Category Archives: Hungarian politics

Viktor Orbán and the Chabad kosher business

Two days ago, before I had access to the English translation of András Heisler’s speech, I called attention to a sentence I considered to be significant. He talked about forces that are trying to sow discord in the Hungarian Jewish community. The sentence I was alluding to was: “We are convinced that it is in the basic interest of both Hungary and the State of Israel not to divide the Hungarian Jewry of the Diaspora, not to alienate it but to help build our communities in order to continue living and to pass on our ancestors’ Hungarian and Jewish traditions.” In that post I briefly mentioned the cozy relationship between the Hungarian government and Slomó Köves, the founder of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH).

First, before I delve more deeply into this relationship, a bit of history. Following the 1867 Compromise between the Crown and Hungary, the new Hungarian government worked with liberal-minded Jewish leaders to create a formal institutional framework in order to facilitate church-state relations. A congress was convened for that purpose. The 200 some delegates were supposed to exclude religious issues and concentrate only on organizational matters. After three months of deliberations, instead of creating a single unified Jewish congregation the community officially split into three branches: the Neolog (liberal), the Orthodox, and the Status Quo Ante, those traditionalists who wanted to remain independent from both groups. Within Orthodoxy some groups followed the Hasidic tradition, but after the Treaty of Trianon most of them ended up in Czechoslovakia or Romania. Slomó Köves’s Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, allied with the Chabad movement, is an import from the United States.

Chabad is widespread, consisting of more than 3,600 institutions in over 1,000 cities, spanning more than 80 countries. The group actively seeks new adherents among unaffiliated Jews. Chabad was well prepared for the political changes in East-Central Europe, and in August 1989 a young couple, Baruch Oberlander and his wife Batsheva, were sent to Hungary in search of new converts. Both are children of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. I have no space here to go into the activities of Oberlander in Hungary, but one can safely say that he and his fellow religionists have been extremely active, with considerable help from the Orbán government.

Slomó Köves, who has been described by some as the head of the “political section” of the movement, is a convert himself. He was born Máté Köves, the child of a secular Jewish couple. Being interested in spiritual and religious matters, he got to know Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, who convinced him to drop out of the famed Radnóti Gymnasium and continue his education in Israel and later in the United States in yeshivas. He married an American girl, also from the Hasidic community, and the couple returned to Hungary. Oberlander, Köves, and several other Chabad rabbis have created a strong community with considerable influence. For example, in 2003, when the chief rabbi of Israel, the leader of the Chabad Rabbinic Council of Israel, and Baruch Oberlander ordained Köves, the ceremony was attended by President Ferenc Mádl, a Fidesz appointee; Gábor Demszky, mayor of Budapest; and several leaders of Mazsihisz. The event was heralded as the first Orthodox ordination since the Holocaust, which turned out to be inaccurate.

After 2010 the relationship between the Chabad group and the Hungarian government strengthened. In 2012 Köves was named chief rabbi of the Hungarian Army. The close relationship between Orbán and Köves was amply demonstrated during the recent Netanyahu visit to Budapest. “The prime minister gave an intimate dinner party for the members of the Israeli delegation on Tuesday where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his wife, Anikó Lévai, introduced Rabbi Slomó Köves to the Netanyahu couple. Sara Netanyahu was happy to learn about the significant work being done by Chabad in Hungary. She let him know that as a school psychologist she works in a Chabad school.” So, Köves was invited to a dinner to meet Netanyahu while no such invitation was extended to the president of Mazsihisz.

The Chabad community, partly because of the generous support of the government and partly because of the financial resources of Chabad Lubavitch, is thriving. As of now, ten rabbis are active in Hungary. As far as I can ascertain, they are all “imports.”

It looks as if Slomó Köves’s Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) and the Hungarian government also have joint business interests. At the beginning of July the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, was visiting Hungary. He came to witness the publication of a new Hungarian translation of the Talmud, a Chabad project, but he also attended the opening of Europe’s largest kosher slaughterhouse for geese. Both the slaughterhouse and the Quality Poultry Kft, the firm running it, are owned by EMIH. The keynote speaker was Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture. This immediately aroused my suspicion that the Hungarian government was involved one way or another in this business venture. And indeed this is the case. According to the local paper, the project is ambitious. The present structure will employ about 100 people, but there are plans to expand its capacity and eventually will employ 260 people. Daily 2,400 geese will be processed there. In his speech Fazekas emphasized that foodstuff made from water birds has a centuries-old tradition in Hungary. It is a “Hungaricum.” He added that the goals of Quality Poultry are “in line with the government’s agricultural policy.” Therefore, the Magyar Export-Import Bank (Eximbank) gave a 1.75 billion forint loan for the construction of the slaughterhouse. There was also a government subsidy, the size of which was not disclosed. Later, when the company’s slaughterhouse is enlarged, the government will cover 15% of the cost.

