After the Second World War, it was much harder for the Soviet leadership to control the mental world of Soviet citizens. Although the apparatus of censorship remained in force, too many people had experienced life beyond the Soviet Union for Soviet norms to seem like the only norms, or Soviet lives necessarily the best sort of lives. The war itself could not be contained within a Fatherland, be it Russian or Soviet; it had touched too many other peoples and its aftermath shaped not just a country but a world. In particular, the establishment of the State of Israel made Soviet political amnesia about the fate of the Jews impossible. Even after the Holocaust, more Jews lived in the Soviet Union than in Palestine, but the latter was to become the national homeland of the Jews. If Jews were to have a national state, would this be a blow to British imperialism in the Middle East, to be supported, or a challenge to the loyalty of Soviet Jews, to be feared?
At first, the Soviet leadership seemed to expect that Israel would be a socialist state friendly to the Soviet Union, and the communist bloc supported Israel in ways that no one else could. In the second half of 1947, about seventy thousand Jews were permitted to leave Poland for Israel; many of them had just been expelled from the Soviet Union to Poland. After the United Nations recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 (with the Soviets voting in favor), the new state was invaded by its neighbors. Its nascent armies defended itself and, in dozens of cases, cleared territories of Arabs. The Poles trained Jewish soldiers on their own territory, then dispatched them to Palestine. The Czechoslovaks sent arms. As Arthur Koestler noted, the weapons shipments “aroused a feeling of gratitude among the Jews towards the Soviet Union.”
Yet by the end of 1948 Stalin had decided that Jews were influencing the Soviet state more than the Soviets were influencing the Jewish state. Spontaneous signs of affection for Israel were apparent in Moscow, and in Stalin’s own court. Muscovites seemed to adore the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir (born in Kiev and raised in the United States). The high holidays were observed with enormous fanfare. Rosh Hashanah saw the largest public gathering in Moscow in twenty years. Some ten thousand Jews crowded in and around the Choral Synagogue. When the shofar blew and people promised each other to meet “next year in Jerusalem,” the mood was euphoric. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November 1948, fell during the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of the commissar for foreign affairs Viacheslav Molotov, saw Golda Meir that day, and encouraged her to continue to go to synagogue. What was worse, Zhemchuzhina said this in Yiddish, the language of her parents and of Meir’s—in that paranoid setting, a suggestion of national unity among Jews across borders. Ekaterina Gorbman, the wife of another poliburo member, Kliment Voroshilov, was heard to exclaim: “Now we too have our own homeland.”