(CNSNews.com) – On the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Turkey Friday a row has erupted over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Zionism – Jewish self-determination – as a “crime against humanity” and likening it to fascism.
Israel, which has generally resisted responding to Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric, hit back Thursday, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling the remark “a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.”
Also caught up in the controversy is U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who sat on the platform a few feet away as Erdogan made the comments at an event in Vienna of the U.N.-backed Alliance of Civilizations (AoC), a project that aims to improve ties between Islam and the West.
Talking about prejudice against Muslims living in non-Islamic societies, Erdogan said – according to the U.N. translation of his Turkish remarks – “We should be striving to better understand the culture, 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.”
Ban, who had himself spoken earlier – and during his own speech warned that young Palestinians and Israelis were “at risk of growing up with a demonized, dehumanized, and utterly false, concept of their neighbors” – sat nearby listening to Erdogan’s address.
Speaking to the the press later Ban called the AoC an important initiative, decried what he called “the language of hatred tear[ing] the fabric of our society” and spoke about the need for “responsible leadership” – but was silent about the “Zionism” comment.
Israel foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Erdogan’s words “reflect ignorance.”
“Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people, and to deny any people their right to self-determination and to their national movement is absurd,” he said.
“We are deeply disappointed that the U.N. secretary-general, the world’s leading diplomat sat through the attack in silence,” said Simon Wiesenthal Center associate dean, Abraham Cooper.
“With the upsurge of anti-Semitism raging across Europe, such a slander, left unchallenged will only further embolden anti-Semites everywhere.”
Cooper also condemned Erdogan’s comment.
“It has been clear for some time that Prime Minister Erdogan has chosen to walk in the hateful footsteps of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and use the denigration of Israel and the millions of proud Zionists around the world to establish his credentials with the Islamist street,” he said.
U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva, encouraged those concerned about Erdogan’s remark to urge both Ban and Kerry to speak out.
Queries sent to Ban’s spokesman were not answered by press time.
Turkey is a co-sponsor of the U.N.-backed AoC, along with Spain. The high-level meeting in Vienna was the fifth, earlier ones having been held in Madrid, Istanbul, Rio and Doha.
The U.N. has a checkered history on Zionism. While its 1947 Partition Plan paved the way for Zionists to re-establish the state of Israel in part of the then-British mandate of Palestine, the General Assembly in a 1975 measure sponsored by Islamic states and Cuba declared that “Zionism is racism,” – a resolution that was only repealed in 1991.
During the U.N. “Durban” anti-racism process over the past 11 years, attempts to equate Zionism with racism re-emerged from time to time, prompting the U.S. to walk out of the first Durban event in 2001, and to boycott subsequent ones in 2009 and 2011.
The rift between Turkey and Israel, Washington’s most important allies in the region and countries with a history of close cooperation until recently, has been dragging on for four years.
It began when Erdogan – an Islamist who had begun engaging with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in 2006 – had a heated exchange with Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, at a forum in Davos in February 2009 before storming off the stage.
Turkey than began trying to squeeze Israel out of NATO events, beginning with an air force exercise it was hosting in 2009. After Turkey told Israel it was not welcome the U.S. and Italy pulled out of the drill in protest, and Erdogan canceled it altogether.
Tensions worsened significantly after Israeli commandos in May 2010 raided a Turkish ship trying to break a security blockade around the Gaza Strip. Violent clashes between the commandos and pro-Hamas activists left nine activists dead.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and almost three years later the chill has yet to thaw, despite U.S. appeals to both sides.
Last November, during a meeting in Cairo with a Hamas leader, the Turkish prime minister called Israel “a terrorist state” that massacres children.
Israel has chosen to ignore Erdogan’s frequent criticism over recent years but evidently regards the “Zionism” comment as a step too far.
Kerry was due to arrive in Ankara on Friday, his latest stop on a ten-day, nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East, his inaugural trip as secretary of state.