At the opening of the kosher slaughterhouse. From left to right: Baruch Oberlander, David Lau, Sándor Fazekas, and Slomó Köves

It looks as if the Chabad people convinced the Orbán government that kosher slaughtering and processing is a good business. I’m sure they are right. Goose liver is exceedingly expensive. Kosher goose liver even more so. According to an article from 2013, “Hungary is one of the main sources of goose liver to Israel” right now.

The Hungarian government got so excited about kosher food in general that “an international logistical center” is being created by two state companies. Kosher products would arrive in Hungary from all over the world and from there they would be shipped to the USA, Europe, and Israel. Agro Rehab Kft., one of the companies, is planning to grow kosher broccoli and cauliflower. (In case you’re wondering, vegetables are considered to be kosher except for these two, because bugs might be hiding in them.) The government considers this investment to be of particular importance to the national economy, and therefore Agro Rehab received 3 billion forints from the government for the expansion of its business activities.

Mainstream Jewish groups and secular Jews are not this government’s favorites. By and large, they are not supporters of the Orbán regime, as Viktor Orbán knows only too well. On the other hand, this small group of fundamentalists is politically harmless, in addition to being potentially good business partners. Altogether a good deal.

July 21, 2017

András Heisler’s speech in the presence of Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Orbán

Your Excellencies, Lord Mayor of Budapest, Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Rabbis, Honored Guests!

Today may be the first time in the history of the Hungarian Jewry that our community can host two prime ministers at the same time. We can say it is a Historic Event. And this historic event takes place at a historic site, here, in Goldmark Hall. Due to the Jewish laws of the Horthy era Goldmark Hall was the one and only place where Jewish actors were allowed to perform between 1939 and 1944.

In my welcoming speech, I will talk about the strongest bridge between two geographically distant countries, the connecting role of the Hungarian Jewry. Our past and our future connect us, as our love of Hungary and of Israel connects us. We have our history represented in this room today: here sit among us well respected members of our community who were victims of the indescribable boundless, murderous hatred. They will listen with us to the words of the prime ministers of Hungary and of the Jewish State.

Mr. Prime Ministers, my 92-year-old mother, who came back from Auschwitz, is sitting right behind you. And here is the future generation also, those who regularly visit Israel and who work or study there at the universities. They are the ones who will further develop the connection between the two countries. Our survivors and our youth are our bridges between times and lands.

Hungary, the birthplace of Herzl, is Israel’s reliable partner. Hungary was the first in Europe to stand up against the boycott aimed at endangering Israel’s economic development by refusing to label products arriving from the disputed territories. The Hungarian government–complying with our request–made it clear that fundamental practices of our religion, like the right to perform circumcision and kosher slaughtering, are part of our “freedom of religion” while some countries of the European Union are questioning these practices. Our co-operation in the field of education is also successful. And based on the meetings yesterday, cultural and economic cooperation are perfect as well. And at our last meeting of the “Jewish Community Roundtable” I asked that Hungary recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the city that all three monotheistic religions make their home. We hope…

From left to right: Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu, and András Heisler. In the background: Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife

The largest Jewish community of Central Europe has always helped and will always nurture the friendship between Hungary and Israel. Hungarian-Israeli relations are indeed good, although there are some disturbing phenomena which I would like to address honestly. Hungarian governments have been ambiguous about the role Hungary played in the Holocaust, and the responsibility of the government and governor of the time. Seventy-two years after World War II the restitution of the Jews has still not been fully completed. While the healing of the legal injuries of the churches remains unsolved, that would help restore the independence of the churches.

It has been possible to launch a total propaganda campaign in Hungary whose language and visual tools revived in our minds the bad memories of the past. One can argue about the intent of the campaign, but one thing became unacceptable to me: the Jews of Hungary began to live in fear. And a responsible Jewish leader cannot keep silent about that. Neither can a responsible head of government. We are pleased to know that the Hungarian government wants to protect us as Hungarian citizens, but the most effective defense we see is a Hungarian society without hatred. I ask the Prime Minister of Hungary to help Hungary become a society where the real power is the mutual respect of each other’s values.

Honorable Prime Ministers! Dear Guests! We want to be proud Hungarian Jews in a country where the tag ‘stinking Jew’ cannot appear on anyone’s image. The majority of Hungarian Jews want to continue to live here, here in the embrace of the Carpathians, but without fear! Our history, our culture, our most beloved Hungarian language binds us here.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu! It is painful for our community when Israel attempts to narrow the religious recognition of the diaspora. Our community survived the Holocaust, remained faithful to its roots through the repressive communist regime, and we are not recognized as Jews? Can you disregard all the conversions, brit-milahs, weddings, rabbinical decisions taking place in our absolute neolog-majority communities? We, who are labelled as ‘stinking Jews’ in Europe, we, who support Israel’s efforts, we, who dream about Israel, why aren’t we good enough Jews any more for Israel?

