Some of the common tropes weaponized by anti-Zionists today have their roots in Cold War propaganda. Among the most pernicious of these is the characterization of Israelis or Zionists as Nazis.
The purported ideological affinity between Zionism and Nazism, and the alleged collaboration between their adherents was a major theme of Soviet propaganda in the 1970s and 80s.
Decades after the collapse of the Soviet state that mobilized this propaganda, the ideas it spread continue to shape thinking and discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including in the United States. This highlights the long-lasting impact of impregnational propaganda, which is intended to take on a momentum of its own independent of the propaganda apparatus that launches it.
One illustration of this connection was the PhD dissertation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was reportedly an agent of the KGB... As described in a recent article, the dissertation, completed in Moscow in 1982, characterized Zionism in terms typical in Soviet propaganda: as a fascistic, imperialistic, racist ideology that is “the enemy of socialism and the national liberation movements.” The future Palestinian leader exhorted all the progressive people of the world to oppose this “reactionary ideology and politics of Zionism” in pursuit of “peace…democracy and social progress.” Abbas went on to allege that Zionism and fascism are “related social-political phenomena” before weaving a conspiracy theory alleging that Zionists collaborated with Nazis in the destruction of Europe’s Jews.
President Abbas has at times sought to distance himself from the assertions in his dissertation, including its Holocaust minimization. However, a book based on the dissertation, published in 1984, is currently being promoted on the Official Website of the President of Palestine. This shows the degree to which these ideas continue to hold currency and, far from being a political liability, remain useful as tools for political gain.
It is important to understand that Holocaust distortions, whether in the form of outright denial or inversions such as Abbas’s, are not just bad history, but are antisemitic conspiracy theories unto themselves. As is the case with Abbas’s dissertation, such narratives generally hold that the Holocaust was either invented, exaggerated, or even perpetrated by Jews themselves as part of a nefarious Jewish conspiracy. Comparing Jews or Israelis to Nazis has become a standard feature of contemporary antisemitic discourse and is explicitly identified as an antisemitic trope in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, the most widely adopted framework for understanding antisemitism.
This trope of Zionist-Nazi affinity employs a victim-blaming narrative, turning Jews – the primary targets of the Holocaust – into collaborators and perpetrators. Today, this trope continues to be employed to delegitimize Israel and justify violence against the Jewish state, its inhabitants, and supporters.
In a post-Holocaust world, where the Nazis have come to symbolize ideological evil, the utility of this propaganda line is clear: by associating one’s enemies with Nazism, one can paint one’s persecution and violence against them as not only justified, but virtuous. It is not surprising, then, that today we once again see the same propaganda employed, this time to justify Russia’s war against Ukraine, with accusations of Nazism against Ukraine and its Jewish president.
This propaganda holds serious implications for Jewish communities. In the USSR, the idea of a Zionist-fascist conspiracy served to justify the persecution of Jews. During the years when this propaganda line was most prominent – disseminated via films, political cartoons, academic output, and the dissemination of antisemitic literature and more – it was nearly as common for Jews to be accosted in the streets with cries of "fascist” as with the classic antisemitic slurs. Internally, this propaganda was used to scapegoat Jews as allegedly advancing a capitalist-fascist plot to undermine the USSR and subvert its progressive value. As a matter of foreign propaganda, this line was useful in branding Israel as toxic and delegitimized its very existence.
More recently, during the May 2021 military conflagration between Israel and Hamas, antisemitic propaganda spiked both on social media and offline protests and demonstrations, often including characterizations of Israel or Zionists as Nazis. During this period antisemitic incidents in the US more than doubled as Jews were harassed and assaulted in the streets across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York.
In a 2023 interview with German newspaper The Berliner Zietung, former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters re-affirmed his previous statements likening Israel to Nazi Germany. To make his case, Waters, who has a long history of antisemitism, added the falsehood that “the Israelis are committing genocide,” equating Israel with a litany of incomparably brutal colonial regimes.
Ideas outlast the regimes that set them into motion and their impacts can be long lasting. Today, conspiracist ideas spread as a matter of Cold War propaganda continue to distort the way far too many understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dismantling these ideological artifices is long overdue.