figure who made catastrophic judgement calls in the fog of war and genocide that did in fact save Jews from death, there is nothing to suggest that he did so out of Zionist convictions, let alone on instructions from Ben-Gurion and the World Zionist Organization. But complexity and charitable interpretations were not what Soviet propagandists were after. They dug up documents they claimed proved their case, inserted decontextualized and distorted shreds of quotes from them into their collaboration narrative, then mass-produced the narrative, in multiple languages, by inserting it into countless books, pamphlets and newspaper articles.
In his dissertation abstract, Abbas closely follows this plotline. Similar to the Kastner episode, he condemns the Transfer agreement (another complex chapter of the Holocaust, which sparked outrage in parts of the Jewish world on the one hand but saved thousands of German Jews on the other) from the most extreme, simplistic, black-and-white perspective possible. Although the deal ended in 1939, when the Nazis cut off Jewish emigration, Abbas presents it as a launch of a collaboration that lasted throughout the war. “Many Zionist actors, for example, R. Kastner and J. Brand (in Hungary), R. Mandler and I. Reidlich (in Czechoslovakia), A. Nossig and Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (in Poland),” writes Abbas, “entered, with the knowledge of Zionist leadership, into secret deals with the Nazi authorities to organize a resettlement into Palestine of specially selected groups of Jews ‘in exchange’ for the Zionists providing ‘order’ in concentration camps and [the] deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews who were doomed for annihilation to death camps and gas chambers.”
What is Abbas talking about here? Who are these “Zionist actors” who did such monstrous things “with the knowledge of Zionist leadership”? We already know about Kastner, and Joel Brand was Kastner’s associate, so here Abbas’s logic is clear. Rumkowski and Alfred Nossig, however, were members of the Judenrats in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos, respectively. (Rumkowski headed the Lodz Judenrat.) Their actions in the ghettos were and still are viewed as controversial, but why does Abbas refer to them as “Zionist actors”? One likely answer to this question is to be found in their biographies. Rumkowski had been involved in Zionist politics in pre-war Lodz, and Nossig was an early avid supporter of the Zionist movement. For Soviet propagandists, this would have been enough to call them Zionists and suggest that it was their Zionist beliefs that drove their decision-making in the ghettos. It’s a nonsensical claim, and a pernicious one at that. The presumption of such unconscionable evil echoes classic antisemitic conspiracy tropes, which Soviet anti-Zionist propagandists drew upon quite generously.
In essence, what Abbas is telling the “progressive, anti-imperialist forces” he addresses at the start of his abstract is the same thing that the neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers have been telling their audiences for decades: the Jews did it. Jews killed their own people in the Holocaust.
In this narrative, which survives in far-left circles to this day, any contact with the Nazis, even for the sake of rescue, was tantamount to collaboration. Let’s set aside the fact that the accusers here are the Soviet Union, which had signed a non-aggression and trade pact with Nazi Germany, and a representative of a people whose wartime spiritual leader, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, had a personal relationship with Hitler. Was there anything the Zionists could have done in the context of World War II to win Soviet ideologues’ and Abbas’s approval? Abbas has an answer. Zionist leaders faced a choice, he writes: “Either declare a war against Nazism and throw all of [the movement’s] resources into the war in the name of saving hundreds of thousands or millions of Jewish lives, or use the annihilation of the Jewish population in European countries occupied by Nazi Germany to implement the Zionist ideal of mass colonization of Palestine and create a Jewish state on its territory. And Zionist leaders chose the latter.”
There is no space in this piece to analyze every gap of historical logic in these two sentences. The fact that a Jewish Brigade, in fact, fought under the Zionist flag alongside the British, and hundreds of thousands of Jews fought in Allied armies, is, of course, entirely ignored. But even without going into details, the fundamental thrust of this paragraph is clear: Jewish collective suicide, which would have been the inevitable result of Zionists’ “declaring a war” against the Nazis and “throwing all resources” into it, would have been preferable to trying to rescue by whatever means possible those who could still be saved.
However we judge their actions, there isn’t a single responsible piece of scholarship suggesting that Kastner and his Hungarian aides or the leaders of the Judenrats in the ghettos acted out of Zionist convictions, still less as part of a massive Zionist conspiracy to collude in the genocide of their own people. Yet this obscene Soviet fabrication lives on, including on the contemporary anti-Israel left. So completely has the latter adopted it that a debunking of today’s claims also serves to debunk the original Soviet ones. See, for an example, Paul Bogdanor, the author of the excellent Kastner’s Crime, debunk Ken Livingstone’s claims about Zionist-Nazi collaboration. Many of the same documents that Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a prominent member of the British Labour Party, used to “prove” his claims are listed as “proof” in Soviet anti-Zionist literature. They appear in the 1983 anti-Zionist classic by the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, also debunked by Bogdanor. Some of them appear in Abbas’s dissertation abstract as well.