Also the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry’s evaluation of the recent poster campaign was like a cold shower for our community. After the support of the Israeli Ambassador, this declaration of the Foreign Ministry caused sorrow in our community. Many felt that we had been abandoned. And we are not talking about the past now, but about the future of our community. About the hope that we have for our future, about the respect of the Jewish community that is catalyzing the relationship of the two countries. Prime Minister Netanyahu, I respectfully ask you to foster greater respect for the diaspora. Only a strong diaspora is able to help Israel, and we, Hungarian Jews, want to help.

Mr. Prime Ministers! We want to live as proud Jews and consider ourselves as responsible Hungarian citizens! We cannot keep silent when, due to daily political interests, our values are overridden. We Hungarian Jews do support Israel. We Hungarian Jews help the Hungarian government in all its endeavors that concur with our values. We supported Hungary’s presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; we defended the government when an international Jewish organization baselessly attacked it; we work happily in society-building projects; and we are working nationwide for social cohesion. We think that the “little help” the Hungarian Prime Minister was asking for has always been given, and we wish to do the same in the future.

Mr. Prime Ministers! The 140-year-old Rabbinical Seminary – Jewish University was the institution that trained our rabbis and the ones of the Visegrád countries for decades, even during the Communist regime. It is in our common interest to develop this special institution into a regional educational center where the Hungarian and the Israeli academic world can create values together. Our most important task is the preservation of our traditions, education, training, and creating values. Seemingly everything is all right. Many people talk about a Jewish renaissance. In fact, we struggle not against the government, not against migration, not against the anti-Semites, but against assimilation. The question is in the long-run whether our children or grandchildren will live as Jews. We aspire for a positive Jewish communal self-image, part of which is Jewish consciousness and a strong Israel. We are convinced that it is in the basic interest of both Hungary and State of Israel not to divide the Hungarian Jewry of the Diaspora, not to alienate it but to help build our communities in order to continue living and to pass on our ancestors’ Hungarian and Jewish traditions. We have to continue building a bridge between our countries! And when we face obstacles on that bridge, it is our mutual responsibility, Mr. Prime Ministers, to resolve them with attentiveness, through dialogue and rationality, honestly revealing real reasons, and not by sweeping them under the rug.

Honorable Prime Ministers! I am asking your and the Almighty’s help to accomplish this.

July 20, 2017

Meeting of the minds: Benjamin Netanyahu and the Visegrád 4

Even though many analysts are talking about the impending disintegration of the Visegrád 4 regional alliance, Benjamin Netanyahu decided to use it for his own political ends. The glue that holds the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia together is their determination to keep immigrants and asylum seekers out of their countries. In addition, the Polish and Hungarian governments work hand in hand against the “Brussels bureaucrats” who allegedly want to create a United States of Europe in which national differences will disappear. Both governments refuse to abide by the rules of the European Union while enjoying its financial benefits. Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the Visegrád Four’s Budapest summit gave a huge boost to the anti-migrant policies of these countries and added fuel to the anti-EU posture of Poland and Hungary.

Thanks to an open microphone, we have a fair idea of how the Israeli prime minister wants to use the Visegrád 4. What we could hear was a “blistering attack” on the European Union. It is a well-known fact that Netanyahu has a “barely disguised contempt” for the EU, which often criticizes Israel over issues of the Jewish settlements and Netanyahu’s reluctance to continue the peace process. The Guardian described his remarks as bombastic, predicting the sad end of the European Union which may “shrivel and disappear,” especially if it doesn’t change its attitude toward the present Israeli government. “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, which produces technology in every area, on political conditions.” After this tirade he came to the real reason why he decided to accept Viktor Orbán’s invitation: “I think that if I can suggest that what comes out of this meeting is your ability perhaps to communicate to your colleagues in other parts of Europe: Help Europe … don’t undermine the one western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe.” In fact, according to Netanyahu, “Europe ends in Israel [which] has no greater friends than the Christians who support Israel around the world.” He made it clear that he was talking not only about fundamentalist Christians.

What a happy crowd

The meeting was a real success. The prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries were impressed with Netanyahu and liked what they heard. At the end of the meeting he posted the following message on his Facebook page: “I’m happy the Visegrad Group accepted my invitation to hold its next summit in Israel. As the Jewish people say: Next year in Jerusalem!”

Haaretz, not exactly a supporter of the present Israeli government, called the leaked speech “bigheaded Euro-bashing … politically savvy and diplomatically demented” considering that the EU is Israel’s most important trading partner. As for using the Visegrád 4 to reshape the other member countries’ assessment of Netanyahu’s policies on settlements and the whole Palestinian issue, I have my doubts. Both Poland and Hungary are under a cloud in Brussels at the moment. It may just happen that both countries will face concerted efforts in the European Parliament to invoke Article 7 against them for gross transgressions of the basic values the European Union. As for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they might not be willing to follow the lead of Poland and Hungary when it comes to confrontation with the EU. But as of now, it seems that Netanyahu achieved what he went to the Hungarian capital for.

