TERRA INCOGNITA: The Turkish roots of Israel’s politics: Inside the deep state

Israel’s origins are in Istanbul, not Paris and Berlin, as much as people keep dreaming about Paris and Berlin.

A PHOTO of Turkish political party activists in the 1920s. A similar political revolution was playing itself out among Jews. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A PHOTO of Turkish political party activists in the 1920s. A similar political revolution was playing itself out among Jews.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Reading the Israeli press is a curtain-opener to a society that is still struggling to find its identity.
Almost 50 years after conquering the West Bank and almost 70 years after independence, Israelis obsessively debate the character of their state.
The headlines of some of this read like the tantrums of an angry child; “Israel’s radical left committed suicide and now the right will kill us all,” wrote one well known columnist. Other headlines reflect the outsized role of the security services and military in determining state policy. A former Mossad chief warned of “civil war.” A former general is in the spotlight for claiming Israel is a “world champion of occupation.”
Many Israelis think of themselves and their state as a Western country, what Ehud Barak once called the “villa in the jungle.” Richard Cohen, an American writer, once claimed Israel was a country of former European exiles, “the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other.”
This is the imagined community, largely a myth, that Israel is a European country situated almost by mistake in the Middle East, when in reality it is a Middle Eastern state founded by nationalists inspired by European history.
Israel’s closest historical and cultural parallel is not Germany or America, but Turkey. Modern Turkey was carved out of the horrors of the First World War and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. It replaced the decaying Ottoman administration, and its outdated caliphate, with a modern, secular republic.
Underpinning this was Ataturkculuk, the ideology of Kemalism derived from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The ideas underpinning this grew out of a combination of inspiration from European nationalist movements, such as Italian nationalism, and the reforms in Turkey during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Theodor Herzl’s Zionism was established in the late 19th century. Israel’s founding leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi spent formative years in their twenties studying in Istanbul, which at the time was under the influence of the Young Turks and the Committee of Union and Progress.
The Jewish and Turkish nationalism that emerged between 1880 and 1920 had many similarities in aesthetics and methods. Although Turkey was founded as a modern state more than 20 years before Israel, both carved themselves out through war. Both were hampered by international organizations that sought to regulate their initial borders.
Both were secular, and run by parties influenced by the Left, but which were primarily ethno-nationalist.
Both founded republics with heavy state and military intervention in society, in which in many ways the founding party had a state to itself, not the other way around in which a republic has several parties. Both had to struggle with blending a religious tradition with their modern state.
The problem in both Israel and Turkey is that the style of European nationalism they had imported expired in Europe by the 1950s. Yet in the Middle East these ideas were just percolating to the surface.
Unlike in Israel and Turkey the nationalism that emerged among the Arab states, such as in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, largely failed to produce entrenched ideology. Instead each Arab nationalism became a cult of personality, brutal dictatorships suppressing masses of people who increasingly turned to religiosity and sectarianism.
In both Turkey and Israel it took almost 30 years for a changeover in political power from the founding political party to the opposition, in 1950 and 1977 respectively. This illustrates the relative weakness in understanding democracy in the two countries, and the hegemonic systems that both nationalisms developed. Both the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Israel Labor Party, the founding parties that played such a powerful role in the early decades, are members of the Socialist International.
Their trappings of state socialism are a veneer above a muscular nationalism that sought to remake their states. In Israel it was about remaking the Jewish people who had lived in the Diaspora and making them masters of the land. In Turkey it was about transforming a more rural Muslim state into a modern country. In Turkey coups and extreme violence marred the country’s political development, whereas for Israel the country’s endless wars staved off such internal battles.
In each country the founding nationalism was at odds with both religion and national minorities.
Both countries were founded on mass population movements, in Turkey around 1.3 million Greeks were forced to flee or left the country in 1922 and in Israel it was around 750,000 Palestinian Arabs who became refugees. In both countries the minorities in the state, mostly Kurds in Turkey and Arabs in Israel, suffered civil rights violations, and are viewed suspiciously to the present day.
