Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was probably not aware that his condemnation of “Zionism” in a speech in Vienna would lead to an international controversy, with reactions ranging from the United Nations Secretary General to the Israeli Prime Minister. Erdoğan, after all, had condemned “anti-Semitism” as well in the very same sentence, defining both of these –isms, along with Islamophobia, as “racism.”
But why did Erdoğan speak that way? Is he a committed “anti-Zionist” or someone who fundamentally opposes the existence of the State of Israel?
Well, I would doubt that, because it is the official policy of the Erdoğan government to support a “two-state solution” in the Holy Land, a plan that envisions a Palestinian State side-by-side with Israel. Anyone who supports the two-state solution can really not be an “anti-Zionist” at the same time.
Therefore, here is a better interpretation of Erdoğan’s take on Zionism: As I also explained in another piece of mine (“Is Erdogan ‘Anti-Zionist’?” Al-Monitor), he is a very Turkish politician who thinks, operates and talks in a very Turkish universe, as opposed to an international one. Hence what he means by “Zionism” must be understood by looking at how this term is often used in Turkey.
And even a simple internet search on “Siyonizm” (the Turkish version of the word) would be enough to get an idea on this. Most Turkish sources define Zionism as a belief in the Jewish superiority over other peoples and as a plan to permanently occupy the whole Holy Land. The borders of this Holy Land are also highly speculated, as some believe with paranoia that Israel’s ultimate goal is to establish a Super-Greater-Israel that would include much of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and even some southeastern provinces of Turkey. On a more common level, “Siyonizm” implies a ruthless militarism that oppresses, humiliates and kills the Palestinian people, for which most Turks have deep sympathy.
Given this context, Erdoğan’s condemnation of Zionism was understandable. But he, the Turkish conservatives who support him and Muslims in general need a clearer take on Zionism. It is no secret that many Muslims readily oppose the concept, often explicitly opposing the existence of the State of Israel. There can be a different take, though. As I once explained in a piece of mine published in weekly Şalom, the newspaper of the Turkish Jewish community, we can both respect and criticize Zionism at the same time.
The respect would come from acknowledging that if we live in a world of nation-states, the Jews, especially given their history of persecution, deserve a nation-state of their own, too. It is also understandable that Palestine is the place of this state, given the ancient history of Jews in this part of the world. However, Palestine has never been “a land without a people,” as the early Zionists mistakenly claimed. Palestinian Arabs have been its natives for centuries, and they have suffered terribly since the establishment of the state of Israel. That Palestinian plight is what we should criticize or condemn.
Zionism, in other words, is not guilty for establishing a Jewish homeland, but for destroying the Palestinian one. Unless it finds a way to share the Holy Land with the Palestinians and compensate for their losses, it will not find the respect that it otherwise would have deserved.