From the descriptions of the events of the last two or three days, Viktor Orbán was in a fine mood, basking in the glory of being the host of such an important gathering. One can always read Viktor Orbán’s state of mind on such occasions. He can look glum, as when Angela Merkel visited Budapest, or radiant, as during Putin’s first trip to Hungary when he was light-hearted and relaxed.

By tonight, however, when he and Netanyahu paid a visit to the famous synagogue on Dohány utca where they met with the leaders of Mazsihisz (Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Congregations) his good mood may have been dampened. President András Heisler didn’t hide the Hungarian Jewish community’s criticism of Viktor Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as well as Benjamin Netanyahu’s disregard of the Hungarian Jewry’s fears of anti-Semitism that the thousands of anti-Soros posters provoked. He also brought up the Hungarian government’s ambiguous attitude toward the Holocaust, although he was pleased that Orbán talked about the sin the Hungarian government committed at the time of the Holocaust. Turning to Netanyahu, he said that the disavowal of the Israeli ambassador’s statement on the Soros campaign came as a “cold shower” to him and his co-religionists. He emphasized that only a strong Jewish diaspora can help Israel effectively. Finally, he addressed Orbán and told him that Mazsihisz is ready to work with the Hungarian government when there is an agreement of views between them. I may add that this is not too often the case. Orbán didn’t respond to Heisler’s comments.

This oversized hat is the one Orbán puts on for appropriate occasions

I’m not sure whether too many observers will pay attention to one of the sentences in Heisler’s speech in which he talked about the importance of the unity of Hungarian Jewry and indicated that there are forces that are trying to sow discord among them. Indeed, the Orbán government has its favorite Jews: Rabbi Slomó Köves and his Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH). The name of this Jewish group is highly misleading because it is an ultra-Orthodox group affiliated with the Chabad movement that has no deep roots in the Hungarian Jewish past. As opposed to Mazsihisz’s Heisler, EMIH’s Köves didn’t find that Orbán’s campaign against Soros had anything to do with anti-Semitism. Given his very strong relations, even financial, with the Orbán government, his position on the subject is not at all surprising. So, I assume that the reference to sowing discord in the Hungarian Jewish community has something to do with the disparity between the cozy relationship between the tiny EMIH and the Hungarian government on the one hand and the often strained relationship between the government and Mazsihisz, which represents mainstream Jewish congregations based on traditional Hungarian Jewish practices, on the other.

July 19, 2017

Viktor Orbán admits “a mistake, nay a sin” against Hungary’s Jewish citizens in 1944

I ended my yesterday’s post on a skeptical note. I didn’t think that Viktor Orbán would admit the complicity of the Hungarian government in the death of about half a million Hungarians of Jewish heritage during the Holocaust. I was pretty certain that he would have to say something on the subject during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest, especially since the Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros, as predicted, made visible anti-Semitic sentiment in the country. But I was also more or less convinced that whatever admission of guilt takes place will not be historically accurate and therefore not totally satisfactory.

At least one Hungarian internet news site seemed to be surprised that “Viktor Orbán did it: he stood before the people and said what we really didn’t expect.” Before I go into how expected or unexpected Orbán’s announcement was, let’s take a look at the exact wording of the part of the speech where he talked about the Hungarian government’s role in the Holocaust. He began by saying that it is the duty of all Hungarian governments to protect their citizens regardless of their heritage. “At an earlier time, the government of Hungary made a mistake, nay, committed a sin when it did not protect its citizens of Jewish heritage…. During World War II, Hungary did not comply with this moral and political requirement. This is a sin because at the time we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis. I made it clear to the prime minister that this can never happen again. In the future, the Hungarian government will protect all its citizens.”

I chose the translation of Pablo Gorondi of the Associated Press, with one minor change, because it was the most faithful. A correct translation here is of the utmost importance. Every word counts since, I’m sure, Viktor Orbán himself chose his text carefully. The first word I found odd was “mistake,” which is singularly out of place here. When we talk about a mistake we think of an act based on wrong judgment or deficient knowledge. Surely, this is an inappropriate word in this context. I was also somewhat baffled by his choice of the word “sin,” which is defined as a transgression of a religious or moral law. Being an accessory to murder may be a sin, but it is also a crime; it is a legal, not a moral, concept. In fact, Reuters’ summary of the speech uses “crime” instead of “sin,” perhaps because we normally think of the perpetrators of the Holocaust as criminals. In Haaretz’s interpretation, Orbán “acknowledged the crimes of his country toward Jews during the Holocaust.” Yes, we normally talk about crimes and not sins committed by those participating in the Holocaust. That’s why some of them received death sentences or long jail terms. What was Orbán’s intention when he opted for the word “sin”?

