I wrote the following as a comment on a post of the same name at My Left Wing. I'm reproducing it here because it is also a suitable response to readers who email from time to time with questions along the lines of "How can criticizing a Jewish state not be anti-semitic?"*:
I think this post misses the point entirely about why people can be anti-Zionist but not anti-semitic. And it misses the point because you start off from a strawman argument. Specifically this misrepresentation of why people might be opposed to Zionism:
What anti-Zionism says is that despite this, despite the millions dead, it was a moral abomination for Jewish people to gather in their traditional home for purposes of self-defense, and self-determination. In other words, after one-third of the entire Jewish population was wiped off the planet for reasons of "race," the Jews are racists for organizing in their own defense.
I'm sure there are anti-semites who are anti-Zionist, but the logic that you've ascribe to anti-Zionism as a whole is fallacious. That's not what anti-Zionism says. It's what YOU say in order to put words into the mouths of anti-Zionists so that you can make your argument. You're not really writing about why anti-Zionism is anti-semitic. You're writing about how, from the perspective of someone who accepts the principles of Zionism, regards Zionism as the normative way of looking at Israeli-Palestinian relations (and I would say this is the dominant paradigm is American discourse on Israel), and has really put no time or energy into considering whether there might be logical, rational, non-hateful reasons for opposing political Zionism as it has played out in the creation and history of the state of Israel, then anti-Zionism can be made to look like anti-semitism.
But to do that you've had to gloss over the the key point - the same key point that Zionism has always glossed over: the fact that Palestine had a pre-existing population, 95% of whom (at the time of the first aliyah) happened to be not Jewish, but Muslim and Christian. You imply that the terrible things that Israel has done to the Palestinians are due to bad decisions by various Israeli governments, but that's not true. Palestinians have to be expelled, excluded or at least disenfranchised if you are to create a Jewish state in Palestine, because they happen to form the natural majority there. Expelling hundreds of thousands of them in 1948, and denying equality today to those who remain and whose high birth-rate once again is making them the majority even without the return of the refugees, is simply what you have to do if you are to create a "Jewish and democratic state" in a land where most people happen not to be Jewish.
You ignore this point, and suggest that what people are objecting to is the Jewishness of the people who created Israel, when really there is another logical explanation. Perhaps what people are objecting to is the creation of a self-identified sectarian state that is designed to be a home for one group of people, in a land where another - majority - people already lives, and where that new state can be created only through the dispossession and displacement of the preexisting population. Can you really not imagine that people might object to Zionism because they do not believe that the right of one group to create a Jewish state in Palestine overrides the right of another group not to be expelled or disenfranchised? Or that this opposition is not based on the Jewishness of one of the parties involved, but on the underlying morality of expelling one group from their homes to create a new home for another group? From this perspective, the Jewishness of one of the parties is incidental: it would not be more acceptable if the people involved were creating a Hindu, Buddhist or Martian state in Palestine. The opposition is not about Jewishness, it is essentially about whether a Palestinian is an equal human being to anyone else. It is an affirmation that despite what that early champion of Zionism, Lord Balfour, claimed, Palestinians are not "700,000 negroes whose views we do not intend to consult on this matter"**, but are fully equal human beings whose right not to be forcibly dispossessed is in no way inferior to the right of Zionism to create a "Jewish and democratic state" that by its very definition cannot give full equality to Palestine's non-Jewish majority without ceasing to exist.
(And to use the argument that this displacement of the Palestinians can be justified by the Holocaust is, from a Palestinian, Arab, Muslim or other non-Zionist perspective, not a mitigating factor. It is actually an aggravating factor. Because not only are Palestinians "negroes" whose rights can be ignored whenever they conflict with Zionism, but they can now be ignored because of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, for which the Palestinians were not themselves responsible. This is a double whammy of inequality).
If it helps diffuse some of the rancor that dogs discussion of the I/P conflict, think of it this way. Most people in the world were opposed to white rule in South Africa. They weren't opposed because they were "anti-White". When the international community had to decide whether Afrikaners had a right to national self-determination in South Africa, where Afrikaner dominance could be established only by the dispossession, displacement and oppression of the existing indigenous majority and maintained only through the apartheid system of government, it decided overwhelmingly that South Africa had no right to exist as a "white and democratic" state. Outside of the immediate coterie of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, it was self-evident that the right of one ethnic group to exclusive self-determination did not outweigh the right of everybody else to equality. The Afrikaners' self-determination had to be achieved within the context of their South African nationality, which they share with fellow South Africans of all races and religions. It would have been absurd to suggest that anti-apartheid campaigners acted as they did because they were prejudiced against Afrikaners and therefore opposed to the principle of self-determination for Afrikaners. Collectively, they were motivated not by animosity toward Afrikaners, but by the belief that - in a land where other people live too - exclusive self-determination for one group impinges unacceptably on the rights of all the others. The absence of any suggestion that this might be a similar motivation for people who oppose Zionism, rather than the Jewishness of the people who benefit from it - is a huge omission.