It may seem surprising that Soviet propaganda bothered to present “proof” to substantiate its claims. Couldn’t they just say whatever they wanted? The answer is, yes, they could, and often did. But the fight against International Zionism—a treacherous, multitentacled enemy—demanded a sophisticated approach. Soviet ideologues wanted to appeal to educated Western audiences and opinion-makers—journalists, writers, academics. Baseless-looking claims were not going to cut it.
This desire to influence Westerners accounts for one of the most fascinating features of Soviet anti-Zionist “scholarship”—long lists of footnotes and endnotes, often featuring Western authors, most of them Jewish. These references look impressive and convincing—until one starts to check them. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from Abbas’ dissertation abstract.
As Abbas discusses illegal Jewish immigration to British Palestine, he asserts that it was the “Israeli intelligence organization Mossad” that ran it. Anyone familiar with the subject knows that it wasn’t the spy agency that smuggled Jews into the country (it wasn’t established until 1949) but, rather, Mossad Aliyah Bet, a division of the Haganah devoted to illegal immigration. A quick check of the book that Abbas references as his source shows that its two Jewish authors had it right.
It’s tempting to make fun of what appears to be an amateur mistake—except that Abbas isn’t the only one in the Soviet academy making it. One Soviet “scholarly” anti-Zionist text after the next makes the same error, referencing the same book, leading one to conclude that Soviet authors dutifully copied this fake from each other without bothering to check the original.
Abbas further quotes from the same book to support his claim that Zionist emissaries who came to Nazi Germany to negotiate the transfer deal with the future murderers of the Jewish people were driven by monstrous, cold-hearted calculations. Saving German Jews, he writes, now quoting directly from the book, “‘wasn’t their job. Their eyes were fixed entirely on Palestine. They were looking for young men and women who wanted to go to Palestine in order to become pioneers, to struggle and to fight.’”
Two Jewish authors seem to confirm Abbas’ claim: What could be more convincing than that? The only problem is that the quote doesn’t end there. The authors say that, while the emissaries’ initial priorities were, indeed, “the needs of the Jews in Palestine,” they “jettisoned” that attitude after Kristallnacht. From that night onward, the authors report, the emissaries’ aim was “to save what they could of the Jews in German hands.” But this part of the quote changes the narrative, and so Soviet books excluded it. So did Abbas.
These kinds of malicious distortions of evidence, often repeated verbatim across the work of dozens of “scholars,” are a general feature of Soviet anti-Zionist “scholarship.” How come no one else verified these scholars’ work? The answer is simple: None of the foreign books or newspapers quoted in Soviet anti-Zionist literature was available to other Soviet scholars, let alone to ordinary Soviet citizens. The KGB opened its information vaults only to a small insider group it needed to support its anti-Zionist effort, explains the Russian historian Gennady Kostyrchenko. Those insiders could therefore distort their sources with impunity.
The “scholars” that the KGB trusted so completely were the “Zionologists”—a couple of dozen putative experts on Jews and Zionism who produced most of the bogus Soviet anti-Zionist literature. Some of their books appear in Abbas’ literature review, where he credits them with helping him understand “the history, ideology and politics of Zionism and the State of Israel” as well as “the nature of Zionism and fascism.” So let’s take a look at two of these books.
The first one is the Soviet classic: Beware: Zionism! by Yuri Ivanov. First published in 1969, the book saw multiple reprints and became the foundational text of Soviet anti-Zionism. Its singular achievement was to rewrite traditional antisemitic conspiracy theory as anti-Zionist scholarly critique. “Ivanov managed to supply a strong theoretical foundation for openly criticizing Zionism with the help of Marx’s and Lenin’s works, which no one could argue against,” recalled one of his comrades-in-arms.
Beware: Zionism! turned Ivanov into the indisputable leading light of the Zionologists, most of whom came from the loose far-right Russian nationalist movement, which in the 1960s gained influence among Soviet communist elites, the security apparatus, and sections of the media. The Zionologists’ core inner circle congregated around a high-level official in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, where Ivanov was employed. The Central Committee, we learn from Kostyrchenko, the Russian historian, was itself overrun by ethnic chauvinism and antisemitic conspiracy theory, so it must have been with a measure of affection that Ivanov’s colleagues nicknamed him the “Soviet Union’s main zhidologist.”
