It often happens that topics that catch my imagination at first seem simple and straightforward, capable of being adequately covered in a blog post. But then the unpleasant recognition comes that the subject is actually hellishly complicated and cannot be dealt with in its initially conceived form. This is what happened today when I decided to write about the political endorsement of István Hollik, the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s candidate in District #5 in downtown Pest by, of all people, Rabbi Slomó Köves, the founder of the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH).
On the surface the story is uncomplicated. István Vágó, the popular television “quizmaster” of the Hungarian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” turned politician, discovered a Hollik campaign flyer with the following endorsement: “Jewish cultural and religious life in downtown Budapest has been revived. For the continuation of this renewal and for the preservation of the Jewish communities’ peaceful life and security we need help. In the person of István Hollik I see a guarantee of all the necessary assistance for our cultural and religious attainment” — Slomó Köves, leader of the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Vágó without any comment posted the flyer on his Facebook page. The comments that followed were uniformly negative.
Viktor Orbán’s “favored” Jewish group is Köves’s congregation, which is allied with the Chabad movement. Many people suspect that he uses it against Mazsihisz, the mainstream umbrella organization of Jewish communities. Köves’s group has been the recipient of considerable amounts of money, grants and loans, although it is hard to tell just how much money it has received from the Orbán government because EMIH refuses to reveal its secrets. Only recently Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists, tried to force Köves to give account of the public money his organization has received in the last seven years, but after six months of “hiding, delaying, and prevarication,” which included going to court, the congregation announced that it would supply the information, but it would cost Átlátszó 2,346,960 forints.
Last summer I wrote a post about a joint business venture of the Orbán government and EMIH, a kosher slaughterhouse that specializes in slaughtering geese. At the opening, Agriculture Minister Sándor Fazekas said that making food from water birds is a centuries-old tradition in Hungary, and therefore it is a “Hungaricum” which deserves financial support. EMIH received a 1.75 billion forint loan for construction, and the government will cover 15% of the cost of the planned enlargement of the slaughterhouse.
Mainstream Jewish groups and secular Jews are not the Orbán government’s favorites because they are not supporters of the regime. This small group of fundamentalists, however, is quite ready to cut deals with the powers that be. For instance, Köves supported the government when he declared that the anti-Soros campaign had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest last July, Köves was invited to meet the Israeli prime minister and his wife, while the leader of Mazsihisz wasn’t.
More recently the Orbán government sold the Zsigmond Király Főiskola (King Sigismund College) to EMIH, which Köves and Co. renamed Milton Friedman University. The Magyar Fejlesztési Bank (Hungarian Development Bank) provided a 1.1 billion forint loan for the purchase. Highlighting the close relationship between the Orbán government and EMIH, the Milton Friedman University is starting a course for future managers of sports facilities, including football stadiums. The sponsors are Defense Minister István Simicskó, Tünde Szabó, undersecretary in charge of sports, and Balázs Fürjes, the man who was in charge of the World Aquatic Championships held in Budapest last summer.
A Szombat editorial in eloquent philosophical terms pointed out the differences between EMIH and Mazsihisz’s affiliated congregations. “They represent two different worlds. Mazsihisz has its roots in the Hungarian Jewish past; its legitimacy comes from the saintly forefathers whose memories are guarded by today’s descendants…. Chabad is looking toward a messianic future.The relics of the past and the political actors of the present are merely instruments in the struggle for the desired Advent.”
However noble all this may sound, opponents of Slomó Köves’s close association with the Orbán government don’t appreciate Chabad’s yearning for the coming of the Messiah. What they see is an overly friendly relation with a regime that tries to whitewash the Horthy regime, which was complicit in the death of over 400,000 Jewish Hungarians. They don’t appreciate Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz-KDNP officials, including Hollik, praising Miklós Horthy as an “outstanding statesman,” and they are not convinced that Köves didn’t know that his statement was solicited for the sole purpose of the election campaign. They are not moved by Köves’s insistence that he would be glad to give the same endorsement to all those running for office, regardless of party affiliation. Föld S. Péter (actually Péter Földes) wrote a funny piece on the subject. “The democratic parties will most likely not rush to get endorsements from Rabbi Köves, although it would be decidedly amusing to read, right next to Rabbi Köves’s photo, the following in the leaflets of all opposition parties: ‘I see a guarantee of the assistance to Jewish religious and cultural life only in MSZP, DK, LMP, Együtt, Párbeszéd—the correct one should be underlined.’”
This Hollik-Köves encounter brought back old memories about Hollik, who has become in the last year perhaps the most vocal apologist of the Orbán government. He was one of those who emphatically denied any sign of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the midst of the anti-Soros campaign, which pretty much coincided with Netanyahu’s visit. Ildikó Lendvai, former MSZP chairman, wrote an amusing little article titled “István Hollik, the walking Jewish list.” Hungary was safe for Jews, Hollik maintained. He himself saw three weeks earlier, while driving, “two Jewish children, a boy and a girl, happily out for a stroll.” You can imagine what fun Lendvai had with this sentence.
Péter Juhász, who is hoping to run against Hollik in the district, wrote a letter to the rabbi, which includes the following: “In case on April 8 I get elected parliamentary representative of downtown Budapest, one of my first duties will be the removal of the shameful memorial erected [on Viktor Orbán’s insistence] on Freedom Square. It is regarding this matter that I would like to have a conversation with you as a rabbi, representing a section of the Jewish community. I would like to ask your support for the memorial’s dismantling. Please indicate a time when we can meet on Freedom Square.”
During several interviews Köves repeatedly stated that he would support the removal of the memorial dedicated to the victims of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. He also promised to speak to Hollik and tell him that he disagrees with him about the statesmanship of Admiral Horthy. He was warned by his opponents that he then might as well talk to Viktor Orbán himself.
Here we see a clash of opposing worldviews. Chabad-affiliated EMIH doesn’t care about the source of its money as long as that money goes to a cause that it considers essential to its mission. The majority of Hungarian Jews, however, look upon the Chabad movement as something totally alien to Hungarian Jewish tradition, and they regard its close connection with the Orbán government, whose views on the Hungarian Holocaust are ambivalent at best, with growing apprehension.