Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Gábor Vona and Katalin Rangos in the Spinoza Theater

On Thursday in the Spinoza Theater on Dob utca, in the middle of the “Jewish quarters,”  a lengthy conversation took place between Gábor Vona (Jobbik) and Katalin Rangos, a well-known journalist. It was part of a series of conversations with leaders of all the more substantial parties, including Fidesz. This was the third such gathering, after the appearances of Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK) and Bernadett Szél (LMP).

After Anna Sándor, the director of Spinoza, announced the scheduled conversations a couple of months ago, she received criticism and even threats from people who considered Jobbik an unacceptable guest because of its anti-Semitic past. Anna Sándor refused to retreat. I can only applaud this decision. Hungary is allegedly still a democracy and, whether we like it or not, Jobbik is the largest opposition party. Its support is twice the size of MSZP’s.

The debate that spilled over to Facebook was about whether Spinoza, which is known to be sensitive to minority questions and yearly organizes the by now famous Jewish Festival, is not legitimizing with its invitation a party that until recently was known for its anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. From the comments on Jewish internet sites it is clear that the larger part of the Jewish community thinks that the theater’s invitation was a mistake.

The capacity of the Spinoza Theater is small and the atmosphere intimate, though the audience was not allowed to ask questions. The conversation, lasting an hour and a half, was exclusively between Katalin Rangos and Gábor Vona. Rangos was hard hitting and, as a result, Vona faltered a few times. But by and large he handled the situation quite well. The conversation can be viewed on Hír TV.

The weakest part of Vona’s responses came when he was asked why he tolerates László Toroczkai as deputy chairman of the party. I wrote recently about Toroczkai in my post on “Jobbik’s checkered past and present.” Most observers are convinced that Vona needs Toroczkai in a high position within the party because his presence in the leadership ensures the loyalty of the more right-radical supporters of Jobbik. Vona’s justification for Toroczkai’s presence in the party brought to mind that on certain issues Vona is still very much of a hard liner. For example, Toroczkai’s views on the migrants and Islam suit him just fine. His answer to Rangos about his old claim regarding the incompatibility of his possible Jewishness and his being the head of Jobbik was also totally unacceptable. I was equally appalled when he expressed his admiration for Mária Wittner just because she was a heroine of the 56 revolution, regardless of her extreme right-wing political views. So, I suspect that there are many far-right elements remaining in Vona’s ideological playbook.

On the other hand, his explanation of how he, who once said that Jobbik was not a democratic party and that democracy is not his cup of tea, now wants to restore democracy in Hungary was more convincing. As he put it, he can thank Viktor Orbán for his recognition of the absolute necessity of democracy because in the last six to seven years he learned what it’s like to live in an undemocratic state. Those who don’t want to listen to the entire conversation can read a good summary of it here.

Péter S. Föld, whose writings I greatly admire, wrote an article titled “Variations on Vona and Spinoza.” Variation A is that Vona is a Nazi and Jobbik is a Nazi party. They try to convince us that their past actions were only childish mischief, but their metamorphosis is merely a tactical move. After they grab power we will see a return of the old Jobbik. They will again count Jewish members of the government and parliament; they will again spit into the shoes alongside the Danube. Therefore, allowing Vona into Spinoza was not just a mistake but a sin. Variation B claims that we should recognize that Jobbik is not the same party that it was a few years ago. Vona has changed for the better. If we look around, we must realize that Fidesz is in fact to the right of Jobbik by now. If they are ready to apologize, we must forgive them. Moreover, we have no choice if we want to get rid of the Orbán regime; we must cooperate with Jobbik.

Föld summed up the opposing positions on the left perfectly. I figure that the majority of the people believe Variation A, just as Katalin Rangos announced at the beginning of the conversation. Those who were present most likely will not be swayed by whatever Vona told them.

While we contemplate the alternative positions, it is worth taking a look at the government papers because they might guide us in our own assessment of the dilemma the Hungarian left-of-center opposition faces. First of all, all three papers I consulted talked about both sides in a most degrading manner. Here are a few headlines: “Communists, anti-Semites, and flag burners in cahoots for power,” “Vona sucks up to and delivers an oath of allegiance to the moonbow of MSZP-SZDSZ,” and “Vona makes a penitent, ridiculous visit to the downtown liberal elite.” All three articles have an anti-Semitic tinge to them because they make it clear that this “downtown liberal elite” frequents the old Jewish quarters and the Spinoza Theater.

