Elie Wiesel's Israeli propaganda and the myth of Soviet genocide against the Jews

His book "The Jews of Silence" was created as part of Israel’s covert propaganda and influence program targeting American Jews.

The campaign to save Soviet Jews started to really take off in America in the 1970s and reached total mainstream acceptance by the 1980s — evidenced by the fact that at least a hundred thousand people packed DC in 1987 for Freedom Sunday, an event that got coast to coast news coverage and featured Al Gore, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and even a riveting folksy performance by Peter, Paul and Mary. If you weren’t thinking about saving Jewish Bodies, were you even living?

That’s how Zionists saw Soviet Jews: as bodies to stuff into an ever-expanding Israel so Palestinians could never return.

As I’ve mentioned before, the campaign to get American Jews hip to the Jewish Question in the Soviet Union got off the ground largely because of a sustained covert Israeli influence op. From its earliest days, Israel’s Zionist leadership saw the Soviet Union’s large Jewish population — which was anywhere between 2 and 3 million or even more — as a powerful weapon in its cynical by-the-numbers population war against the Palestinians. In 1952, four years after the creation of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established a dedicated spook division that answered directly to his office to make this population transfer dream come true.

It was called Nativ and it had two objectives. One: awaken a sense of Jewish nationalism and Zionism among Soviet Jews. Two: get the Soviet Union to allow its Jews to leave for Israel. To achieve the second part of its mission, Nativ worked to activate American Jews, which would allow Israel to apply pressure on the Soviet Union through America, a much more powerful and effective force — all while staying safely in the background. To do this, Nativ wanted to guilt trip the Americans — to convince them that their Jewish brothers and sisters were on the verge of being wiped out in a brutal second Holocaust, this time carried out by the evil commies.

Nativ’s method was to work though established American intellectuals, authors, journalists, and prominent community leaders. As I wrote earlier, one of the agency’s main operatives in America was a guy named Moshe Decter. He was budding proto-neocon anti-communist leftist journalist with a history of being involved in spooky propaganda ops, including the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. He was recruited to run a propaganda front called “Jewish Minority Research” covertly funded by Israel as part of Nativ. The outfit pumped out agitprop articles and pamphlets and research on the imminent danger that was awaiting Soviet Jews. It organized public campaigns, provided background information to leading media influencers, and generally did its best to seed the idea that a second Holocaust was just around the corner — unless American Jews and Americans did something about it.

As I’ve been digging into Nativ’s influence campaign in America, I’ve been wondering: When did American Jews finally start to care? Was it a gradual, slowly building up through the 1960s and taking root in the 1970s? Or was there a single publication or magazine story or film that helped catalyze this issue in one big push?

Looking at the history of this stuff, I think the evidence points to a gradual rising awareness — a response to layer upon layer of propaganda and various anti-Soviet agitation efforts, combined with external events like the 1967 Six Day War. Still, there were some propaganda milestones on this journey.

One of the bigger ones was the publication of Elie Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence, an account of his short trip to the Soviet Union and all the horrible things he supposedly saw being done to Jews there. It was advertised by the publisher as “A shocking story of discrimination and oppression” — witnessed by a Holocaust survivor.

ELIE WIESEL, A SURVIVOR OF AUSCHWITZ, went to Russia to see for himself if the disturbing rumors of Soviet anti-Semitism were true. He was not prepared for what he found.

Jews on in the streets of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev were afraid to speak…Though they did not wear the yellow star, all their passports were stamped “JEW.”

The book was published in 1967 — seven years after Wiesel’s now-famous Holocaust novel, Night. Back then he wasn’t yet the famous moral voice that he would soon become, and it took a bit for the book to circulate. But it did make the rounds and ultimately became a powerful cultural catalyst for the narrative that there was an impeding Soviet genocide against the Jews. The book even adapted into a play and was prominently reviewed and praised by the New York Times. “Where Mr. Wiesel is dramatically shrewd is in making his Communists so rational and his Jews so cowed and beaten. And the characters of the Jewish community, some not religious, weave around one another with a sad reality, embittered, broken and in a sense, hopeless,” wrote the reviewer. “This is a moving play to be seen and even pondered upon. No one could ever accuse Mr. Wiesel of being Jew of silence—he is a Jew of golden eloquence.”

What’s interesting about Wiesel’s book is that it was very clearly a Nativ product — created as part of Israel’s covert propaganda and influence program that targeted American Jews. Years later, the people involved in making it happened admitted as much.

Moshe Decter, the Israeli Nativ agent in America, basically confessed to Fred Lazin, a historian who wrote a great book about the Soviet Jewry movement and the massive role that Israel played in it.

As Decter explained, Elie Wiesel went to the Soviet Union and wrote the book only because Decter and two of his Nativ handlers from the Israeli consulate in New York pushed and persuaded him to do it. And Wiesel confirmed another aspect of the op over forty years later in a new 2011 introduction to the book: Another top Nativ secret agent — David Bartov, who then worked out of the Israeli embassy in Moscow — helped organize and supervise the Soviet part of his trip. Bartov would become the head of Nativ in the 1980s, during the most important time for the Israel’s population transfer plans — when hundreds of thousands of Jews were leaving the Soviet Union. Wiesel would describe Bartov as my “faithful friend.”

In short, The Jews of Silence was a full on propaganda op. And it came at the most perfect time, following the Six Day War, when Jews in both the Soviet Union and America were quickly being radicalized and turned to Jewish nationalism.

I had never heard of The Jews of Silence before I started digging into this history. So I ordered an old copy on eBay and decided to take a look. I knew I was in for a propaganda blast. Still, I was shocked by how crude it was.

Reading it, you get the sense that Soviet Jews live in an atmosphere of total fear, scurrying around the streets like rats, hugging the shadows, avoiding the light, periodically poking their noses out of the dark to whisper, unprompted, long monologues to Elie Wiesel and then disappearing again into the murk, their faces still obscured by shadows and KGB agents fast on their tail. In Wiesel’s telling, Moscow has the feeling of the Warsaw Ghetto. The sense of doom is so near you can almost smell the burning flesh wafting out of an imaginary crematorium. And always there, at the center of the narrative, is Wiesel himself — Auschwitz survivor — called on by God to bear witness.

But his story doesn’t take place in Warsaw, circa 1942. It takes place in the Soviet Union of 1965. Stalin’s late paranoid repressions against Jewish intelligentsia are long gone. And while some unofficial anti-Semitic policies exist, Jews live pretty much like everyone else in the Soviet Union. Some are doing very well, others not so. And everyone faces the usual restrictions — like closed borders, controlled movement inside the Soviet Union, and the suppression of religion and unauthorized culture. There was no campaign to single out the Jews for oppression. But not to Wiesel. To him, the Jews lived in TOTAL FEAR. ALL THE TIME. THE POSSIBILITY OF GENOCIDE HANGING OVER THEIR EVERY MOVE.

Here’s an early example of the kind of atmosphere that Wiesel builds up in his book…

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—Yasha Levine

Want to know more? If you haven’t already, check out my series about Soviet Jews migration to Israel.

And these notes: