When Ben-Gurion Defended Stalin

Newly-released documents shed light on the infamous 'Doctors' Plot' in the Soviet Union, and the dilemma faced by the Israeli government.

Nikita Khrushchev clearly remembered that morning, probably in early January 1953: Together with some of Joseph Stalin’s other aides, he was called to the Kremlin, where the leader of the Soviet Union showed him the letter from Dr. Lidiya Timashuk, a physician. Khrushchev didn’t recognize her name but immediately realized the significance of what she had written: According to Timashuk, Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov, the all-powerful potentate of communist culture who had died in 1948, had been murdered by his doctors. Stalin apparently believed that there was a similar plot to murder him, too. Thus the trial of nine eminent doctors, six of them Jews, which is often referred to as the “Doctors’ Plot,” was born.

Timashuk played only a marginal role in the drama surrounding Zhdanov’s death and the plot concocted by Stalin. Khrushchev said he assumed she had signed her letter in all innocence and added that once at a mine where he had worked when he was young, a cholera epidemic had broken out; the locals believed that the doctors themselves were poisoning the miners and took their anger out on them.

Jerusalem’s ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, Shmuel Elyashiv, had also apparently heard about such cases and reported in a dispatch to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that suspicions against Russian doctors had always been anchored in “the people’s primitive mind.” Thus, he said, Russians were capable of believing things that, anywhere else, would seem like a figment of the imagination.

The late envoy’s memo is among a number documents that the Israel State Archive uploaded this week to its Internet site, 60 years after the fact. As is the wont of diplomats, Elyashiv wanted to improve relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, and therefore recommended in his correspondence that Jerusalem refrain from any reaction to the arrest of the doctors. He tried to explain to his superiors that the plot against the doctors reflected the Soviet Union’s opposition to Zionism and was not directed against the State of Israel per se.

In Jerusalem, however, they apparently found it difficult to understand exactly what Elyashiv was thinking, especially as he himself had assessed that the Soviet Union might soon initiate a severance of diplomatic ties with Israel.

To this day it is not entirely clear what was at the heart of the Doctors’ Plot: It’s quite possible that the arrest of the nine doctors was mostly a reflection of the authorities’ tendency to ratchet up terror and spark various kinds of intrigues at the top. For his part, Khrushchev attributed the affair to Stalin’s madness as well.

Israeli authorities were mainly interested in the anti-Semitism that they saw as accompanying the arrest of the doctors, who were accused of collaboration with the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish welfare organization headquartered in the United States. Unlike Elyashiv the diplomat, in Jerusalem they saw the doctors’ arrest as an anti-Israeli act. In one of the documents the State Archive published this week, it is stated that the Soviets were worried mainly by Israel’s ability to gather information about what was happening in the Soviet Union.

In Jerusalem, they debated what to do: Israel was interested in relations with Moscow, but many Israelis felt the state should be investing its best efforts to oppose the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union at that time. The transcript of a government meeting included among the now-accessible archival documents reflects a real moral and ideological dilemma, of the sort Israel has faced on many occasions: the fact that the state’s interests do not always match the interests of Jews abroad. Among other things, the government debated whether Israel ought to bring the issue of the doctors’ trial before the United Nations.

And as things sometimes happen around here, the debate quickly deteriorated in the morass of domestic political arguments and focused on the question of how to hurt local communists. Indeed, Pinhas Lavon (from Mapai, the main precursor of today’s Labor Party), a minister without portfolio, almost sounded in the midst of all this like a wheeler-dealer in the Kremlin: “I propose we give an order to the relevant authorities to purge Makist elements from the ranks of government” (Maki is short for “Israeli Communist Party”). More considered and cautious, and perhaps more cowardly, ministers headed by Welfare Minister Moshe Shapira (Hapoel Hamizrahi, a religious labor movement), managed to stem their colleagues’ ire.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was not present at that meeting, and while on vacation in Tiberias sent the government a letter of reproach: He demanded that Israel lodge a strong protest against the Russians’ handling of the affair, but apparently also had an interest in putting an end to the local communist party’s activities.

When Ben-Gurion got angry he was not at his best; letters he dictated himself sometimes contained statements that reflected only his temper, not the clarity of his thinking. The letter of reprimand he sent to the government included among other things the following observations: “Soviet Russia is not anti-Semitic. Nor was Hitler anti-Semitic. Haj Amin al-Husseini, who is just as Semitic as any one of us, was Hitler’s friend and aide.”

Within a few days it became clear, however, that there were people in Israel who were more dangerous than the communists: On February 9, 1953, persons unknown stole into the yard of the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv and planted a bomb there; it caused damage to the building and wounded some people. The attack was attributed to veterans of the Lehi (a pre-state resistance organization), who were identified as members of an underground called Malkut Yisrael (Kingdom of Israel). They were acquitted of carrying out that terror attack but convicted of other charges. The Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel.

About two weeks later, in March 1953, Stalin died. The doctors were released, and relations with Israel were reinstated. Lidiya Timashuk continued to work as a doctor. In 1962 one of her patients known for opposing anti-Semitism realized who she was. “I wanted to interview her,” wrote conductor and pianist Dmitri Shoshtakovich to an acquaintance, “but I preferred to keep quiet.” She was treating his fingers.

AP