Secretary of State John Kerry has joined the chorus of Israeli officials condemning Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for mentioning the term “Zionism” in passing in a criticism of Islamophobia at a recent UN event, calling the comment “objectionable.”
Kerry’s comments came at a meeting with Erdogan in Ankara, and he claimed to have provided a more thorough rebuke in secret to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, telling him the comments were a “hostile act.”
Davutoglu reportedly told Kerry that the killings of nine Turkish aid workers by the Israeli military in 2010 was a more hostile act than an offhand comment at a UN meeting. Erdogan, visibly annoyed by Kerry’s comments, replied through an interpreter that if his dressing down of Erdogan was so thorough “there is nothing left for us to talk about.”
The lack of more public specificity from Kerry on the matter leaves huge room for speculation on why he found the comments “objectionable,” and indeed whether Secretary Kerry even understands what Erdogan was referring to in mentioning Zionism.
“Zionism” as a term has a very different usage in Israel and indeed across the Middle East than it does in the United States. Outside of a handful of specialty organizations like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the term “Zionist” or “Zionism” is almost always used as a pejorative in the US, normally in the context of conspiratorial beliefs about Jewish influence.
In Israel, and indeed across most of the planet, Zionism is by contrast referring to the specific ethno-religo-centric political philosophy the state of Israel is based upon. Most of Israel’s political parties are explicitly Zionist, while a handful of smaller parties are explicitly anti-Zionist. Since Zionism in this sense includes some very specific discrimination against Israel’s religious minorities, it probably seemed non-controversial for Erdogan to include it in his comments alongside anti-semitism and Islamophobia.
Kerry’s lashing of the comment as a threat to the peace process is also bizarre, since the entire question of a Palestinian state and peaceful coexistence hinges on a serious analysis of Zionism itself. Rather, Kerry’s response suggests he is afraid any foreign official’s comment that is seen as annoying to Israel is a threat.
The depth of Kerry’s understanding of all of this, let alone his beliefs on the matter, are entirely unclear from this comment or his past comments, and he may well have lashed out at the mention of Zionism based on a dubious understanding of its meaning. Conversely, it is also entirely possible Kerry’s “objection” is simply a parroting of Benjamin Netanyahu’s own anger at the comments. As an avowed Zionist himself, Netanyahu’s comments would reflect his desire to see his discriminatory system as uniquely justifiable among such philosophies.
Kerry’s own position vis-a-vis Israel, and indeed vis-a-vis a lot of important issues, is vague at best, and reflects on his long-standing public role as a consummate politician and speech-giver, and not an intellectual heavyweight in the Democratic Party. Though his speech-making prowess makes him ideally non-controversial as a Secretary of State, it leaves his public rebukes entirely up to chance as to whether or not he is reacting properly or even understands what he is reacting to.
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