According to Israel National News, the Hungarian prime minister apologized for the country’s conduct during the Holocaust. But did he? Not really. He simply admitted that “the Hungarian government made a mistake, nay, committed a sin” and promised that in the future the Hungarian government will protect its citizens. There is something a bit strange about Orbán’s use of the singular when talking about “the Hungarian government.” Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Israel National News “corrected” Orbán’s prose and talked about “previous governments of Hungary which sinned during the Second World War when they did not protect the Jews.” Indeed, just in the year 1944, after March 19 when the Germans marched into Hungary, there were three different governments.

But the problem here is greater than sloppiness when describing events in 1944. The real problem is that Orbán narrowed his focus to the collaboration with the Germans in 1944. Discrimination against Hungarian Jewish citizens, however, didn’t start with the German-Hungarian collaboration of 1944. No German pressure was exerted on Hungary when in 1920 the National Assembly passed the first “anti-Jewish law,” the so-called numerus clausus which placed a ceiling of 6 percent on Jewish students in institutions of higher learning. That law was changed somewhat in 1928, but its essential features remained in force throughout the interwar period.

And that was just the beginning. After a few years of respite anti-Jewish measures began to be introduced again. In April 1938 it wasn’t Germany that forced the Hungarian government to limit to 20 percent the number of Jews in the so-called free professions, government jobs, commercial and industrial companies. A year later, in May 1939, came the so-called second anti-Jewish law, which extended the definition of “Jewish” on a racial basis and further limited the activities of Jewish citizens in certain categories of the economy, from 20 to 6 percent. In 1941, the Bárdossy government on its very own, without any German input whatsoever, deported about 16,000 Hungarian and foreign Jews to today’s Ukraine where they were killed by German occupying troops. In January 1942 Hungarian gendarmes and soldiers murdered 800 Jews in Novi Sad. By November 1942 about 50,000 Jewish men were conscripted into forced labor units, which subsequently were sent unarmed to the Soviet front where most of them died. In early 1943 the Kállay government removed all Jews from public and cultural life, limited their number in the economy as a whole to 6 percent. All land owned by Jews was confiscated. Should I continue?

Moreover, confining the Hungarian government’s sins to 1944 and describing them as a collaboration with the Germans is misleading. The sad fact is that the organization of transporting half a million Hungarian citizens of Jewish origin via rail to Auschwitz and other extermination camps was the sole work of the Hungarian administration and the gendarmerie. German soldiers were not involved at all. I think most Jewish Hungarians would like to see an admission from this government that the Hungarian sin wasn’t only “collaboration with the Nazis.”

If Viktor Orbán had talked about the atrocities committed against Jews by all the Hungarian governments between 1921 and 1944, then one could say he broke the silence and made a full admission of the dreadful record Hungarian governments accumulated in those years. That would have been a welcome change. But as it is, he simply repeated what President János Áder already said in April 2014 while visiting Auschwitz. I remember distinctly that at that time his admission of guilt was greeted with welcome surprise. It was news. “To understand the tragedy of 1944, we have to face ourselves,” he said. “It is still painful that the Hungarian state didn’t resist the devilish plan of the German invaders.” After March 19, 1944, “Hungary didn’t protect its citizens.”

The Orbán government obviously has a fixed time frame and a fixed vocabulary when it comes to the country’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. They are ready to go that far but no further. And even that is said with qualifications because we mustn’t forget that Fidesz included the following sentences in the preamble of the new constitution. “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed.” In other words, Hungary is not really responsible for what happened after March 19, 1944. No soothing words declared in the presence of Benjamin Netanyahu can change that basic claim.

July 18, 2017

The Hungarian Jewish community feels abandoned by Netanyahu’s Israel

Viktor Orbán did his best to make his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest a failure. First, quite unnecessarily he wove into one of his speeches a laudatory reference to Admiral Miklós Horthy, whose government played an active role in the Hungarian Holocaust. He called him “an exceptional statesman.” And then, two weeks before the arrival of the Israeli prime minister, he launched a vicious hate campaign against George Soros, which prompted anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of Hungarian society.

Orbán apparently is in the habit of adding his own final touches to prepared speeches, and this superfluous and harmful addition about Horthy was one of these impromptu additions. The remark created an uproar at home as well as abroad, especially in Israel. Given the three-day visit by the Israeli prime minister to Budapest this week, one really wonders what was going on in the Hungarian prime minister’s head. Israel’s leading English-language paper, Haaretz, interpreted this remark “as part of an extremist nationalist and racist campaign [Orbán] is conducting ahead of elections in 2018.” Moreover, Orbán’s remarks “placed Israel in an embarrassing position” given Netanyahu’s impending meeting with Viktor Orbán and the Visegrád 4 countries in Budapest.

