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Turkey has Janus face when it comes to opposing nationalism in Israel

Both Turkey and Israel have nationalist roots and are at a crossroads of internal religious and ethnic disputes that are often enshrined in law
By Seth J. Frantzman

“Liberals and leftists have pioneered the war on Turkish nationalism,” Oguzhan Bilgin wrote in July 16 issue of Daily Sabah, Turkey’s pro-government newspaper published in English, German, Arabic and Russian. But the leftists and liberals failed to “limit the identity of Turkishness to an ethnicity rather than the identity of a whole nation,” and Turkey’s June elections “suggest the victory of nationalism.”

At the same time as he was praising nationalism Ibrahim Kalin, adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote an oped attacking Israel’s nation-state bill as “racist.” Kalin’s oped, also in Daily Sabah, predicated the comments Tuesday by the Turkish president against Israel’s new law. “The regulation is evidence that, without doubt, Israel is the most Zionist, fascist and racist state of the world.”

Kalin called on the “Islamic world, Christian world, all democratic and liberal states” to oppose Israel’s policies. Turkey’s foreign ministry also claimed that “the fact that the law presents the right to auto-determination as a right that only applies to Jews is the product of a mentality that is outdated and discriminatory.”

Turkey has a janus face when it comes to opposing nationalism in Israel. While condemning religious nationalism in the Jewish State, there is often praise for Ankara’s drift toward becoming a more pious and nationalist society. The preamble to Turkey’s constitution affirms “the eternal existence of the Turkish Motherland and Nation” while praising nationalism. Its constitution enshrines Turkish as the national language.

However Turkey, like Israel, is a complex society, and the nationalist roots of modern Turkey have different streams. Bilgin argued that Turkish nationalism is unique. “Turkish nationalism is not ethnic nationalism.

Instead, as a nation formed within a world empire, Turkey ought to be considered as a super-identity over different Turkic ethnic groups.”

Yet Turkey has a large Kurdish minority. Bilgin claimed that the ethnic Turkism should not be seen as “anti-Kurdish” because the Turkish nationalists “always underlined the belonging of Kurds to the whole Turkish nation.” This is similar to the theory put forward by early Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who envisioned Arabs in Israel embracing a new identity as part of the state’s growth.



Fahrettin Altun, a professor at Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul, excoriated Israel for downgrading Arabic and passing a law that defined the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people. “What really happened was nothing but the officialization of racism and fascism. Today Israel is outright an apartheid state.”

Altun suggested the “Islamic world must let the inner conflicts aside and focus on the issue of Israel’s racist state terror.” He also argued that Jewish people must oppose Israel’s law because it will “increase the antisemitism across the West.” If they don’t “it will turn all Jewish people into a target, and lead to a new racist movements and waves of violence.”

So Israel passed a religious nationalist law, which he condemned, and the response will be a religious unity against Israel and antisemitism against Jews abroad?

The bill “sends a terrifying message to the Palestinian minority of Israel,” wrote Kalin. It made it official that they have no “place in the Jewish state. The Palestinian citizens are already treated as second-class citizens. The bill will make their status even worse.”

At Hurriyet, considered the highest circulation newspaper in Turkey, Guven Sak wrote an article in May comparing Turkey and Israel as two nation states in the region. “Even in places like Iraq and Syria, where there were coercive domestic apparatuses, there are no nation states. Nations are built by curbing diversity and creating mythology that for better or worse brings people together. That’s what a cadre of Ottoman officers did to build modern Turkey.”

Turkey and Israel are both trending in new directions. Turkey has been enacting more religious laws under the Justice and Development Party, and tamping down on alcohol sales and images of cigarettes. The traditional secular parties, who are also nationalist, have alleged that the AKP wants to transform the country religiously. The last election was fought primarily between religious nationalists and secular nationalists, some of whom support deporting Syrian ad Iraqi refugees.


The condemnation of Israel as a racist state in Turkey tends to assert pan-Islamic notions in line with the rising political Islamic politics and “neo-Ottomanism” in which Turkey’s politicians have expressed nostalgia for the country’s imperial past.

Over the years Kurds have suffered discrimination in Turkey. Hakki Ocal wrote in June that in previous decades “speaking Kurdish in public and in government offices and courts of law had been prohibited. Kurdish names were not allowed either.” Kurdish names of towns were replaced “with Turkish ones.” He argued that the AKP “changed all these policies” and has reversed previous racist policies.

“Now anyone can buy Kurdish music and listen to it. Anyone younger than 16 years old can have legal Kurdish names.”

In Israel, by contrast, Arabs have always been allowed to have Arab names and listen to Arabic music and speak Arabic in public.
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