Socialist Racism: Ethnic Cleansing and Racial Exclusion in the USSR and Israel

Otto Pohl writes:

During the 1970s, both the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks in Soviet Central
Asia compared their plight to that of the Palestinians. The Stalin regime deported
both the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks from their homelands to dispersed
settlements in Central Asia. The similarities between the Soviet policies of expelling
and permanently excluding the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks from
their homelands and similar Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are not entirely
coincidental. The Zionists based their mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and
subsequent prohibition on allowing them to return to their homes in part on the
Soviet model. The similarities between the two instances of ethnic cleansing are due
in large part to this conscious emulation of Stalin’s methods by the Zionists.

Historical comparisons of ethnic cleansing are still quite rare and have only
touched on a handful of cases. Presently, scholars define ethnic cleansing as the
forced removal of ethnically defined populations from specific territories.1 More
importantly the cases compared have been limited. In the case of Stalin’s repressions,
the comparison most usually made is to Nazi crimes. These comparisons
have taken on a highly ideological color. While a few scholars such as Stephane
Courtois have sought to put Stalin’s crimes on an equal moral plane with those of
Hitler, many have resisted the comparison.2 A whole slew of arguments have been
crafted by academics as to why the Stalin regime’s deliberate killing of between 13
and 15 million people is morally less significant in comparison to Hitler’s killing of
between five and six million Jews. The details of these arguments—which all boil
down to systems of relativistic morality based not upon actions, but motivations
and the identity of the victims—are less important than the motives of those making
The proponents of this position fall into two broad categories. Some of those
espousing these arguments are driven by a desire to rehabilitate the USSR and the
failed dream of socialism.3 To this end, they seek to transform the victims of state
murder by the Soviet government into something else, such as the unintentional
results of policies necessary to consolidate and defend the gains of the Great October
Revolution.4 The political power of these few remaining supporters of the Soviet
system is considerably less than the other group that minimizes Stalin’s crimes.
This other group is driven by support of a viewpoint that seeks to make the
Shoah absolutely unique in order to establish the position of Jews as the ultimate
victims in world history. This position is generally linked to support of the Zionist
project in Palestine and the continuing dispossession and repression of its native
Arab population. Zionism is defined here to mean an ideology aimed at creating a
secure Jewish majority state in the territory of the former British Mandate of Palestine.
A number of Western academics seeking to minimize Stalin’s crimes fall into
this category.5
Many of them are not Jewish, but espouse a position of “Holocaust
uniqueness” regarding ethnically motivated state killings that depicts Jews as “worthy
victims” and Eastern Europeans and Muslims as “unworthy victims.”6 Negative
stereotypes of these two groups are still sometimes promoted in Western
academia in ways that are considered completely unacceptable regarding Blacks,
Hispanics, and Jews.
This concerted effort to oppose any comparison between the atrocities of the
USSR and Nazi Germany is perhaps the single greatest factor in the paucity of any
comparative studies of Soviet ethnic cleansing. The similarities between Nazi policies
of extermination and Stalin’s ethnic cleansing are obvious enough to make
comparison of the two a natural starting point in contextualizing the two events.
They both occurred during World War II, they both involved the wholesale roundup
and forced deportation to deadly conditions of whole populations based upon
ancestry, and both deflected large amounts of military material and personnel away
from the war effort. Prevented from making this first obvious comparison, however,
historians never moved on to make other more interesting comparisons between
Stalin’s deportations and other cases of ethnic cleansing. The hostile
intellectual climate to such comparative work greatly retarded scholarship. As a
result, such work is about a decade behind where it should be…

One case of ethnic cleansing that is connected with the Stalinist deportations and
the Ottoman and Nazi cases as well, but remains absent from both Naimark and
Weitz, is the Nakbah. Al Nakbah, Arabic for “The Catastrophe,” refers to the mass
expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948. The connections
between this case of ethnic cleansing and the Nazi and Ottoman regimes are obvious.
Palestine had been under Ottoman rule for centuries before becoming a British
Mandate. The Shoah created hundreds of thousands of displaced European Jews
who subsequently migrated to Palestine. Early in its existence, a full one-third of
Israel’s population consisted of Holocaust survivors. The Nazi extermination of
Jews also provided Israel and its supporters with its most effective propaganda
weapon to justify the expulsion of the Palestinians. Less obvious, but arguably more
important, are its connections with Soviet ethnic cleansing. Aside from the previously
noted fact that many of the same people attempting to minimize Stalin’s crimes
also seek to minimize or deny Israeli ethnic cleansing and racism, the two events
share a number of historical connections. They also share significant similarities
and parallels. These connections and similarities, however, have been almost completely
ignored by scholars. This lack of attention is unfortunate since the connections
still continue to exist and play a very real part in the continued suffering of the
Chechens, Palestinians, and other victims…

