I’ve written twice recently (here and here) about the misuse of the term “anti-Semitism.” So I was happy to see an extended article in The Nation entitled “The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism.” I was especially interested to learn that the 1917 Balfour Declaration was supported by anti-Semites and attacked by many Jews.
To argue that hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews are one and the same thing is to conflate the Jewish state with the Jewish people. In fact, Israel is one thing, Jewry another. Accordingly, anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism another. They are separate. To say they are separate is not to say that they are never connected. But they are independent variables that can be connected in different ways.
The history of the Zionist movement itself illustrates the point. Consider the background to the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, by which the British government committed itself to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was a major coup for the Zionist movement. But it would be wrong to think that it was the product of pro-Jewish sentiment within the British establishment. On the contrary, British support for Zionism was spearheaded by anti-Semites within the civil and foreign service. These people believed that Jews, acting collectively, were manipulating world events from behind the scenes. Consequently, they vastly exaggerated the power and influence of the tiny Zionist movement. Balfour himself took a similar view. Moreover, some years earlier, as Prime Minister, he introduced the Aliens Bill (which became law in 1905), aimed specifically at restricting admission of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He warned Parliament at the time that the Jews “remained a people apart.”
The Balfour Declaration was delayed by opposition. The opposition was not led by a rival anti-Semitic faction, as it were, but by Jews. Some of the most prominent members of the British Jewish community were opposed to the Zionist cause. Among them was Edwin Montagu, a member of the Cabinet. Montagu rejected what he saw as the basic premise of Zionism: that Jews constitute a separate nation. In an official memorandum in August 1917, he wrote: “I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.” …
So in 1917 anti-Semites were promoting the Balfour Declaration while a significant number of Jews opposed it. Does it follow that Zionism, in and of itself, is anti-Semitic? Of course not. But this episode does undercut the converse claim: that anti-Zionism is necessarily so.