Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Karl Pfeifer: The Orbán regime takes Horthy’s Hungary as an example

I have known the dark ages of Hungary. As a child, during World War Two, I experienced first-hand Hungarian ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism. I managed to avoid deportation and murder in Auschwitz by fleeing to Palestine in 1943, along with 49 other Jewish children.

Decades later, I returned to Hungary during the years of Communism. As a journalist writing for major Austrian newspapers, my reporting included interviewing dissidents. As a result, the Kadar regime expelled me four times from the country, the last time in 1987.

This personal history makes me extremely sensitive to current developments in Hungary and the shadows that are once again rising there.

Consider, for example, the current government campaign against the work of the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations has given more than $200 million to Hungarian groups since the fall of Communism, supporting a host of humanitarian issues—including independent groups that support human rights and are often critical of the government.

As a result, George Soros is demonized and presented as the source of all evil by the government. The rhetoric used reminds me of the anti-Semitic propaganda from my childhood, according to which the Jews were responsible for all of Hungary’s problems, like poverty, ignorance, and landless peasants.

Moreover, the government media portrays Mr. Soros as an agent of “international finance.” We know that this is a code for “Jews.” You don’t have to be explicitly anti-Semitic, you can be implicitly anti-Semitic – the message is quite clear for mainstream Hungarian society, which has never come to terms with its own prejudices against Jews.

Finally, Soros is presented by the government as responsible for mass migration to Europe. Did the 86-year-old investor really go to Syria and Iraq to politely ask people to come to Europe? This is a worldview deeply rooted in conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

This goes beyond the attacks on Soros. When Orbán refers to “ethnic homogeneity” as a factor of prosperity for the country, I am worried. This reminds me of a 1941 law that banned all forms of sexual intercourse between Jews and Gentiles, in the name of ethnic purity. This was done under the rule of the ultra-nationalist and Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy. In Horthy times, anti-Semitism was a national policy. It is not the case today, but hatred against Jews has free flow and conspiracy theories are clearly targeted at the Jewish community, the largest one in Central Europe.

This poisonous rhetoric is the product of a political system that has grown increasingly authoritarian under Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz government, and it is being used by that government to strengthen its control. The Fidesz government and its allies own the majority of media outlets, including all of the TV and radio stations which have large audiences in rural Hungary, where the vast majority of the party electorate resides. Media outlets presenting views in opposition to the government are not accessible to the average Hungarian, therefore most people believe what the government propaganda tells them. And that message is straightforward: if you criticize the government, you are an enemy of the nation.

The government is now seeking to extend its power with a new law tightening controls on the funding of groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—rights groups which receive some of their funding from…yes, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Thus the rhetoric of anti-Semitism is being deployed to serve the government’s ultimate political aim of consolidating its control – while supposedly remaining a democratic member of the European Union.

It’s worth remembering that under the Horthy regime too there was a parliament, and it was possible to express critical views in a handful of opposition papers. Yet that did not make the regime a democratic one.

Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the club of conservative parties in the European Union. But Fidesz is not a conservative party. Conservative parties do not mobilize mass rallies to defend the “sovereignty of the Hungarian nation,” unlike in 2012 when 400,000 people took to the streets of Budapest at the urging of the government media – with the infamous anti-Semitic journalist Zsolt Bayer marching in the front rank. Conservative parties do not touch private property, unlike Fidesz, which nationalized pension funds in 2010 to finance the state’s expenditures. Conservative parties do not falsify history, unlike in Hungary where the state established the national think tank “Veritas,” downplaying the participation of Hungarians in the murder of 500,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

The upcoming law on NGOs will further silence the last opposition voices in a member state of the European Union. The government propaganda plays with the fear of “the other”: the migrants, the Jews, foreign capital. But who pays attention to Hungarians? Who is concerned about the disastrous state of healthcare and education in the country? By annihilating critical voices, the anti-NGO law will spring the trap on the real victims of the government: ordinary Hungarians.


Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian-born journalist of Hungarian Jewish origin and a member of the board of the Archives of the Austrian Resistance.
He is author of several books. A movie about his life can be seen at https://vimeo.com/124834106

March 26, 2017

Neo-Nazis, Hungarists, and anti-Semites

I have written twice about far-right, neo-Nazi groups which at this time of the year gather to commemorate the anniversary of the breakout of German and Hungarian soldiers from Buda, which had been completely surrounded by Soviet troops between December 24 and 27, 1944. What followed was the siege of Budapest, one of the bloodiest encounters of World War II. Hitler specifically forbade his troops to retreat in the face of the encirclement or to escape after it was in place.

