Erdogan and Zionism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said this in a UN address against racism and discrimination:

In addition to indifference vis-à-vis the Muslim countries, we also see harsh, offending, insulting behavior towards Muslims who live in countries other than their own, and this continues to be an unconscionable act that has been ongoing around the world.

We should be striving to better understand the beliefs of others but instead we see that people act based on prejudice and exclude others and despise them. And that is why it is necessary that we must consider — just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism — Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.

This has managed to infuriate, among others, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. So the question of the day is whether Erdogan is correct in characterising Zionism as politically similar to anti-Semitism, fascism, and Islamophobia, or whether, in falsely equating Zionism to these other things, he is himself guilty of anti-Semitism as his critics suggest. Let’s have a look.

First, what exactly has been said against Erdogan? Kerry said this:

We not only disagree with it, but we find it objectionable.

Netanyahu said of Erdogan’s line:

[it is] a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.

The secretary general’s office put out this:

The Secretary-General believes it is unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership…If the comment about Zionism was interpreted correctly, then it was not only wrong but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based.

This suggests two issues with the statement:

  1. The empirical concern–it worsens relations between Turkey and Israel.
  2. The theoretical concern–it is anti-Semitic.

No doubt Erdogan knew long before the words left his lips that the line would result in the worsening of relations between his country and Israel. That, surely, was intentional. Whether or not it is in the Turkish interest to be allied with Israel is a discussion for another day. Today I’m more concerned with whether Zionism is a kind of hate ideology or synonymous with Judaism such that criticism of it is inherently anti-Semitic.

To answer this question, we need some understanding of what Zionism is. While there are many varieties of Zionist, all branches of the ideology broadly have several things in common:

  1. Nationalism
  2. Judaism

To be a Zionist is to be a Jewish nationalist–it means a belief that there is, or ought to be, a state characterised by its Jewishness in the territory of Eretz Israel, the definitions of which are said to have been mandated or ordained by god. What is interesting is that there is quite a lot of territory included within Eretz Israel that is not presently part of Israel:

The differing lines represent the debate over whether the defined borders of Eretz Israel as presented in Numbers or as presented in Ezekiel are correct. The upshot of this is that several countries have territory that Zionists believe ought to belong to Israel–Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and especially Lebanon. The Palestinian occupied territories also fall within this zone. Interestingly, the Land of Edom–not a part of Eretz Israel–is nonetheless presently a part of Israel. The realisation of Zionism requires several things to happen as a result:

  1. Israel must expand into the territory of other nations.
  2. Israel must make Judaism the state religion of said territories and run those territories in the Jewish interest.

The former is an ideology of conquest in so far as it makes a claim on behalf of one state on lands that are presently the de jure territory of other states. The latter is an ideology of religious purity in which one religion is to be set above others to some degree.

So let’s compare Zionism to the other beliefs Erdogan mentioned.

Anti-Semitism does not entail an ideology of conquest, but it does entail an ideology of religious purity. It differs from Zionism in its ideology of religious purity in so far as Zionism positively discriminates in favour of Jewishness, while anti-Semitism negatively discriminates against it.

Islamophobia is equivalent to anti-Semitism–it merely replaces the negative discrimination against Jewishness with negative discrimination against practitioners of Islam. Like anti-Semitism, it does not necessarily entail an ideology of conquest. One can practise either anti-Semitism or Islamophobia internally within a state without expanding one’s territory or applying it in foreign countries.

Fascism is an interesting case, because it has many varieties and subgroups. For the purposes of simplicity, I will use Nazism as the example. Nazism fuses nationalism, anti-Semitism, and racism more broadly. This makes it an ideology of both religious and racial purity, discriminating both negatively against Jews, “inferior” racial groups, and many other subgroups while simultaneously discriminating positively in favour of the Aryan race and/or the German nation. What’s most interesting about the Nazi case, however, is that it historically also included a German nationalist belief in the “lebensraum“, or “living space” the additional territory that the Germans believed was ordained as theirs by natural law by virtue of their status as the superior race. The Nazis intended to create a “Greater German Reich” composed of the lebensraum.  While it is not known with certainty how far the Nazis planned to extend the borders of the GGR, compilations of various maps and plans for the GGR make this educated guess:

Given that the majority of this territory has never been the de jure territory of the German state, Nazism is very definitely both an ideology of conquest and an ideology of religious purity. It requires both that:

  1. Germany must expand into the territory of other states.
  2. Germany must make the German ethnicity or the Aryan race the predominant ethnicity/race in these territories and run them in the German/Aryan interest.

In these respects, Nazism can be said to be similar to Zionism–as a point of intellectual fact, Erdogan is correct.

What Netanyahu is saying is perhaps more worrisome. When he implies that being opposed to Zionism is being opposed to Judaism, he equates the nationalist Jewish ideology with Judaism more broadly. This represents a false equivalence, and sets Netanyahu up as an opponent not merely of non-Jews within the territorial borders of Israel or Arabs living within Eretz Israel but not within the current Israeli borders but of numerous Jews who believe neither policy to be moral or Jewish in any sense.

How? If Zionism and Judaism are believed equivalent, then lack of belief in Zionism indicates lack of Jewishness. This means that Zionism makes targets out of several groups of people:

  1. Self-styled Jews who reject Zionism and are thus considered self-hating and anti-Semitic.
  2. Those living within Israel who are not Jewish–the Palestinians and the Arab Israelis.
  3. Those living within the territorial borders of Eretz Israel who are not Jewish–the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Syrians, and especially the Lebanese.

In each case, the group being targeted is being targeted ultimately for its religious beliefs and for no other reason. So I guess I’m not really surprised by what Erdogan said, I’m surprised that Kerry and Ban Ki-Moon seem to believe it’s not true, and really disturbed by Netanyahu. What I would really be interested in hearing is what possible justification one could offer up for denying the validity of Erdogan’s comparison in the first place, but I do not see any takers.