When we fast-forward to today’s divisions in society in Turkey and Israel we can see clearly how this multi-sided dispute between Right and Left, religious and secular, minority and majority, plays itself out. The rise of a more religious and rightwing public in Turkey and Israel has doomed the old Left to the political wilderness. This is largely because the Left in both countries was not a classic Western Left. It never grew out of its 1950s mentality.
In Turkey they characterize the elements that seek to hold on to state power through dominance of institutions and the military the “deep state.”
The mentality of this deep state is that “we once owned this state and it has been taken from us.”
The cultural war between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political opponents has been about excising this deep state from the political system. Turkey has replaced the deep state with a different, very nationalist and more religious system.
Israel’s constant cultural battles are also related to removing the power of the deep state over the country’s institutions. When one reads articles such as “Israeli military struggles with growing clout of national religious” or the reports in July in which some voices connected to the Left suggested there should be a coup in Israel, we see a mirror of the cultural conflict in Turkey.
When Haaretz lamented that “Israeli schools to teach Mizrahi Jewry instead of Italian Fascism,” it was a symbol of their fears that the education system would no longer be Eurocentric but include more of a Jewish mosaic in its teaching. A similar revolution has taken place in Turkey as more conservative Anatolian voices have taken the country away from a European-oriented worldview to one that is rooted more in the Middle East.
Israel, too, has undergone this indigenization, untethering from an obsession with only European art, only European secular mentalities. At each point along the way the old, mostly German-Jewish dominated cultural and intellectual elites decry Israel’s moving away from Europe, more into the “jungle” and out of the villa.
Since Turkey is the older of these two Middle Eastern republics, it may be wise to study what has happened in Turkey under Erdogan. There has been an erosion of secularism and there has been an increase of contempt for intellectualism in Turkey.
In trying to be a corrective to one type of deep state, the country has lurched permanently to the Right and may never return to the center.
Israel also has a problem, as in Turkey, that its old intellectual elites have become increasingly alienated from the state, to the degree that some of them express extreme loathing for it. The same elites who have the most privilege in Israel, those living in gated communities, having become wealthy under the old regime of the 1950s, are angered the most about “their country” being taken from them by what they see as “Mizrahim and settlers.” This is precisely because when they were in power they didn’t work to create an inclusive democracy, but sought to wall themselves off from those that were different, creating a European preserve for themselves.
They created segregated education systems, segregated communities and nepotistic networks that influenced everything from the judiciary to the army and film. They mocked and felt contempt for everyone that was different, whether Arab, Jews from the Middle East, religious Jews or Russian or Ethiopian immigrants. Then they expressed surprise when all these groups became electorally estranged.
How do you govern a state whose origins lie in European nationalism – which has died in Europe – and whose modern place in the world is firmly in the Middle East? Neither exclusively secular nor religious? Neither completely East nor West? First of all you have to do away with the lie that the state is European.
There is nothing to be gained by being European today; Europe is at war with itself over its own identity. Second, one has to recreate a respect for intellectualism by allowing a space for intellectuals from diverse backgrounds and views. Third, you have to accept that institutions will become more diverse, rather than trying to preserve them as ethnic or religious islands.
The state will not be saved by a coup, it will not be saved by more military involvement in society, or by more religious chauvinism. What it needs is to be honest with itself. Israel’s Left continually lies to itself about what it is. It is a secular European nationalist Right, in conflict with a more Middle Eastern and more religious Right.
There is no modern Left in Israel. There never was. Lack of civil marriage, the segregated education system and segregated society in Israel were created in the 1950s, not in the 2000s; no other “Left” in the world would have put in place such extraordinarily right-wing systems.
Israel’s origins are in Istanbul, not Paris and Berlin, as much as people keep dreaming about Paris and Berlin.
In Israel’s favor is the balkanized politics that allow for a messy democracy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not Erdogan. In Turkey’s favor at the moment is the fact that it doesn’t have an equivalent of the West Bank; it has internationally recognized borders.
Israel and Turkey are unique in the region and in their straddling the East-West divide, the religious- secular divide. They have not fallen into chaos, they have not adopted radical European concepts and become untethered from nationalism, and they have not become the equivalent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But the danger they face, from internal and external enemies, is transforming this relative success, including economic and militarily, into long-term success while reconciling with national minorities.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman TERRA INCOGNITA • By SETH J. FRANTZMAN