The Pest ghetto was liberated on January 17, but fighting on the Buda side was just beginning. Between January 20 and February 11 about 13,000 soldiers were killed or captured. Under these circumstances, attempting a breakout was a suicidal undertaking. Indeed, over 19,000 soldiers were killed in the attempt and only 700 individuals managed to break through the Soviet lines.

Every year domestic and foreign extremists, neo-Nazis, remember the event. The commemoration includes a short demonstration studded with speeches in addition to the so-called “breakout tours.” A breakout tour is a walk, something of an obstacle course, along the route the escapees took. It is 56 km long and must be finished within 18 hours. Naturally, this event takes place in Buda and the surrounding hills. There was only one exception: last year for some strange reason the demonstration was held in Székesfehérvár, far away from the place where this madness happened.

Since 1997 thousands have gathered every February for what they call the “Day of Honor” or “Becsület napja.” The man who came up with the idea for the commemoration was István Győrkös, leader of the National Front (Nemzeti Arcvonal). Last October Győrkös shot and killed a Hungarian policeman who was checking Győrkös’s house for illegal weapons. Members of the National Front did not attend the event this year, but the Army of Outlaws and László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group once again participated.

Viktor Orbán was extremely critical of the socialist-liberal administration which allowed these demonstrations to take place, and he promised that once he becomes prime minister again he will put an end to these neo-Nazi, Arrow Cross, and Hungarist demonstrations. Of course, the demonstrations have continued. The neo-Nazis go to the police station and announce their plans, and the police say “go ahead.”

The only thing that has happened since 2010 is that Nazi and Communist symbols were outlawed, demonstrators were forbidden to cover their faces, and it became illegal to wear a uniform. So, what happened on February 11 this year? The mostly young neo-Nazis appeared in black uniform-like outfits, some of them covered their faces, and they wore the forbidden neo-Nazi symbols.

The media reported that about 600 mostly young people participated who, as Népszava noted, “wouldn’t be insulted to be called neo-Nazis or neo-Arrow Cross men.” In addition to the Hungarian contingent there were quite a few Germans and Italians. One could also see a few Polish flags and so-called Szekler flags from Romania.

One can gauge the ideology of these groups by listening to any of the speeches. One of the speakers assessed the significance of the 1945 event this way: “We didn’t win, but in every little sacrifice there was the potential for victory.” Zsolt Tyirityán of the Army of Outlaws said that “the world is determined by a struggle for Lebensraum.” He ended his speech with “Recognition of and due respect for the Waffen SS! Glory to the Waffen SS!”

The “troops” are ready for their tour, February 11, 2017

A couple of days later Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious groups, issued a somewhat resigned statement about the sad fact that “one can celebrate the enemies of the Hungarian people, the German Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross men, who blew up the bridges of the Hungarian capital and who caused so much suffering to its inhabitants…. But to hoist a flag with a swastika, to wear an armband with a swastika, to generate fear is prohibited and punishable according to the law.” Because anyone who places a Nazi flag on a light fixture makes it clear that he approves of the Holocaust. Mazsihisz asked the police to investigate the case.

Since then, the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler, paid a visit to Viktor Orbán. The meeting had been arranged a month earlier and was supposed to be a financial discussion about the rebuilding of a Budapest synagogue that was recently devastated by fire and a Jewish Hospital specializing in gerontology. However, in light of the latest neo-Nazi demonstration, Heisler brought up the Jewish community’s concerns. Apparently, Orbán showed real or feigned surprise about the passivity of the police and promised to find ways, just like in earlier years, to prevent the display of such Nazi symbols.

If the ministry of interior could handle these situations in the past, how could it happen that this year the police calmly looked on while Nazi flags and swastikas were being displayed? One hypothesis is that László Toroczkai’s Sixty-Four Counties group participated. Toroczkai is the vice president of Jobbik, the party that is the target of Fidesz’s political wrath at the moment. In this struggle, it would come in handy to show that Gábor Vona’s move away from anti-Semitism is nothing but a political trick without any substance.

Finally, there is an unsigned opinion piece in Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language daily in the United States. The title is “The promises of a selective anti-Semite.” The American Népszava is known to be highly critical of Viktor Orbán and his regime. This piece contends that Orbán has “problems only with liberal, secular Jews who infect decent Hungarian Christians with their liberal ideas.” He has no problems, the article contends, with observant Jews who “don’t mix” with the “members of the host country.” He doesn’t hate them because they don’t pose a threat to him. He likes talking to the leaders of Chabad who hate secular Jews as much as he does. Our anonymous author believes that Orbán’s ill feelings toward Jewish intellectuals stem from the fact that “they didn’t accept him” and therefore “he has developed an inferiority complex.” The author goes so far as to describe Orbán’s entire political career as a struggle to win over Hungarian Jewish intellectuals inside and outside of Hungary.