The Israeli government demanded an explanation. Four days after the delivery of the speech Yossi Armani, the Israeli ambassador, was instructed not only to issue a public statement but to make clear to the Hungarian government that Israel hoped for a statement from Viktor Orbán. He also warned that tension over the issue could hurt the summit between the two prime ministers. Eventually, a telephone call came from Péter Szijjártó, but, as Haaretz explains, he “did not clarify Orbán’s remarks, apologize or express regret for them, [but] the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, with an eye on the upcoming summit, decided to act with restraint and end the affair.”

Foreign Minister Péter Szjjártó in Jerusalem preparing Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest

Barely a week after this gaffe, the Orbán government embarked on a massive anti-Soros poster campaign which, if George Soros weren’t Jewish, would have been just fine with the Israeli prime minister, who dislikes Soros as much as Viktor Orbán does. But as András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz and spokesman for the Jewish religious community, pointed out, although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He asked for the removal of the thousands of posters plastered all over the country. This call was then followed by the Israeli ambassador’s statement that “the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also shows hatred and fear.” But at this point Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister of Israel, interfered. The foreign ministry issued the following statement: “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” he said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros.” The Hungarian Jewish community, which witnessed the anti-Semitic reactions to the poster campaign, was stunned and felt abandoned by the government of Israel.

András Heisler told the Associated Press today that “the Israeli foreign ministry’s clarification … in part surprised us and in part was hugely disappointing…. The Hungarian Jewish community felt that we were left in the lurch.” Most political observers are convinced that “Netanyahu’s visit provides [Orbán] a kind of acquittal regarding anti-Semitism and the stamp of being far-right.” Later in the day Heisler talked to Agnes Bohm of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency where he explained the Hungarian Jewish community’s position more fully. “It is most important for the Hungarian Jewish community that the Israeli prime minister condemns strongly any kind of hate campaign or hate speech during his visit to Hungary, and it is also very important that Netanyahu should stress the importance of the Diaspora, including the Hungarian Jewish Diaspora,” he said. Heisler also explained that “Soros’s name has a different meaning in Hungary and in Israel.” In Hungary “Soros is the symbol of the Jewish capitalist.” He added that “it was unacceptable for us that the Jews were afraid due to the hate campaign and to the hate speech. No leader of any Jewish community can tolerate when Jews fear the consequences of the hate campaign of the government.”

Mazsihisz is the representative of the Jewish religious communities, but secular Jews are just as unhappy about Netanyahu’s approach to what they consider to be a problem in Hungary and what the Israeli prime minister blithely ignores for political gains at home and abroad. According to Válasz, Mária M. Kovács, Péter Zentai, and Péter Bokor–a historian, a journalist, and an architect–delivered a 28-page document to Israeli Ambassador Yossi Armani containing letters to Netanyahu by 17 signatories. Among them are such well-known personalities as Ágnes Heller and György Konrád. At the same time Sándor Révész, a journalist and writer formerly of Népszabadság, wrote an opinion piece in HVG titled: “First? Worst!” It is a hard-hitting piece against the Israel Netanyahu has built. The message is that “to the Jewish state the Hungarian government is more important than the Hungarian Jews.” In Révész’s opinion, Netanyahu is a politician with whom few democratic politicians want to develop close relations. Orbán is one of the few who is not choosy. He is ready to be friends with the leaders of Russia, Egypt, and Turkey, or Netanyahu’s Israel. They are kindred souls. Such harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s regime cannot be heard too often in Hungary.

But Mairav Zonszein, a journalist and translator residing in Israel, feels very much the same way about this ugly episode. She wrote an opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which she expresses her admiration for George Soros who “has failed the litmus test that seems to count for Israel’s current leadership: unconditional support for the government, despite its policies of occupation, discrimination and disregard for civil and human rights. … Mr. Soros’s humanitarianism and universalism represent an expression of post-Holocaust Jewish identity that is anathema to the hard-line nationalism of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition,” which necessarily leads to close relations with such autocratic states as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and Hungary. She finds the Orbán-Netanyahu alliance unacceptable and immoral.

By contrast, the right-wing Hungarian media is outright ecstatic. Pro-government journalists look upon Netanyahu’s disregard of Mazsihisz’s worries about the anti-Semitic overtones of the anti-Soros campaign as an “official Israeli affirmation of the fact that neither Hungary nor the anti-Soros poster campaign is anti-Semitic.” For decades the Hungarian left has called “the political right Nazi and anti-Semitic.” But now, after the Israeli government’s statement, it is at last clear that this was a baseless accusation.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrived this evening in Budapest from Paris, where he attended a memorial gathering to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Holocaust roundup. The post-war French government remained silent for a very long time about the fact that the French administration at the time was in charge of the roundup and deportation of about 13,000 Jews, including about 4,000 children, most of whom were killed. Although President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the country’s complicity in 1995, Emmanuel Macron used the occasion to reiterate his declaration that the French state bore responsibility for what happened in 1942 in Paris. I wonder whether Viktor Orbán will be ready to publicly declare the Hungarian government’s complicity in the death of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. I wouldn’t wager too much money on it.