According to 888.hu, Vona humiliated his own party and disgraced himself. And Rangos was labelled “the most servile and unscrupulous” supporter of the MSZP-SZDSZ governments. Even so, according 888.hu, she was all sweetness and light and acted like a “forgiving mother hen” when talking to Vona. She was accused of allowing Vona to wiggle out of sticky questions concerning the past. The Fidesz media, most likely reflecting the party’s fears, seems truly worried about some kind of reconciliation between the opposition parties of the left and the right.

I have the distinct feeling that Fidesz was mighty unhappy about this gathering and that orders were given out to warm up some old stories about Jobbik’s past anti-Semitic statements to help shape public opinion for the event. Gábor Kubatov, who is an extremely important person within Fidesz, gave an interview to Figyelő in which he talked at some length about a possible “technical cooperation between the left and Jobbik.” While he was at it, he delivered a ringing condemnation of both anti-Semitism and Ágnes Heller, “the chief ideologist of the left-liberals who keeps talking about cooperation with Jobbik.” Such cooperation would completely undermine Fidesz’s basic political strategy.

November 19, 2017

Jobbik’s Krisztina Morvai: A portrait

I promised a post on Krisztina Morvai, one of Jobbik’s three members in the European Parliament. Her name came up a few days ago when she gave a lengthy interview to Magyar Idők in which she spoke so fervently against the Soros Plan that she received the greatest compliment possible from Fidesz’s very own Zsolt Bayer. In his opinion, the golden words of Morvai could have come from Viktor Orbán himself.

So, let’s take a look at the career of this woman, who was born in Budapest only a few days after Viktor Orbán in 1963. On paper, she has had a sterling career. After attending one of the best high schools in Budapest, she received a law degree cum laude from ELTE. She joined the faculty of her alma mater where she still teaches. In 1989 she got a scholarship to study at King’s College, where she earned a master of law degree. During the 1993-1994 academic year she taught law at the University of Wisconsin as a Fulbright scholar. Her main interest is criminal law, dealing with victims’ rights, child abuse, sexual exploitation, discrimination, and domestic violence.

Between 2003 and 2006 she was a member of the Women’s Anti-discrimination Committee of the United Nations where she took a very pro-Palestine position and called attention to what she called the “inhumane living conditions” of Palestinian women, which was followed by an official complaint by the Israeli government. In 2006 the Hungarian government refused to endorse her for another four years. What followed was truly disgraceful. She wrote to all the national missions to the UN, accusing her own government of giving in to Israeli pressure in nominating not her but Andrea Pető, whom she called “a well-known Zionist,” which was a lie. The affair is well summarized in an English-language article in HVG from August 2006. She became filled with hatred toward Ferenc Gyurcsány, whose government withheld its endorsement. After her return to Hungary she participated in all the anti-government demonstrations and was one of the founders of the Civil Jogász Bizottság (Civic Legal Committee), which was subsequently used to discredit the Gyurcsány government’s handling of the disturbances that took place during the fall of 2006.

Krisztina Morvai / MTI / Photo: Bea Kallos

As she kept moving to the right and was an outspoken anti-Semite, Jobbik found her to be a choice addition to the party’s followers. She didn’t actually join the party, but she headed Jobbik’s list for the 2009 European parliamentary elections. In addition, she became Jobbik’s candidate for the post of president in 2010.

By 2009, her reputation had plummeted in better circles. In November of that year The Guardian called her a “neo-fascist MEP.” It turned out that she was one of the invitees to a conference organized by the Palestinian Return Center, but several politicians who were scheduled to speak at the conference protested and the organizers withdrew their invitation to her. Because, as the director of the group said, “She is one of Europe’s leading neo-fascists … and Jobbik is a revolting party.”

Her reputation in Israel also hit rock bottom, especially after she advised the “liberal-Bolshevik Zionists” to “start thinking about where to flee and where to hide.” Or, when she distinguished between “our kind” and “your kind” in a context where “your kind” could only be the Jews who, in her opinion, were ruining her country. “Our kind,” she insisted, will not allow the colonization of Hungary. The Guardian also got hold of a Morvai quotation from one of those numerous political discussion groups that existed before the advent of social media. The group consisted mostly of Fidesz supporters, but the “list-owner” let people join without checking their ideological preferences. So, I signed up and read the incredible conversations that took place there. One day I noticed that Morvai, a fairly frequent contributor, in an argument with an American Hungarian who happened to be Jewish, wrote about “so-called proud Hungarian Jews who should go back to playing with their tiny little circumcised tails” instead of doing this or that.