I actually toned down Népszava’s article somewhat. In fact, the author calls Orbán someone “who was an anti-Semite first and only later found the anti-Semitic ‘Christian’ ideology.” This is certainly a bold thesis, which many will doubt. Viktor Orbán is a master of double talk, so no one will ever catch him saying anything, at least in public, that could be labelled as being outright anti-Semitic.

February 16, 2017

“Keep quiet”–A documentary on Csanád Szegedi’s conversion from anti-Semite to observant Jew

A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.

Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.

After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.

Csanád Szegedi in the uniform of Magyar Gárda “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”

The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.

Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.

Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.

Csanád Szegedi with Rabbi Barruch Oberlander

Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”

Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.

We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.

So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.

Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.

February 12, 2017

Gábor Vona and the transformation of Jobbik

Great was my surprise this morning when I discovered that Gábor Vona, chairman of the right-wing party earlier known for its anti-Semitism and its condemnation of Israel as a terrorist state, had announced that Jobbik from now on “will respect Israel’s right to exist, form its own identity, opinions and articulate its interests.” As the Reuter’s headline put it: “Jobbik ditches far-right past” in order to be taken seriously as a challenger to Viktor Orbán at next year’s national election.

A couple of days ago I devoted a post to Gábor Vona’s Hanukkah greetings to heads of religious organizations. One of the recipients was Slomó Köves, head of the Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregations. Köves was taken aback by the “gesture” because of the strongly anti-Semitic past of Jobbik and its leader. An exchange of open letters followed Vona’s original message, which prompted a lively public debate.

What I didn’t mention in my post was an article written by T. Gábor Szántó, editor-in-chief of Szombat (Sabbath and also the Hungarian word for Saturday), who gave some advice to Vona about “how Jobbik could become part of a civilized, democratic society.” While Szántó acknowledged Jobbik’s “slow metamorphosis” and the “expulsion of the most extremist members of the leadership,” he noted that “Jobbik bears serious responsibility for the legitimization of anti-Semitic discourse in Hungarian public life.” Such transformations have also been observed in West European far-right parties, he noted, but the Hungarian extreme right is still very much behind in this respect.

If Jobbik wants to become a respectable, civilized, democratic force, the party and its forums must turn against their former views. To achieve that goal, first they must define their attitude toward the Holocaust and accept the Hungarian state’s responsibility for acts against its Jewish citizens in 1944. Second, they must clarify their party’s relationship to openly anti-Semitic and racist groups and forums. And finally, they should articulate their views on Israel’s right to exist and on the fundamentalism and terror of Islam that threatens the values of the western world. After such changes, assuming these changes remain permanent elements of Jobbik’s political views, one might discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Jewish community and Jobbik.

It looks as if Vona took Szántó’s advice to heart. Jobbik a few years ago was guilty of holding all three unacceptable political positions that Szántó outlined. Let’s start with Jobbik’s attitude toward the State of Israel. I could, of course, find hundreds of examples. But here’s one, from 2012: a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy. The demonstration was organized to call attention to an Israeli attack on Gaza. Here, Vona, with a Palestinian scarf around his neck, said that while Israel constantly talks about the Holocaust, it maintains, with the assistance of the United States, the world’s largest concentration camp, Gaza. He suggested making a list of “Israeli capital” that exists in Hungary. He claimed that Viktor Orbán during his first administration signed a pact with Poland and Germany, according to which in case of trouble these three countries can settle 500,000 Israelis. He called Israel a terrorist state and said that all Hungarian politicians must be vetted to find out who are dual Israeli and Hungarian citizens.

A year later Vona had quite an exchange with Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador. The reason for the spat was Mor’s letter complaining about the decoration an openly anti-Semitic reporter at Echo TV received from the Hungarian government. Vona saw “in Ilan Mor’s behavior the Jews’ aspiration for world domination.” He assured Mor that he “will never be Israel’s dog as all the other parties” in Hungary are. Once Jobbik governs the country “we will politely send you [meaning Mor] home.”

As for Jobbik’s admiration for Islam and Muslim nations, this had been well known even before they won something like 16% of the popular vote in 2010. At a conference in November 2009 Vona astonished his audience by talking about Iranian-Jobbik ties. By the end of 2010 Vona published a fairly lengthy treatise on his views of the Muslim world, in which he recalled that as a university student he attended a youth conference in Yemen where he realized the plight of those people. His opponents think that this sympathy for Islam “is just more proof of [his] anti-Semitism.” But, he insisted, his admiration for Islam has nothing to do with his alleged anti-Semitism. It is rooted in his reading, which led to his realization that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment ruined European society, which had been pure and good in the Middle Ages. I gather from this that what he admired in Islam was its reliance on tradition and the negation of modernity.