Another book highlighted in Abbas’ literature review is titled The Ideology and Practice of International Zionism, which was co-edited by three well-known Zionologists. One of the three, Yevgeny Yevseyev, was an Arabist who began his career in the 1950s at the Soviet Embassy in Cairo. Coming home in the 1960s, he found a perch at the Institute of Philosophy, which, along with the IOS, would become a critical actor in the Soviet anti-Zionist effort. In his writings, Yevseyev plagiarized from antisemitic pamphlets published by Egyptian anti-Israel propaganda, which in the 1950s was run by a former Nazi. He also “borrowed” from prerevolutionary Russian pogromist literature.
When, in 1972, the Soviet Embassy in Paris reprinted one of Yevseyev’s articles for its French-language newsletter, its editor got sued for racial defamation. But the incident didn’t harm Yevseyev, who enjoyed high-level connections at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the KGB and the Central Committee, and was a member of the important Palestinian-Soviet friendship society. Kostyrchenko, who posthumously examined Yevseyev’s papers, found in them disturbing ideas on how to rid the Soviet Union of its Jews.
The second editor was Yelena Modrzhinskaya, Yevseyev’s boss at the Institute of Philosophy. Modrzhinskaya had served as an NKVD intelligence officer under Stalin’s henchman Lavrenty Beria and was stationed in the Soviet intelligence residency in London. One of her contributions to scientific anti-Zionism was Poison of Zionism, a slim volume illustrated with stylish drawings of Stars of David combined with spider nets and dollar bills.
The third co-editor was the academician Mark Mitin. A Jew by birth, Mitin wasn’t part of the Zionologists’ inner circle, but was frequently drafted by the latter into helping deflect accusations of antisemitism. Prior to hitting the anti-Zionist career gold mine, Mitin played a critical role in shaping Soviet philosophy into the handmaiden of Stalinism. “I am guided by the single idea” when approaching philosophical problems, he wrote in 1936: “How better to understand every word and thought of our beloved and wise teacher, comrade Stalin, and how to apply them to the solution of philosophical questions.” That year, countless of his colleagues and direct reports were arrested and executed for taking a wrong philosophical position. Mitin emerged unscathed and years later plagiarized a paper written by one of them.
“The Soviet Union’s chief zhidologist”; an inveterate antisemite plagiarizing from Nazi, Arab, and Russian antisemitic propaganda; an NKVD spook; a conformist, Stalinist, useful Jew who stole an executed academic colleague’s work—these are some of the Soviet “scholars” who shaped Abbas’ thinking on Zionism. But Soviet academics weren’t alone in this fight. In order to defeat the specter of International Zionism, Kostyrchenko notes, the KGB built something of an “anti-Zionist international.” Zionologists were granted special dispensations to travel abroad in order to establish contacts with like-minded organizations—primarily “the scholarly-propagandistic anti-Zionist institutions of those Arab political regimes and organizations, with which the USSR formed the closest military-political relations.”
Under this program, Yevseyev delivered lectures on the dangers of International Zionism at Soviet-sponsored conferences in Egypt and Baghdad. And by the mid-1970s, IOS established relations with the Palestine Studies Center in Beirut, which was founded by the Palestinian-Syrian intellectual Fayez Sayegh and run and financed by the PLO.
The Palestine Studies Center is important to this story, because in 1978 it produced a publication that Abbas highlights in his literature review—an English-language pamphlet titled Zionist Relations with Nazi Germany. Its author, Faris Yahya (Glubb), was the son of the British army officer Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, who commanded Transjordan’s Arab Legion between 1939 and 1956 and fought against Israel in 1948. Faris was born in British-run Jerusalem, converted to Islam and dedicated his life to the Palestinian cause, associating himself with the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the 1970s, together with the PFLP, the PLO, and the Palestine Research Center, he was stationed in Beirut, reporting for American, British, and Arab media. It must be here that he encountered and found common cause with Soviet Zionologists.
Nothing in Glubb’s background suggests expertise in European Jewry, the Holocaust or World War II. Yet in Zionist Relations with Nazi Germany, he holds forth on Kastner’s collaboration with Eichmann, “Zionist” Judenrats and Mossad intelligence agents supposedly smuggling Jews illegally into British Palestine. His book has the same plotline, the same citations, quotes, misquotes and distortions that we find in Soviet “scientific anti-Zionist” literature and Abbas’ dissertation abstract.
Abbas’ dissertation hardly offers anything that Soviet propaganda and its “anti-Zionist international” hadn’t said in the previous 15 years. There are serious problems with underlying scholarship, including factual mistakes, misquotes, selective approach to evidence, and massive distortions. The literature section appears to be a classic case of circular reporting: Despite the appearance of multiple independent sources, many can be traced to a single source—the Soviet security and propaganda apparatus. The agendas of the authors are concealed or misrepresented.