In February 2009 she wrote a letter to the Israeli ambassador to Hungary in which she objected to Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, calling it a “mass murder” and genocide. She claimed that “the only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas. I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’”

She has been a member of the European Parliament ever since 2009, where she is pretty active. She records her activities on her blog as well as her Facebook page. She is also usually on hand in Hungary whenever the country’s far right is threatened in any way. The latest outrage was her behavior at the trial of György Budaházy, a right-wing extremist, who received a 13-year jail sentence for terrorism. The prosecutor apparently found the verdict too lenient, at which point Morvai, who was in the audience, got up and created a scene. When everybody was ordered out of the courtroom, she refused to leave. ELTE, where she is an associate professor, initiated an “ethical investigation.” The investigation ended in a slap on the wrist.

Liberal commentators object to Morvai’s presence on the faculty. Apparently, she has been on unpaid leave ever since 2009 when she became a member of the European Parliament, but she still gives lectures on the abuse of children, terror in the family, and similar subjects. According to students, “she is a superb lecturer” and her lectures are “exciting. The blogger “Mr. Flynn Rider,” however, thinks “this well-known extreme right-wing, anti-Semitic lecturer should have been kicked out a long time ago” from the law school.

As I said in my post titled “Do we know what Jobbik is all about?” Morvai gave a long interview in Magyar Idők which was welcomed by Zsolt Bayer, who wrote an opinion piece in the same issue. Morvai subsequently expressed her surprise about the splash this interview made because “for my Facebook community and visitors to my blog there was nothing new in this interview.” Clearly, Morvai is trying to downplay an important move on her part.

At the moment, Fidesz and Jobbik are at each other’s throats. A couple of weeks ago there was talk of the government’s likely plans to withdraw mandated financial support to the party on the basis of possible financial irregularities. Jobbik at the moment is Fidesz’s favorite whipping boy. The personal attacks on Gábor Vona are incessant and ugly. One reason is that Jobbik is just as harsh a critic of the Orbán government as the liberal-socialists parties are. For instance, Jobbik ironically insisted that the Hungarian police investigate George Soros if he is such a serious threat to national security.

It is in these circumstances that a Jobbik member of the European Union gives an interview in which she agrees with every move the Orbán government has made in the last two or three years. Moreover, the publication of that interview is accompanied by the simultaneous support and praise from one of the best known Fidesz journalists, Zsolt Bayer.

In the interview Morvai supports the government wholeheartedly. While her party criticizes Orbán over the lack of democracy, she finds the EU’s criticism of Hungary on that score unacceptable. She agrees with the argument that the Orbán government does its share in attending to the root causes of the problems in the Middle East by helping “our Christian brethren on the spot.” As for the Soros Plan, “the European migration policy is so absurd, unreasonable, and inhumane that there must be some evil, demonic plan behind it,” although she doesn’t know whether Soros is the #1 organizer or not.

What is Bayer’s supporting piece about? It is about Jobbik, which is no longer the party that deserves his admiration because “its chairman led his people to betrayal and sleaze.” But not Krisztina Morvai. She has remained what she has always been. That is a great relief to Bayer because he was afraid that Morvai, following Vona, had been lost. The very fact that she gave an interview “for us” is a mortal sin because Jobbik politicians refuse to “talk to us.” This interview could have been given by Viktor Orbán. “Krisztina Morvai has come home” or “actually it seems she has never left.”

A day later Magyar Idők was still on the subject of that interview. A journalist in an opinion piece wrote: “Unbelievable, people in Jobbik are not curious about the interview their party’s MEP gave to our newspaper.” Obviously, this Morvai interview is considered to be a major win in Fidesz’s political duel with Jobbik. And, of course, Morvai is not as innocent as she tries to portray herself.

October 31, 2017

Do we know what Jobbik is all about?

I have somewhat neglected the affairs of Jobbik, but the speech that Gábor Vona, the leader of the party, delivered on October 23 was significant enough to prompt me to take stock of what’s going on in what was once the most notorious extremist right-wing party in all of Europe. The reputation of Jobbik was so tarnished a few years ago that not even the very right-wing Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) in the European Parliament wanted anything to do with the party’s three European parliamentary members. They sit with the independents. In 2015, however, Vona and people close to him in the party decided to abandon their former ideology and move toward a more centrist position on the political spectrum.

