The chill in relations between Israel and Turkey became even more frosty after Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan told listeners at the Alliance of Civilizations forum “Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become impossible not to see Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.” The Turkish leader made this remark on February 28 at UN meeting in Vienna.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to accuse Erdogan of making “dark and false” remarks. "This is a dark and false pronouncement the likes of which we thought had passed into history," Netanyahu said. The statement from the premier's office said he "strongly condemns (Erdogan's) statement about Zionism and its comparison to Nazism."
The leader of the Jewish state was joined by the head of the main group of European rabbis. Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of Moscow, who is the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, said Erdogan's criticism of Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism. "This is an ignorant and hateful attack on the Jewish people and against a movement with peace at its core, which relegates Prime Minster Erdogan to the level of (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejadand, to Soviet leaders who used anti-Zionism as a euphemism for anti-Semitism," Goldschmidt said in a statement. "The irony of these comments will not be lost on the families of those slaughtered during the Armenian genocide, a crime still not recognized by the Turkish government," he added.
Rabbi Goldschmidt was referring to the genocide of Armenians and other Christians that began during the final years of the Ottoman Empire during the early part of the 20th century. Modern Turkey, which became a republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, strongly denies those killings were genocide and says both sides lost lives in internecine fighting during the chaos of war. Lebanese, Chaldean, and Syrian Christians were also persecuted during those years, causing a mass emigration from their traditional homelands.
The White House condemned Erdogan's remarks. Speaking on March 1, spokesman Tommy Vietor said “We reject Prime Minister Erdogan's characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity, which is offensive and wrong," and added, "We encourage people of all faiths, cultures, and ideas to denounce hateful actions and to overcome the differences of our times." Secretary of State John Kerry meets in Ankara today, but it is not known whether he will bring up the topic.
Israel, in recent weeks, has signaled that it wishes to move forward with a “positive dynamic” in relations with Turkey. However, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Erdogan’s comments were “hollow words that only 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 will not dignify such nonsense with any future comment.”