Behind the Headlines Success of Israeli Embassy in Moscow in 1948 Doomed Ussr-israel Relations

Harrison Salisbury, former national editor of The New York Times and correspondent for that newspaper in Moscow from 1949 to 1955, says in a recent memoir that the success of the Israel Embassy in Moscow was one of the reasons which prompted Stalin to a demented attack against Soviet Jews.

In his book, “A Journey for Our Times” (Harper and Row), an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Soviet capital, Salisbury reveals that the Israel Embassy was the envy of all other legations.

“The quality of the Moscow diplomatic corps was not high. Expertise at the American Embassy after (George) Kennan’s forced withdrawal was thin … The extraordinary skills of the Israelis would soon be lost, “Salisbury writes.

“They had staffed their mission with Russian-born, Russian-speaking diplomats. They had unrivaled access to friends, relatives, coreligionists–one reason, I thought why Stalin developed such paranoia about them.”

Salisbury says that when Golda Meir took up her position as Israel’s Ambassador in the Soviet capital in 1948 long lines of Jews queued up outside the Metropol Hotel in order to shake hands with her.

“That exhibition in central Moscow within sight of the Lubyanka (prison) hit Stalin’s anti-Semitic nerve and may have touched off the cosmopolitanism drive. In an indirect way, it may have caused Stalin to decree the deaths of the members of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee,” Salisbury says.

CITES OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

He also writes about other developments that led to attacks against Jews and Israel at the time. Salisbury says that during the halcyon days of Israeli-Soviet relations Jaffa oranges were being sold in Moscow for the equivalent of $5 each in local stores.

Moscovites attributed the availability of the Israeli citrus to Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet minister responsible for food imports. Rumor had it, says Salisbury, that the Russians had paid Israel a penny-and-a-half for each orange, the resulting profit going directly into Kremlin coffers.

Salisbury recounts that on his arrival in the Soviet capital in 1949 he found the city under a siege mentality. Western diplomats were virtually under house arrest in their Embassy compounds. Soviet citizens, with rare exception, were petrified to be seen talking to Westerners.

ANTI-SEMITIC JOKES ABOUND

While he was not aware at that time what had happened to the Jewish intelligentsia, Salisbury reports that a major staple of Moscow talk consisted of anti-Semitic jokes. In his memoir, Salisbury records some of those anti-Jewish stories and recalls that on a number of occasions he chided his Russian friends for engaging in such anti-Semitic banter.

The response was always the same, says Salisbury. After telling the most nauseating anti-Jewish stories, they would, upon being challenged by him, insist that there was no such thing as anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union because it had been officially banned in the Soviet Constitution.

By referring to notes he made during his almost six-year stint in Moscow, Salisbury is able to reconstruct the atmosphere of hysteria which was circulating in Russia in the years before Stalin’s death. One of the elements in that hysteria was the report of economic crimes found in Soviet newspapers.

The perpetrators were identifiably Jewish in each case. He cites one newspaper account of the summary execution of three Jews reported in the Soviet press in 1950. Their names gave them away. The death penalty was the talk of the town because it was unprecedented.

Salisbury says that Stalin’s wild accusations against Jewish physicians (later retracted under Khrushchev) were widely accepted as true by the Soviet people. During the early 1950′s Salisbury had occasion to visit friends in a Moscow hospital and he recalls the vicious conversations he heard in that institution about the wickedness of Jewish physicians.

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