July 17, 2017

Is this new far-right movement really new? No, it isn’t

The international media, which often ignores Hungarian domestic news, immediately perks up when a new far-right group appears on the scene. This is exactly what happened when the Army of Outlaws, a far-right movement led by Zsolt Tyirityán, and a lesser known radical university group called Identitesz, led by the young student Balázs László, gathered in Vecsés, a suburb of Budapest, to announce the formation of a new far-right, radical party they named Erő és Elszántság (Force and Determination). Both Reuters and the Associated Press published reports on the gathering of 200-300 people. According to Reuters, this new movement “looks to be more radical than any political organization targeting a serious political role since the fall of Communism, and uses openly racist language to oppose liberalism and immigration.” The AP report admits that this new formation “seems marginal for now, [though] efforts by the Jobbik party, Hungary’s largest far-right group, to attract more moderate voters could leave room for the growth of extremist groups like Force and Determination.”

Balázs László in Vecsés, July 8, 2017

I’m not sure why the Reuter’s reporter thinks that the ideas expressed by the leaders of this new group are substantially different from those espoused by other right-wing groups and parties. There is nothing new here except perhaps the more radical language with which these ideas are presented. The speakers said that the new party will fight liberalism. The prime minister of Hungary has been fighting liberalism for years and building an illiberal state. The organizers talked about defending white Europeans. The prime minister of Hungary gave long speeches about the defense of Europe as it existed before the migration from outside of the continent. True, he didn’t come right out and speak about “ethnic” or “race” defense, but that is what he meant. They said that they will fight “political correctness.” This is the same thing Viktor Orbán been saying for years about the straight-speaking Hungarians who shouldn’t fall into the destructive habit of political correctness. They talked about the danger of losing awareness of national and sexual identity. How often do we hear the same from Fidesz politicians, including the leader of the party, Viktor Orbán? But interestingly, the attention is on a group that managed to gather 200-300 people for “unfurling the flag of the far right” when the whole country is governed by a politician who espouses essentially the same ideas.

Moreover, there are signs that it is in fact Fidesz that is encouraging these fringe groups to organize themselves against Jobbik. At least it is somewhat suspicious that the government’s main media outlet, Magyar Idők, gave Balázs László of Identitesz the opportunity to acquaint the Hungarian public with his Nazi ideas. Balázs Gulyás, writing in Magyar Nemzet, rightly asked why a newspaper of any standing would publish a lengthy interview with such a person. Because there is no question that we are talking here about an echt Nazi. I saw an interview with him and can attest to the fact that he is a scary guy.

Identitesz is the Hungarian branch of the Identitarian movement, whose goal is “to make racism modern and fashionable.” Otherwise, the movement draws on all sorts of right-wing and conservative thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, and Aleksandr Dugin. Identitesz has close ties with the neo-Hungarist/Nazi Pax Hungarica Movement, a successor to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. In fact, László at one time was an active member of Pax Hungarica, to which no Jew, Gypsy, or non-Europid can even apply.

There have been far too many articles in Magyar Idők about these fringe organizations, starting with that lengthy interview with László. He no longer thinks in terms of “national radicalism” but of race defense for Europe as a whole. Just as Viktor Orbán no longer defends only Hungary from outside hordes but, thanks to the Hungarian government’s heroic efforts at closing the Balkan route of the asylum seekers, defends European culture and Christianity.

As for Zsolt Tyirityán’s speech at the Vecsés event, he talked at length about “the struggle for Lebensraum [élettér].” Commentators wondered whether Viktor Orbán will judge all this Nazi talk as severely as he did when a former Jobbik member of parliament used Jewish epithets against a Jewish entertainer. At that time he instructed Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to act with the full force of the law against him. So far, all the Nazi talk in Vecsés has been conveniently ignored.

As for the infamous term ‘Lebensraum’, it has been in circulation for years in Hungary. As László Karsai, the historian of the Holocaust, called to my attention today, Viktor Orbán used the term in January 2002 on Magyar Rádió’s notoriously right-wing program Vasárnapi Újság, which at that time he described as his favorite. When an opposition member inquired in parliament about the exact meaning of Lebensraum in this context, Orbán explained that “Lebensraum is that territory where Hungarians live.” Well, this is not different from the way Adolf Hitler used the term.

According to Balázs László, “ethnic defense” is a critical task that must be vigorously pursued. In his opinion, it is more important than matters of education and healthcare. One of the goals of the new movement, he said, is the spread of this truth in public discourse. Again, I don’t see anything revolutionary in this. This is exactly what’s been going on for at least two years in Hungary. Everything, with the possible exception of supporting sports, especially football, is of secondary importance to the defense of the country from those hordes from outside of Europe. Viktor Orbán has been systematically fueling Hungarians’ hatred against the refugees and found in George Soros the embodiment of everything that he is fighting against: humanity, charity, legality.