The question arises: Where were his academic superiors in all of this? Shouldn’t at least some academic advisers involved in Abbas’ dissertation have pointed out these problems? Three people are named on the cover of his avtoreferat as official reviewers—senior academics whose job it would have been to read the dissertation, challenge its arguments, and provide constructive feedback.
It only takes a quick search, however, to understand that even if the latter wanted to perform their duties, they couldn’t have: They simply were not qualified. Like Abbas’ adviser, Kiselev, all three were Arabists. There isn’t a single expert among them on any of the topics Abbas addresses in his dissertation, be it Zionism, Nazi Germany, Israel, Jews, the Holocaust or World War II. From Kiselev’s article in the Friendship of the People University Gazette, we learn that the defense went smoothly. Not a single person objected to granting the candidate the doctoral status. He flew home the next day.
As far as the Soviet academy was concerned, Abbas’s dissertation was a political project. The Cold War was at its peak. Moscow was convinced that its failure to establish a good working relationship with Washington was caused by Zionists’ behind-the-scenes machinations. It was Zionists who fomented pro-emigration sentiments among Soviet Jews while tarnishing the USSR as antisemitic and a human rights abuser. A few months before Abbas’ defense, the PLO representation in Moscow was granted diplomatic status. Abbas’ dissertation would have been viewed as an important tool in the struggle. Silly academic standards were not going to get in the way.
Fabrications about Israel and Zionism that the KGB concocted with the help of the Arabists and Zionologists in the academy had real-life consequences that continue until today. Having washed through the academy the hoax about the Mossad smuggling Jews into Palestine in the 1930s, the KGB could claim that the Mossad was also behind Soviet Jews’ demand for emigration in the 1970s and 1980s. Jewish activists like Natan Sharansky could be portrayed as foreign intelligence assets—an accusation that carried a death sentence. The Soviet academy’s “scientific anti-Zionism” project facilitated and promoted state-sponsored antisemitism. Abbas’ dissertation was part of that game.
In 2020, nearly 40 years after Abbas received his doctoral degree, the IOS published an article reviewing the history of the institute’s Israel studies department. The authors didn’t mince words. From the early 1970s, they note, when “Soviet party leadership set itself the goal of ‘fighting the Zionist ideology,’” Soviet area studies, including Middle East studies, were “largely guided and controlled by state structures.” IOS’ Israel scholars were supposed to criticize Zionism as an “‘extreme expression of reactionary bourgeois-nationalist ideology,’” highlight the “reactionary essence of Zionism,” and present Israel as an aggressor and an agent of American imperialism pursuing an “aggressive foreign policy course vis-à-vis Arab countries.” Scholars had no access to scholarly literature. They weren’t able to visit Israel. There were no Hebrew specialists among them.
Another post-Soviet IOS publication, which reviewed the history of Soviet-Israeli relations, noted that although some Soviet scholars did try to offer a more nuanced understanding of Zionism and Israel, these were viewed as confusing the matter and were censored. Anti-Zionist literature “crudely distorted historical events, manipulated and directly falsified facts that had to deal with the creation of Israel, its internal and external policy, and the causes and nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In the absence of freedom of information, audiences often accepted these manipulations at face value. “They awakened ethnic prejudices … and turned people against not only the Jewish state but against the Jews.”
When the USSR prohibited contact with all things Israel, it diminished its own ability to understand the country. Starved of real knowledge, the Soviet political establishment and chunks of the academy fell victim to their own conspiracist fantasies, drifting further and further from reality.
Today, portions of the American academy, led by Middle East studies departments, are falling prey to remarkably similar ideological tendencies. Anti-Israel boycotts, often expressed in recognizably Soviet language, have become normalized on American campuses from Harvard on down. Well-known American academics routinely violate the rules of scholarship and spin anti-Zionist conspiracy theories that would have been at home at the Soviet-era IOS or Institute of Philosophy. The more campuses and academic associations endorse BDS, the more ignorant their communities, and American society as a whole, become.
Mahmoud Abbas’ dissertation may be hidden away in IOS’ special storage facility, but the old Soviet fakes on which it was based continue to circulate widely among Middle Eastern audiences. The work of Soviet Zionologists is routinely republished on the internet, in multiple languages, providing fodder both to the anti-Israel far left and the antisemitic far right throughout the West. Will the American academic institutions that are now promoting their own contemporary version of “scientific anti-Zionism” find the courage to renounce agenda-driven pseudoscholarship and confront the consequences of their deformed conspiracy theories? Let’s hope so. What’s depressing to imagine is that Abbas might be granted a doctorate today by an American university on the basis of the same dissertation, based on the same sources, in the absence of any state compulsion.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.