By 2012 the western press discovered that Jobbik’s leader was infatuated with Islam. The International Business Times found an article in The Morocco World News which quoted Vona saying that “Islam is the last hope for humanity in the darkness of globalism and liberalism.” In the same speech he talked about Russia, Turkey, and Hungary as “the three nations [which] are European and Asian at the same time, due to their history, fate, and disposition…. These nations are destined to present the Eurasian alternative.”

However, as Christopher Adam of the Hungarian Free Press noted last summer, “the Hungarian right’s fascination with, and relative respect for, Islam is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France earlier this year and maybe even more so due to the large waves of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.”

Outright Holocaust denial was never Jobbik’s official dogma, but there were many signs that the party and its leader considered it to be an overblown topic. Here is a good example. In 2010 Vona said in one of his speeches that all that talk about the Holocaust was coming out of his ears (a könyökén jön ki). In a note he wrote on his Facebook page on October 3, 2013, he reacted to a lecture János Martonyi had given at an international conference on “Jewish life and anti-Semitism in today’s Europe” organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest. Vona suspected that because of the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the coming elections the topic of the Holocaust will be center stage. Unfortunately, said Vona, the goal of these events will be not peaceful remembrances but the creation of a sense of guilt. Therefore, Vona warned his followers to be cautious and not fall for provocations. Jobbik supporters shouldn’t give any ammunition to their adversaries.

I have not encountered any admission of the Hungarian government’s responsibility for what happened in 1944 by either Vona or any other leading member of Jobbik. However, we ought to keep in mind that Fidesz stated in its constitution that the Hungarian government was not responsible for the Holocaust, and therefore I think it would be unrealistic to expect more from Vona’s Jobbik.

I didn’t collect all this information on the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views of Jobbik to deny Vona’s change of heart. In almost all of his comments lately he has compared the old Jobbik to a teenager who has done a lot of stupid things. But, he says, this teenager has now grown up. Reading through his essay on Islam, my first reaction was that he was a very confused man who was trying to find some coherence in his world but was just grasping at straws, ending up with an incoherent philosophical mess. When he was talking about his favorite writers–Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mircea Eliade, Rüdiger Safranski, Konrad Lorenz and “his all-time favorite, Meister Eckhart,” I had the distinct feeling of intellectual confusion which then was unfortunately translated into political action. Let’s hope that he is correct and that he has grown up. And that his party has grown up with him.

January 17, 2017

Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and his Hanukkah greetings

Today Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, managed to retain his position despite opposition from András Schiffer and the admittedly ineffectual smear campaign of the Fidesz-inspired media. Hadházy’s internal critics accused him of jeopardizing LMP’s firm policy of not cooperating with any other party when he talked about the necessity of dialogue among opposition forces.

I’m convinced that deep down Hadházy knows that the party’s current strategy is doomed to failure, but with a brave face he is trying to pretend otherwise. At the press conference after the party congress Bernadett Szél somewhat pointedly remarked that the party’s election strategy had already been decided earlier: LMP will be on its own at next year’s election because “there is no party in parliament that LMP could work with.” Hadházy took the easy way out by emphasizing that LMP doesn’t want to attract voters from the left but rather “hopes to convince voters of the government party that change is necessary.”

Now to the main topic of today’s post.

A few weeks ago the government launched a smear campaign against Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, which, as I indicated earlier, didn’t achieve its aim. In fact, the methods used to demonize Vona were so primitive and base that I got the distinct impression that the campaign actually resulted in some sympathy for Vona, even on the left.

Thus, new tactics were required, which Gábor Vona himself offered to Fidesz when he decided to write Hanukkah greetings to the various Jewish religious communities, including Slomó Köves’s Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Köves is a supporter of Orbán. Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government he became chief rabbi of the Hungarian armed forces.

Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were obviously part of Jobbik’s new strategy, which includes shedding the party’s anti-Semitic past. The problem is that that past was laden with so many sins against Hungarian Jews that a quick turnaround couldn’t be accepted by Köves or any other Jewish religious leaders. Köves wrote a lengthy letter in which he listed some of Jobbik’s most outrageous anti-Semitic statements. After a few famous sayings from the Old Testament, such as “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Köves suggested that instead of sending Hanukkah greetings, Jobbik leaders should voice their new convictions, if they are genuine, at forums where previously “not light, but hatred, ignominy, and darkness reigned.”

