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Politics and the Making of History: Lessons from the Middle East

November 15, 2012

by Sarah Zaides

One of the greatest benefits of being a graduate student is not only the unparalleled ability to pursue your own research interests, but the (often!) funded opportunities to travel and live abroad in pursuit of those interests. Since beginning my graduate career at the University of Washington, I have spent two summers in the Middle East, one in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent in Jerusalem, Israel.

As the Titus Ellison fellow from the REECAS program at the Jackson School, one might wonder why this student of history, whose primary field is 20th century Russia, might end up in the Middle East. My summer in Amman, as a fellow with the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Program, was in pursuit of an advanced knowledge of Arabic. My research interests were, and to an extent continue to be, in the Cold War-era politics and manifestations in the cultural programs of the Soviet Union in the Arab World. I arrived in Amman just a few months after the January 2011 events of Tahrir Square, and was planning to visit archives in Syria just as things began to heat up there.

It was at that point, one late night in the dining room of the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, that I came across an article in Pravda (an official newspaper of the Soviet Union) by Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg was a reporter and Soviet Jewish intellectual, and, unbeknown to me at the time, his article would change the course of my academic research and propel me towards the study of Soviet and Jewish history.

The article was called “A Letter to a German Soldier.” It was a letter asking Jews to not be “cosmopolitans” (the Soviet government’s code word for Zionists) but, paradoxically, to still acknowledge the new State of Israel and, by default, Joseph Stalin’s vote for the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. As I read Ehrenburg’s piece, I was struck first by how tepidly the Soviet Union negotiated its official political stance in the piece. Historically, the question of Israel is fascinating for the Soviet Union. The USSR supported the Jewish State in 1948, becoming one of the first nations to recognize it before the United Nations. This was a geopolitically strategic move for the Soviet Union. Expecting a socialist ally in the new Middle East, which was undergoing a process of decolonization after the First World War, influence could perhaps be exerted in the region. However, the United States quickly demonstrated its own allegiance with the State of Israel, and the Middle East became one of the playing fields on which the United States and the Soviet Union vied for power.

I also paused when I read the letter because I saw that it was dated just months after a very famous episode in Soviet Jewish history: Golda Meir’s visit to the Moscow Synagogue. Golda Meir was the first ambassador from Israel to the Soviet Union, and spent the High Holidays in the fall of 1948 in the large Moscow Choral Synagogue. When she entered for morning services, she was met by signs in Hebrew strung along the synagogue walls and chants of “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The Jewish people live”). According to her autobiography, a few Jews had seen her on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and for Kol Nidre (the evening service for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), and the word had spread. On the morning of Yom Kippur, more than 50,000 Jews gathered to join Meir for the holiest day of the Jewish year. Ten days later, Ehrenburg published his letter in Pravda. A few months later, arguably the most brutal Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitism began: the Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaigns.

As I returned to the University of Washington in the fall of 2011 to take my MA exams and to begin researching my doctoral seminar paper, I began to think more deeply about Ehrenburg and Soviet Jewry more generally. I began to wonder if Ehrenburg, often discredited as a producer of Soviet propaganda, was actually trying to warn Soviet Jews of Stalin’s upcoming Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaigns. Ehrenburg began his career reporting for the Soviet press during the Spanish Civil War, mingling with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali in Madrid in Barcelona. Later, he was recruited, along with Vassily Grossman, also a Soviet writer and journalist, to sit on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a program established during the World War II as an effort to fundraise for the Soviet war effort. They traveled to Western Europe and the United States, and reminded audiences and the media of the Soviet struggle against fascist and anti-Semitic Germany. Through a collection of letters written to Ehrenburg from Soviet Jews between 1948-1957 and his memoirs (published after Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech), I became more and more convinced that Ehrenburg was trying to help Soviet Jews — warning them that in the synagogue on Yom Kippur they had gone too far in demonstrating solidarity with Israel.

But my curiosity did not stop there. As I began to read more from Ehrenburg and compatriots like Grossman, I began to wonder what happened to Soviet Jews after the Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaigns, but most importantly, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. That is, while most academic enterprises were concerned (and rightfully so!) with aiding in Soviet emigration to Israel and the United States, my interests are in the Soviet Jews who stayed in the Soviet Union, and their reactions to the new Jewish State in the Middle East.

This is how I ended up in Israel, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the summer of 2012. Just across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, I began the linguistic preparation to pursue a dissertation — an expansion of many seminal ideas in my doctoral seminar paper — on Soviet Jewish comedians and intellectuals of the twilight years of the Soviet Union. I am interested in these historical actors and their commentary and critique of the Soviet State. One figure in particular, Arkady Raikin, the Russian “Charlie Chaplin,” offered sometimes veiled, and sometimes direct commentary on Soviet daily life and the totalitarian state. Instead of being punished, Raikin was actually celebrated among Party elites. He was awarded several distinguished prizes, including the Lenin Prize, and was named a Hero of Socialist Labor. My ongoing research intends to explore the way in which Jewish community and identity endured in the post-1948 period in the Soviet Union, and also the way in which Raikin and other Jews contributed to a dialogue of normalization between the Soviet Union and the “West.” While in Israel, I was fortunate to visit several archives that had been moved from the Soviet Union after its dissolution in 1991.

As a young historian, it was exciting not only to watch history in the making, but to be affected professionally by it. My original project is on hold — for now — but I am eager to take my comprehensive exams this year and move on to write a dissertation that works across both the Middle East and Russia.

Sarah Zaides is a graduate student in the MA/PhD program in the Department of History.