The answer to the question posed in the title to this article is — I’m not sure. I don’t know if anyone has the answer, and it’s often speculative to try to identify a “first.” So let me say the first instance I have found was in a lecture given by Kermit Roosevelt to the National War College in Washington, DC near the end of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
The grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, Kim, as he was known to his friends, served in the OSS and, later, as the first head of the CIA’s clandestine department responsible for covert action in the Middle East. When he retired in 1958, he became the director of government affairs for Gulf Oil.
Even though he was an Arabist, Roosevelt had sympathy for the Jewish desire for a homeland given their history of persecution, and was critical of Arab antisemitism. According to professor Hugh Wilford, Roosevelt knew many Jews and was lifelong friends with long time Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
Nevertheless, at the time of his talk — November 24, 1948 — he was the secretary of the Committee for Peace and Justice in the Holy Land, and a fervent critic of Israel and Zionists. The Committee had been established following the adoption of the UN partition resolution by a group of prominent Americans to lobby the Truman administration to abandon its support for a Jewish state. The group was led by Roosevelt, Dr. Virginia Gildersleeve, dean emeritus of Barnard College, and the Reverend Garland Evans Hopkins, a preacher from Virginia. Like Arabists in the government, the group argued that US support for Israel threatened oil supplies and US-Arab relations, and would cause a backlash of antisemitism against American Jews. When Truman recognized Israel and made it clear that he would not reverse course, the committee disbanded — but some of its members and others would resume their activities in other guises.
In this lecture and his response to questions, Roosevelt laid out the Arab case for sovereignty in Palestine, though he acknowledged at the outset the discussion was mostly academic since Israel had declared its independence. For him, the Arab case was “an extremely simple one … based on the assumption that the people who have inhabited a land for many generations have the best possible claim to the land.” Of course, he simply ignored the 2,000-year presence of the Jews in that land.
Remarkably, he argued that people who had no experience with democracy were liberals who believed in the principles of American democracy. Hence, he said the Arabs were disillusioned by what they saw as US support for “a straight imperialist venture.” Roosevelt acknowledged that the Arabs’ view would surprise many Americans.
Roosevelt revealed his real underlying concern when he brought up Russian agents and propagandists who, he said, were successfully convincing the Arabs that the United States and the United Nations did not share their antipathy for imperialism. His point being that American support for Zionism benefited the anti-imperialist Soviet Union and turned the Arabs against us.
He later elaborated on the Soviet threat to the region, which was a serious concern in the United States, not just among the Arabists. The difference was that while he acknowledged the government and most Israelis were unsympathetic to communism, he shared the Arabist fear that Soviet agents were infiltrating and could destabilize Israel and the region.
Also interesting is his discussion of the Arabs’ lack of awareness of their situation, a condition that still applies to the Palestinians. Roosevelt said the “Arabs have taken a terrific licking. … The only people who don’t know it are the Arab peoples themselves.” The reason, he said, is censorship of the news in their countries.
Roosevelt noted the Arabs underestimated the Jews and overestimated their own capabilities. “They thought they could do a job on Israel in a very short time with comparatively little effort, and they told their peoples that too, which was about the worst mistake of all.”
Fighting was still going on when he spoke, so he concluded by arguing that the only way to bring peace to Palestine was for the United States “to declare that any further fighting or any further infringement of a truce or an armistice in Palestine would result in a firm embargo by the United States on any kind of shipments, including specifically dollars, to whichever side started the violation.” Though he said this should apply to both sides, his chief concern was what the Arabists saw as Israeli aggression.
During the Q&A, Roosevelt argued the press had a pro-Zionist bias because newspapers were dependent on advertising from department stores, which “are in the hands of people who may not be Zionists themselves, but they are subject to very strong pressure from the Zionists.” He added that some publishers were susceptible to “a kind of friendly insistence that they not allow anything to appear in their papers which could encourage antisemitism.”
Ironically, he followed up this antisemitic trope about Jewish control of the media with the conclusion that “one of the most dangerous elements in this situation … has been the way in which the Zionists have identified antisemitism with anti-Zionism.” Roosevelt argued, “Sooner or later there is bound to develop in this country strong anti-Zionism. There is no strong reason why that should mean antisemitism, but the Zionists are making it all the more likely by their insistence that if you are an anti-Zionist you are antisemitic.”
According to Roosevelt, not only is it unreasonable to suggest that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, but doing so provokes antisemitism.
Roosevelt may not have been the first to make the argument, but he certainly was not the last. Today, a universal dodge employed by antisemites is their insistence that they have nothing against Jews, only the state of the Jews, and that seeking the destruction of that state — anti-Zionism — is not antisemitism.