Köves made his letter public, which in turn elicited a public response from Vona. Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is Vona’s explanation of how he ended up on the wrong side. He “inherited” his anti-Semitism because he found himself in an environment in which “one side called Hungarians Nazis, while the other labeled Jews traitors.” Since then, he “has come to the realization that this doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Vona’s answer didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, which was justifiably offended by his occasional juxtaposition of Hungarians and Jews instead of Christian and Jewish Hungarians. At the same time, it also outraged the more radical members of Jobbik who, I’m convinced, have been getting ample support in their opposition to Vona’s leadership from Fidesz.

Origo has been closely following the reverberations within Jobbik after the Hanukkah affair. The first story of some import came from Vecsés, a town just outside the city limits of Budapest. Vecsés at one point was the center of the Army of Outlaws movement, whose leader is a friend of Gábor Vona. Otherwise, Jobbik claims that the party and this neo-Nazi group have nothing to do with one another. On the local level, however, there seems to be cooperation despite the denial. Or, at least this used to be the case. The only Jobbik member of the town council was, or perhaps still is, affiliated with the Army of Outlaws. This man, Imre Orbán, has a reputation for being a troublemaker and has distinguished himself as a fouled-mouthed anti-Semite. This time he placed a post on Vecsés’s Jobbik Facebook page in which he accused Gábor Vona of making a fool of Jobbik members by turning to the rabbi with his apologies. He added some four-letter words in his discussion of Hanukkah. This incident was taken seriously by the party and Vona promised to investigate.

The official “state news” Híradó reported a few days ago that the Jobbik leadership in Vámosmikola, a village of 1,600 inhabitants, also criticized the leadership because of the Hanukkah greetings and the subsequent exchange of letters. Jobbik cannot be strong in Vámosmikola since in the 2014 municipal elections it didn’t even have a candidate for mayor or the town council, but even the smallest protest is big news in the right-wing press.

Pesti Srácok gleefully reported that a former member of the Magyar Gárda, once the paramilitary arm of Jobbik, since dismantled, demanded the vest that was part of their uniform from Vona, who proudly wore it at the opening of parliament in 2010. By trying to build bridges between Jews and the party, Vona “became unworthy” of this precious vest, claimed the former member of the Magyar Gárda.

Yesterday Magyar Idők called attention to a demonstration of disappointed Jobbik members that will take place in Debrecen, where the organizers are expecting Jobbik sympathizers from four counties. These people not only complain about Vona’s Hanukkah letter but also about Jobbik’s abandonment of its earlier radical political strategy. A closer reading of the article, however, reveals that most of these people are no longer members of the party. As the chief organizer, Erika Ulics, a lawyer, explains, 35-40 local leaders who will gather in Debrecen already left the party after Vona, in 2014, decided to scuttle the party’s former ideals. Ulics herself was expelled from the party, allegedly because she leaked inside information to Népszabadság.

Ulics, by the way, is a notorious neo-Nazi and an admirer of Ferenc Szálasi, who was executed for war crimes in 1946. In addition, she is a racist who suggested that all Gypsies should be forced to join the army and attack Romania. “If we win, Transylvania is ours. If we lose, Hungary is ours.” Those with strong stomachs should visit the news sites Cink and 4024 for more quotations from this vicious neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.

The government-sponsored sites are so eager to spread news of the imminent collapse of Jobbik that they are resorting to fiction. According to alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official site 888.hu reported that the entire ten-man Jobbik group in Nemeshetés, population 320, resigned in protest over Vona’s new pro-Jewish policies. It turned out that Jobbik doesn’t have a local cell in the village. Since then, the article has been taken offline.

Yesterday afternoon Ulics’s demonstration did take place. It is hard to tell from the picture just how many people attended, but as far as I can judge, there were mighty few. It certainly didn’t shake Jobbik to its very foundations as, I’m sure, some Fidesz leaders hoped.

The sign, by the way, is an Albert Wass quotation: “The surest weapon against mendacity and falsehood is truthfulness. This is our weapon.” And one shouldn’t miss the doctored photo of Gábor Vona and Ágnes Heller walking hand in hand. It is unlikely that Heller received this distinction because these people are such admirers of her accomplishments as a philosopher.

All in all, I tend to agree with the political scientist Attila Ágh, who in a recent interview said that Vona’s new strategy, for the time being at least, hasn’t resulted in any spectacular growth in the party’s popularity. On the other hand, it hasn’t collapsed either. The opposition to Vona is small, and he still has the party leadership behind him. Most supporters have remained faithful to the party, but it is difficult to predict whether Vona’s new strategy can achieve its aim of attracting voters from the left and from the large group of the undecided.