As for your point that there have historically been prominent Zionists (you mention Martin Buber) who favored a cooperative relationship with the Palestinians - well that's certainly true. But Martin Buber was not a dominant founding father of the Jewish state. So what does it matter in practice that some individual Zionists were genuinely tolerant of Palestinians, respectful of their rights and troubled (as Buber was) about the morality of creating a Palestinian population in exile in order to solve the plight of a Jewish population in exile, if theirs was not the outlook that predominated on the ground? The dominant founding fathers of the Jewish state were people like Herzl and Ben Gurion, whose dominant brand of Zionism was based on the premise that the Palestinian population could be "spirited away across the border", that the Arab majority had to be reduced to no more than 15% of the population and saw nothing wrong with the "transfer" out of Palestine of the existing population. I'm not sure how relevant it is to cite examples of less exclusivist Zionists when the Zionism of the real world is one that created (and maintains) a Jewish majority in Israel by the forced exclusion of a large part of the non-Jewish population.
In fact I think that referring to the existence of Zionists who had problems with a Zionism that relied on transfer to create a more ethnically-homogeneous state, actually undermines the argument that people who oppose Zionism as it exists on the ground do so because they don't like Jewish people. It relies on a faulty logic that says the only possible vehicle of Jewish nationalism and self-determination is the Ben Gurion kind of Zionism that created the current state of Israel, and that as this is the only possible expression of Jewish self-determination then people who criticize it must do so out of anti-semitism. But the Zionism of Martin Buber for example, or cultural Zionists like Ahad Ha'am and then Judah Magnes, or modern post-Zionists like Avrum Burg, shows that Zionism at the point of a gun is not the only possible expression of Jewish nationalism; and that even among some Jewish Zionists there was always an understanding that realizing Jewish self-determination by creating a "Jewish state" in Palestine raised legitimate moral (and practical) concerns, which led them to try to think of ways that Jewish self-determination and nationalism might be realized without requiring the expulsion or destruction of the existing people and culture in Palestine.
Overall, I would say the problem is that the old one-liner, "Earthquake in Peru: is it good for the Jews?", is meant to be a joke, but you treat it as if it is the baseline for how everybody is allowed to think of Zionism. You have no right to assume that if people oppose anything that involves Jewish people it must be because their anti-semitism is showing through. Yet in the way you have (mis)represented the motivations of anti-Zionists, you did just that. You don't consider that there can be perfectly legitimate opposition to Zionism from both Jews and non-Jews that arises not from anti-semitism - not from anything to do with Jewishness at all - but from the belief that it is problematic to create a state for one group of people in a land that already has a people and a culture, which will have to be destroyed to create a Jewish state there. This destruction is not, as you suggest, the result of some bad decisions by successive Israeli governments, its is simply the only way to create a Jewish state in Palestine. I disagree fundamentally with Benny Morris, but when he identified the central issue of the conflict as the need to break (Palestinian) eggs so that you can make the (Israeli) omelet he was at least being honest enough to say out loud the unpalatable reality that most people who speak about I/P issues from a Zionist POV simply ignore: the Palestinians refused and still refuse to give their consent to a project that requires they take the part of the eggs in someone else's omelet.
You are talking about Zionism in the partial, one-sided way we are used to hearing it discussed in U.S. discourse. It is only about Jewishness and anti-Semitism, in which Palestinians have a walk-on "humanitarian" part (when you make your obligatory nod to their suffering, which you attribute to bad government decisions). What is completely missing from your discussion of Zionism is any sense that the Palestinian people are equal players in this scenario, whose individual human rights and collective national rights are as deserving of respect as anybody else's, and who might just have a right to self-determination that does not involve having created in their midst and against their will an ethnic/religious-based state that by its very nature requires their own majority status to be diminished or denied. By glossing over what political Zionism did and does - and absolutely had to do - in order to create and maintain a "Jewish and democratic state" in a land where the natural majority was (and is) not Jewish, you are simply finding a more wordy way of treating Palestine as "a land without a people for a people without a land".
* Yes, I know my email response time is awful and the backlog in my inbox is atrocious. Tell me about it.
** Hence the title of the earlier post in which I identified Palestinian equal rights as the key issue in the I/P conflict: Palestinians Are Nobody's Negroes.