In brief, let’s not lose sight of the real danger that besets Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his government. Let’s not forget that Orbán’s Hungary is the only country in the European Union where a far-right government is in power which has by now more or less introduced a one-party system, which normally has a very long lifespan.

July 16, 2017

The opening extravaganza of the Aquatic Championships didn’t capture the world’s imagination

The Aquatic World Championships, the largest ever sports event in Hungarian history, began with an expensive opening ceremony on Friday night. The cost of the event has preoccupied members of the Hungarian media. In the last few days journalists have been trying to figure out how much each minute of the two-hour program cost the taxpayers, and they came up with 28.3 million forints or $89,960.

As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, every cent spent was worth it. After all, and now I am quoting the government’s very own Magyar Idők, “because thanks to the television coverage [the director] dazzled the world with a fantastic image of the country.” The justification for holding the event was that tourism would receive a boost that would compensate for the expenses incurred. But the real emphasis was always on image building. People would be overwhelmed by the cityscape over the Danube, the majestic parliament building, and the Royal Castle. The speed with which the organizers managed to put this great show together should also impress the world. Hungary is strong, proud, and competitive.

As far as Magyar Idők is concerned, everything turned out absolutely splendidly. The new Duna Aréna is “one of the largest and most beautiful swimming pools.” As for the opening ceremony, it was “dazzling” as it portrayed “the meeting of water and culture in Hungarian history.” The program generously began with the Roman city of Aquincum, today’s Óbuda. There were eight episodes, which included the Hungarians’ arrival, Renaissance Buda, hussars, the music of Ferenc Liszt and Zoltán Kodály, Hungarian operettas, pop culture, folk songs, and folk costumes. How much did foreigners understand from all that? I suspect not much. In addition, the American CeeLo Green sang “Bright Lights Bigger City” and “Crazy.”

As for the quality of the program, well, that depends on your artistic sensibilities and to some extent on your political views. Reporters from media outlets like Index and 444.hu were less than thrilled. But for the organizers the most important consideration was the impact of this extravaganza. After all, the chief aim of staging the championships was ostensibly to advertise Budapest and Hungary, and therefore they wanted millions of people to be exposed to the events in Budapest. The eyes of the world will be on Hungary, the organizers assured the population. They talked about 5 billion cumulative views.

But came the first day with the opening ceremony on which they spent so much money and the reaction was, how shall I say, less than what they expected. Hours after the event one couldn’t find anything on the internet about this proud moment, which was supposed to spread the good name of Hungary all over the world. No problem. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary creating an alternative reality is an everyday occurrence.

Hungary’s official news agency, MTI, came up with the simplest solution. It created news showing the opening ceremony being widely covered in the international media. Let me quote the opening lines of its news item. “On Saturday the international media first and foremost concentrated on the opening ceremony of the Aquatic World Championships in Budapest. The objective articles are richly illustrated with photographs, highlighting the most important moments of the ceremony.“ But MTI failed to mention any of those publications that carried the richly illustrated articles. Therefore, suspicious Hungarian reporters who are only too aware of MTI’s habit of falsifying the news tried to verify the MTI report. The blogger of Comment:com checked both Google and Bing and found only one article, in Euronews.com. Here is what it had to say about the opening ceremony: “Crowds in Budapest witnessed spectacular scenes at the opening ceremony of the World Aquatic Championships, the biggest sporting event ever staged in Hungary…. Euronews correspondent Ferenc Horvath noted that the cost of producing the opening extravaganza may break records.” Period.

In addition, this morning a short, somewhat sarcastic little news item appeared in Politico’s “Brussels Playbook”–“Budapest’s Latest Soft Power Play.” It did mention the “flashy opening ceremony,” but the article was really about “the most powerful woman in Hungary,” Katinka Hosszú, who is “a multi-millionaire triple Olympic gold medalist who is using her political skills to form a global professional swimmers union. Watch out, Viktor!” It was from this meager amount of material that MTI created an event reported widely and enthusiastically as a “spectacular and dazzling” performance.

As far as TV coverage of the championship events over the next two weeks is concerned, although sports fans in Great Britain and Canada will be able to follow at least some of the events on BBC and CBC, I fear that not too many Americans will be able to watch them. They will be aired on a brand new sports channel, NBC Olympic Channel, which was launched just today. Thus, for example, the opening ceremony will not be broadcast. It will be a very narrowly focused channel. The programming will be done by NBCUniversal, the International Olympic Committee, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Olympic Channel will be available via some of the large cable providers such as A&T DirecTV, Comcast, and Verizon. But the viewership of programming on a brand new channel will most likely be minuscule.

All in all, the dreams about the fantastic impact the championships will have on Hungary’s image were, I’m afraid, way overblown.

July 15, 2017