January 15, 2017

The Orbán government under fire

Viktor Orbán was named “Man of the Year” at the Economic Forum held in the Polish city of Krynica. He was chosen from a list of dignitaries, politicians, and scholars that included Pope Francis, but the devout Polish Catholics preferred the herald of hate over the messenger of love. They can be proud of themselves.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the strong man behind the Polish government led by Beata Szydło, and Orbán Viktor declared a “cultural counterrevolution” in the European Union. While, earlier, the former Soviet satellite countries had tried to make up for the time lost in the deadly embrace of Moscow, the Visegrád 4 countries discovered that their backwardness is in fact an asset. They have set out to spread the gospel of a better Europe across the Continent. As Orbán put it, “the European dream moved to Central Europe.” It seems that they would like to remake Europe in their own image.

As The Financial Times editorial argues, this “cultural counterrevolution” stands against the tolerance, human rights, and liberal democratic values that are the cornerstones of European culture. Their attempt to create an axis against the rest of the EU is a dangerous game and an immoral one as well because they are using the difficulties the Union is currently facing to their own selfish political ends. In addition, wittingly or unwittingly they are serving Vladimir Putin’s mission to extend Russian influence westward.

While the Visegrád 4 countries are proud of their firm stand on the refugee issue, others are horrified at the inhumane treatment of the refugees by the Hungarian authorities and at the East European countries’ unwillingness to cooperate in trying to find a solution to the problem at hand. One of these people is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who delivered a speech at a gala in The Hague on Monday:

I wish to address this short statement to Mr. Geert Wilders, his acolytes, indeed to all those like him—the populists, demagogues and political fantasists…. What Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh. All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that.

The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats. Clever cheats….

History has perhaps taught Mr. Wilders and his ilk how effectively xenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists like them, and the extremists, as the commandants. The atmosphere will become thick with hate; at this point it can descend rapidly into colossal violence….

Do not, my friends, be led by the deceiver. It is only by pursuing the entire truth, and acting wisely, that humanity can ever survive. So draw the line and speak. Speak out and up, speak the truth and do so compassionately, speak for your children, for those you care about, for the rights of all, and be sure to say clearly: stop! We will not be bullied by you the bully, nor fooled by you the deceiver, not again, no more; because we, not you, will steer our collective fate. And we, not you, will write and sculpt this coming century. Draw the line!

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó responded promptly, accusing Zeid bin Ra’ad of “half-truths and lies” with which he tries to manipulate public opinion. “Because of these pronouncements he has become unfit to fill any position at the United Nations. He has completely ruined the reputation of the office of high commissioner for refugees.” The problem is that Zeid bin Ra’ad is the high commissioner for human rights and not refugees. Our instant diplomat still has a lot to learn.

populism2

Zsolt Bayer also noticed that this gentleman with a strange-sounding name said something unflattering about Hungary’s great prime minister and so attacked him in an article in his series “Intolerable.” After describing the horrors of the Islamic State, Bayer expressed his outrage that Zeid bin Ra’ad compared populists like Trump or Orbán to this terrorist organization. With this speech “the Jordanian prince demonstrated that, despite being a prince, he has not as much dignity as a pig, in addition to being as stupid and thick as a slop bucket.” There can be another explanation according to Bayer: “Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights of the United Nations, is a paid agent of the Islamic State. So, he is not a stupid pig but an ignominious, abject traitor, a miscreant who sold his conscience for money. By and large these are the two possibilities.”

Zeid bin Ra’ad’s speech wasn’t the end of the criticism of Hungary coming from the United Nations. Yesterday the UN held a High-Level Forum on Antisemitism where U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a speech. She spent a considerable amount of time on Hungary as an example of a country where public outcry against anti-Semitism has borne fruit. Hungarian papers described the length of the time Power spent on Hungary as 1.5 pages out of 4. Actually, it was more than that. Of the 2,225-word speech 935 were devoted to the Hungarian situation. Here are the relevant parts of the speech:

This brings me to the third challenge I want to highlight today. We must underscore the fact that antisemitism poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the principles of pluralism, diversity, and the fundamental freedoms that we hold most dear. Time and again throughout history, we have seen that when the human rights of Jews are violated, the rights of others are not far behind. This is true in the case of individuals – as we have seen how the people who troll Jewish journalists and disseminate antisemitic memes on social media also routinely target minority groups such as immigrants and, increasingly, refugees.

It is also true for governments. Consider the case of Hungary, where in 2015, a foundation planned to build a statue honoring Balint Homan, a government minister who championed antisemitic laws in the thirties and who, in the forties, called for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, an estimated 420,000 of whom were murdered in Auschwitz and other camps. And just last month, the Hungarian government bestowed one of its highest honors on Zsolt Bayer, a virulently antisemitic columnist. These actions have occurred against a backdrop of growing antisemitism in the country, reflected in part by the rise of the extreme ethnic nationalist Jobbik party, which refers to the Holocaust as the “Holoscam.”