The move was logical because, over the years, Viktor Orbán had moved his own party, Fidesz, more and more to the right until the two parties were practically indistinguishable. Vona’s move resulted in a loss of support on the extreme right wing of the party. These people most likely today are Fidesz supporters. As the election nears and the size of the liberal and socialist camp shrinks, Vona has been making great efforts to appeal to disillusioned MSZP voters. The job is not easy because too many people remember the party’s anti-Semitic outbursts, their burning of the European Union’s flag, their support for all sorts of extremist groups, and their establishment of the Hungarian Guard, whose flag bore a suspicious resemblance to that of the Hungarian national socialist Arrow Cross movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Because of the heavy baggage Jobbik carries, for the time being there is solid opposition on the left to cooperating with Vona’s party, even though there is quite a bit of pressure from below to enter into some kind of “technical coalition” because otherwise Fidesz might emerge with an even greater plurality than in 2010 and 2014. But Gergely Karácsony of Párbeszéd put it well when he said that “once Jobbik made it clear that it doesn’t want to cooperate with the other parties but is interested only in its own voters, any discussion on the subject would be counterproductive.” Moreover, if the opposition parties on the left made a deal with Jobbik, it would essentially be rolling out a red carpet for Jobbik voters.

Yet there are observers like Béla Galló, a political scientist who formerly had close connections with the socialist party, who are convinced that although Vona and his comrades swore in 2010 that they would never have anything to do with the members of the pre-2010 political elite, they are in fact surreptitiously flirting with the left opposition. Indeed, there are signs that may be interpreted as Jobbik making efforts at getting closer to the other parties. For instance, Vona readily accepts invitations to conferences organized by the other side. A couple of days ago Gábor Vona, together with Bernadett Szél (LMP), Zsuzsanna Szelényi (independent), Gyula Molnár (MSZP), and Péter Balázs, former foreign minister, participated in a conference organized by Political Capital and the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, a socialist think tank. He was also recently invited by Momentum to a meeting, after which he announced that the young leaders of this new political party had made a very good impression on him.

Gábor Vona and Péter Balázs at the Conference of Political Capital and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung / Source: zoom.hu

Gábor Vona’s October 23 speech was the latest and perhaps the clearest indication that he now wants to position his party exactly opposite the stance that originally elevated the party to considerable heights in Hungarian politics. Instead of basing the party’s policy on harsh opposition to mainstream politics, he wants to cooperate with others. As he put it, “the destructive energies must come together.” He has had enough of strife. He is no longer “interested in who is on the right and who is on the left, he is not interested in who is moderate and who is radical, and he is not interested in who is conservative and who is liberal.” He agreed with Viktor Orbán that Hungary is “a freedom-loving nation,” but “the country’s whole history must be a continuous fight for freedom not just against foreign powers but also against domestic potentates.” The reporter of 24.hu had the impression during the speech that “Vona has become so tame that one had the distinct feeling that he even buried his own extreme right-wing, semi-Nazi past.”

This might be too optimistic an assessment of the situation. There are plenty of issues on which Jobbik hasn’t changed its mind at all. It is still an extremely nationalistic party, and although there is no more overt anti-Semitism coming from the very top Jobbik politicians, many of the loudest anti-Semites are still in leading positions within the party. So are some Islamophobes. In addition, it is not at all clear what Jobbik’s position is on the Horthy regime and Hungary’s responsibility for the Holocaust. Vona’s foreign policy ideas are also worrisome. A couple of days ago Jobbik organized an international press conference for foreign journalists where Vona tried to explain Jobbik’s position on a number of issues. I found his foreign policy ideas convoluted, unrealistic, and even dangerous. They wouldn’t be an improvement over those of Viktor Orbán because “he would place Hungary in a German, Turkish, Russian, American, and Chinese sphere of influence (erőtér).” I remember similar noises from Viktor Orbán often enough. Vona’s ideas on Jobbik in the European Parliament are difficult to comprehend. What does he means when he says that he “sees the place of Jobbik and the country not in a party family [párpolitikai család] but in regional cooperation?”

Finally, just a short note on a new development. Krisztina Morvai, one of Jobbik’s three EP members of parliament, gave a long interview to Magyar Idők in which she wholeheartedly supported Viktor Orbán’s war against the “Soros Plan.” In brief, she turned against her own party, which just sued the Orbán government to produce the so-called Soros Plan which Vona and friends don’t think exists. Fidesz is most likely thrilled because Zsolt Bayer, whose writing is a good barometer of Fidesz’s positions on issues, welcomed his old friend, Krisztina Morvai, who returned to the fold. He joyfully announced that “this interview could have been given by Viktor Orbán himself.” That’s a real compliment. A left-wing internet news site wryly commented that Gábor Vona must be a happy man because Krisztina Morvai’s radicalism and anti-Semitism were heavy baggage for this new allegedly right-of-center Jobbik. Actually, Krisztina Morvai’s political career deserves a separate post, if not two, which I will certainly write one day.