Ben-Gurion greatly admired the Soviet Union under Stalin as a model for building
a strong state and sought to emulate this success in Israel. Most Labor Zionists
shared his enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment. Both the Soviet and Israeli states
also espoused a socialist rhetoric dedicated to equality while practicing forms of
racial discrimination similar to apartheid in South Africa. After 1949, Soviet-Israeli
relations deteriorated steadily, particularly over the issue of the Israeli government
encouraging the emigration of educated and skilled Jews from the USSR.19 Moscow
found this policy unacceptable on practical and ideological grounds. First,
they desperately needed these workers to rebuild the Soviet Union in the wake of
World War II. Second, it implied that the USSR was not a fully socialist state that
had solved all nationality problems within its borders, including the existence of
anti-Semitism. Such an insult could be tolerated only so long.
This deterioration of relations continued throughout the next several decades. In
1955, Czechoslovakia signed an arms deal with Israel’s chief enemy, Nasser’s Egypt.
In 1956, the USSR along with the United States opposed the joint British, French,
and Israeli assault on Egypt to seize the Suez Canal. During the 1967 and 1973
wars, the USSR supported the Arab states against Israel diplomatically and militarily.
Finally after 1974, the USSR began to provide official support to the PLO.
Despite these events, the Soviet government continued to support the existence of
Israel as a Jewish state within its 1949–1967 borders.20 These later events have,
however, prevented historians from realizing the full ramifications of the close Soviet-Israeli
relations on Israeli policies during the creation of the state…

In contrast, despite the wishes of the Zionists, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine
remained incomplete. About 150,000 Palestinian Arabs out of a population of
900,000 remained in the territory that became Israel.67 Unlike the Soviets, the Zionists
operated under a number of constraints that made their job more difficult. First,
the Arabs were not an insignificant minority of Palestine’s population. Rather they
formed a two-thirds majority of Palestine’s population in 1947. They were 42%
even in the territory apportioned to be a Jewish state.68 Second, although hopelessly
outgunned, they did have some military organization and some support in this matter
from other Arab states. They could thus put up some resistance to the expulsions.
Finally, like in the case of the Ottoman deportation of the Armenians, the
high international profile of certain cities protected the Palestinian residents from
expulsion. This is most evident regarding the Christians of Nazareth and can be
compared to the protection by international attention afforded to Armenians in
Istanbul, Izmir, and Jerusalem during World War One.69 After the fighting ceased,
international scrutiny served to protect most of the Palestinian population remaining
under Israeli rule from further expulsions. The Zionists thus had to be content
with an 80% success rate in their ethnic cleansing versus the near 100% success of
their Soviet models.
Both the Soviets and Israelis engaged in a number of massacres in the course of
ethnic cleansing during the 1940s. The purpose of these massacres, however, differed.
In the Soviet case, the NKVD physically liquidated communities that proved
too burdensome to deport. That is, the massacres served to remove the last remaining
targeted communities that had not been loaded onto trains and deported from
their homelands. The most famous case was the village of Khaibakh in the ChechenIngush
ASSR. Poor weather conditions prevented the NKVD from being able to
deport the Chechens from the village of Khaibakh. Instead of loading these villagers
onto trains, the NKVD herded over 700 Chechen men, women, and children
into barns and sheds and set the structures on fire.70 The vast majority of these
unfortunates perished in the flames. Khaibakh remains a rallying cry of Chechen
nationalists to this day.
In contrast, the Zionists massacred Palestinians in 1948 to cause their flight in
fear from areas that became Israel in 1949. Rather than serve to complete the process
of ethnic cleansing, these atrocities served to start it from certain areas. The
most famous of such massacres occurred at Deir Yasin on 9 April 1948.71 Irgun and
LEHI forces rounded up over 200 Arab men, women, and children from this village
and killed them in order to terrorize other Palestinians into leaving land coveted by
the Zionists. This policy had great success. Many of the Palestinians that fled their
homes in 1948 did so specifically because they feared Zionist forces would repeat
the events of Deir Yasin in their villages. Like Khaibakh for the Chechens, Deir
Yasin is a symbol of national tragedy for the Palestinians. They commemorate the
massacre every April 9.
The internal nature of the Soviet deportations versus the external nature of the
Israeli expulsions is another key difference between the two cases.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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