In addition to being profoundly alarming in and of itself, this growing antisemitism has gone hand in hand with rising xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hungary’s prime minister has openly declared his desire “to keep Europe Christian” by barring Muslim refugees who come seeking sanctuary from mass atrocities and persecution, and he’s fanned popular fears by claiming that all terrorists in Europe are migrants. And both Homan in the thirties and forties – and Bayer in recent decades – mixed their antisemitism with the hatred of other minorities; Bayer once wrote of the Roma, “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

Yet from Hungary we can also draw important lessons about how to effectively push back against antisemitism – and it is with this point that I wish to conclude. The planned statue to Balint Homan was never erected. A widespread coalition of Hungarian and international organizations, faith leaders, and governments came together to signal their opposition – persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw its support. I’m proud that American civil society organizations and government officials were part of this effort – including many of you here in civil society, and including U.S. Envoy for Combatting and Monitoring Antisemitism and the U.S. Envoy for Holocaust Issues, both of whom are also here with us today. Their engagement is one of the many reasons we continue to urge other countries to create a ranking position for monitoring and combating antisemitism within their own governments. But these envoys were far from the only U.S. government officials involved in the effort; as President Obama said recently, our government made clear that the statue was, “not a side note to our relations with Hungary – this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States.”

And while the Hungarian government may have given an award to Zsolt Bayer, organizations, civil society groups, and governments have rightly expressed their disapproval and dismay. So have more than 100 individuals who have received honors over the years from the Hungarian government – including some of the country’s most renowned economists, historians, politicians, poets, filmmakers, and scientists – who have returned their awards in protest.

Let me close, then, by reading from a few of the statements that they gave upon returning their awards.

Former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities Jenő Kaltenbach wrote: “With this you rendered dishonorable and unacceptable both the award itself and the one bestowing it. How you hold yourself to account for this is your business. How I choose to live with this is mine.”

András Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote: “I value diversity, not destructive extremism. As a civil activist I received the award, and as a responsible Hungarian citizen I am returning it.”

City mayor Tamás Wittinghof simply posted a picture of his award on Facebook with the caption: “Now we say goodbye to each other.”

And Hungarian-American Katrina Lantos Swett, who many of you know, who had received her award for setting up an organization in Budapest to defend minority rights, said she could not share an award with a man who “deserves censure, not honor, for his loathsome writings and speech.” Katrina named the rights organization she founded after her father – Tom Lantos – the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress, and a lifelong champion of human rights.

These efforts – which I find very moving – show us that when governments are willing to stand up and speak out in the face of antisemitism, rather than stand by, even hatemongers take notice. And when civil society groups and citizens partner in these efforts – and make clear that such hatred poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the pluralism, rights, and freedoms that we hold as sacred – these efforts are exceptionally more effective.

Imagine, for just a moment, how much violence – against Jews and other minorities – might have been avoided if similar efforts had been undertaken in the past. Imagine all of the hatred and suffering that we can prevent if we come together in such an effort today.

The last time I checked, no government response had been posted. A couple of independent media outlets reported on the speech, which elicited mostly hateful comments. Some commenters believe that Power is totally ignorant of what’s going on in Hungary despite her flawless description of the Hóman and Bayer cases. Others think that Jews and/or members of the domestic opposition are behind Power. Some go as far as to say that Jewish complaints usually follow a brilliant Hungarian move, so they should rejoice. And, of course, there are those who think that the United States has no business whatsoever poking its nose into Hungary’s affairs.

I assume Szijjártó will issue an official response shortly, and I can hardly wait for Bayer’s comments.

September 8, 2016

Katrina Lantos Swett returns her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit

Népszabadság reported this morning that Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Tom Lantos Foundation and Institute for Human Rights and Justice, returned her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. With her gesture the number of those who expressed their disgust over the decoration of Zsolt Bayer by returning their own awards has increased to 109.

Katrina Lantos recalled that her father was the only Holocaust survivor who served in the U.S. Congress. He was a real Hungarian patriot who, despite all the tragedies he witnessed, “never lost his love for the country. For three decades he did all he could for Hungary.” She herself continued in this tradition and tried to pass the linguistic and cultural traditions of her family on to the younger generation. She was hoping to give the Knight’s Cross to her children one day and is sorry that by returning the decoration she will not have this opportunity. “The Hungarian government bestowing the Knight’s Cross to Zsolt Bayer stained this noble decoration.” She added that if her father were alive he would ask the government “to take back this unearned decoration from Bayer.” I should add that Judit Járai, the Washington correspondent for the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI), didn’t find Katrina Lantos’s announcement newsworthy.

Katrina Lantos Swett

Katrina Lantos Swett

A few words about the foundation and the institute that is being financed by the Hungarian government. Tom Lantos died suddenly in 2008, and shortly after his death it was proposed to establish a foundation and institute in his memory. But by the time the institute began to take shape there was a change of government. The new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had had a somewhat strained relationship with Tom Lantos. The last time he asked for an interview in Washington, Lantos made him wait for three days, and at the end of the meeting there was no joint press conference. Orbán left and Lantos had a few measured words to say about their differences.

As was expected, the Tom Lantos Institute’s board was composed primarily of Fidesz faithfuls whose views were a far cry from Tom Lantos’s. For example, Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition based in Washington and Kinga Gál, Fidesz EP MP. The Hungarian American Coalition is a decidedly right-of-center organization that has always favored Fidesz. Just to give you an idea of their bias, here is a story in which I myself was involved. One day sometime in 2002 I read that the Coalition had paid for about 20 members of the Hungarian parliament to spend a couple of weeks in Washington to take a closer look at American democracy in action. They all turned out to be Fidesz PMs. When I asked the then president of the Coalition why they invited only Fidesz MPs, he told me that the socialists and the liberals had turned down the invitation. It was a lie, as I found out in no time from the leader of the socialist parliamentary delegation.

So, the Tom Lantos Institute has been a controversial project from the beginning, mostly because of Viktor Orbán’s insistence on making it a party foundation. After all, he must have figured, it is his government that sponsors it and therefore it is his. This is how his mind works. The fact is that the government has given a fair amount of money to the institute. The institute’s website has no detailed information about its finances. All we know is that under “Donors and partners” they list only two donors: the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. We know that in 2009 the institute received 3 billion forints from the government to cover expenses for five years.

The staff consists of nine full-time associates, of whom five are researchers. The other four deal with finances, communication, and administrative duties. Otherwise, the focal points of the institute’s activities are “Jewish life and anti-Semitism,” “Roma rights and citizenship,” and “human and minority rights.” The institute’s publications are mostly texts of lectures delivered at conferences organized by the institute.

In 2011 Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, visited Budapest specifically for the opening of the institute. At that time I received a letter from a very reliable source who called himself “Diplomat Anonymous.” He begged Clinton not to go to Budapest. I published the letter in its entirety at that time. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s especially painful to hear that you may be coming here to bless the opening of the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI). I didn’t know the late Congressman well; we only shook hands once in Washington. But I know that he fought against prejudice, he fought for human rights. Yes, to his great credit, he cared about the Hungarian ethnic minority in the neighboring countries, and the Institute may well publish books or pamphlets on that issue. But what about media freedom here? What about anti-Semitism? Will TLI address these painful issues? I predict that it will not – it cannot — because the Orbán government authored this very restrictive media law, and it doesn’t believe there’s anti-Semitism in Hungary. As for the Roma issue, which is the most agonizing social problem here, please ask an aide to check out the background of Rita Izsák, TLI’s new Director. In the Roma community, of which she’s a member, she’s known as Uncle Tom. She will respect the wishes of the government, which, after all, is TLI’s sole financial backer.

Since then Rita Izsák has left the institute. In 2013 Anna-Mária Bíró became the new director. She hails from Transylvania, where in the 1990s she was adviser to the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or, as it is known in Hungarian, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), a right-of-center party. Most of the researchers are young women. Just recently the institute hired a young Hungarian program manager for Jewish life and anti-Semitism and a publications and communications officer from New Zealand. It is hard to pass any judgment on the work the institute is doing based on the scant information that is available.

But let’s return to the president of the Hungarian American Coalition, Maximilian Teleki, who was interviewed by Népszabadság in connection with Katrina Lantos’s return of the Knight’s Cross. He expressed his astonishment at the government’s decision to give a decoration to Bayer and added that “many of us supported some if not all steps of the Fidesz government. We especially approved of their announcement of ‘zero tolerance’ against anti-Semitism. Now we ask ourselves how they are able to go against their own pledge. Two steps forward and one big one backward?” Mr. Teleki, who by the way doesn’t speak Hungarian so his knowledge of the present political situation must be limited, came to the conclusion that the political views of Jobbik and Bayer are identical. Well, just for his information, Bayer is a member of Fidesz and without the blessing of Viktor Orbán he would not be able to publish the smut he does. The members of the Hungarian American Coalition should wake up and admit to themselves that, at least since 1994, they have been supporting a party and a government which no real democrat with a modicum of conscience should. Make a clean break instead of constant excuses. It doesn’t reflect well on the Hungarian American Coalition.

September 2, 2016