October 29, 2017

Censured journalists: The case of Lili Bayer

On September 5 the notorious 888.hu, one of the many government news sites, published a list of “foreign propagandists” of George Soros. These “foreign propagandists” for the most part are Hungarian nationals who work for various foreign-language media outlets. Some of them earlier worked for left-of-center Hungarian papers, like Népszabadság, Népszava, and Magyar Narancs but now write for the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters, and Deutsche Welle. According to 888.hu, “the international media’s accredited reporters in Budapest also look upon Uncle Georgie as their sugar daddy,” and therefore they ought to be censured.

Seven journalists and a photo journalist were included in this infamous list, among them Lili Bayer, a freelance writer whose articles regularly appear in The Budapest Beacon and the European edition of Politico. Bayer is an American national with Hungarian roots and an advanced degree from Oxford University. She writes from Budapest, although she makes frequent trips to the neighboring countries as well.

888.hu first took note of Lili Bayer in March of this year after her article, “Hungarian law targets Soros, foreign-backed NGOs,” appeared in Politico. 888.hu claimed that she is “ill-informed [and] a news fabricator.” It is unfortunate that she often writes about Hungary, they said, because she has proved many times that she doesn’t have even a basic knowledge of Hungarian politics. She merely transmits “misleading opinions.”

That was the first attack on Lili Bayer but not the last. On March 24 she was again the subject of an article. Here she was described as someone who, “besides poisoning the readers of Politico,” now “hustles Gábor Vona on the largest American Jewish portal.” The reference was to an interview Bayer did with Vona on “the conversion” of Jobbik. But the reason that 888.hu denounced “Soros’s court journalist” this time was her investigative work on Sebastian Gorka’s Hungarian past. 888.hu falsely accused her of not knowing the difference between the Horthy-established Vitézi Rend and Nazism. “The lesson, don’t ever believe anything from a liberal Sorosist.”

The next occasion for an attack came in May when Politico asked Lili Bayer to interview Zoltán Kovács, the Orbán government’s spokesman who specifically deals with the foreign media. In “Orbán’s (big) mouth” Bayer said that “if Orbán’s critics, in Brussels and beyond, often seem unable to put a glove on him, it is thanks in large part to Kovács’s mastery of the political spin. He’s won respect, grudging from his detractors, as an effective and tireless mouthpiece of his boss.” The picture that emerges from this article, I think, is fair. But obviously, Zoltán Kovács was not thrilled because, from that point on, he joined the attacks against Lili Bayer.

After the appearance of this Politico article, it was again 888.hu that led the way with a piece titled “Lili Bayer: The (big) mouth of Soros.” This time, the 888.hu journalist couldn’t come up with a single valid criticism of the article. He quoted a short passage describing Kovács’s way of handling questions: “The crackdown against watchdog NGOs? A fight for transparency. The legislation seemingly targeting the Central European University, an institution funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire and Orbán adversary George Soros? Simply an initiative to ensure equality among universities. The detention of asylum seekers during their application process? A generous offer of shelter and food.” This time the complaint was that Lili Bayer “forgets to suggest an alternative.” Why a journalist describing the manner in which a government spokesman handles questions should offer “alternatives” is beyond me.

The next day István Lovas in his blog wrote a short comment on the interview with the title “Lily [sic] Bayer’s big mug.” He complained that Politico bothered to spend that much time on a government spokesman and accused Bayer of blaming Kovács for doing his job. “One of Lili Bayer’s accusations against Zoltán Kovács is that he faithfully interprets Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s position.”

On the September 5th 888.hu “black list” Bayer is described as someone with Hungarian roots who is a contributor to the European edition of Politico. She was one of the first people to accuse Viktor Orbán of anti-Semitism after Orbán raised his voice against the subversive activities of George Soros. In addition, she published articles in the leading newspaper of the American Jewry, The Forward, in which “interestingly” she conducted an interview with Gábor Vona.

Obviously, as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, anti-Semitism is a sensitive topic. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons for this, although I could offer some plausible explanations. In any case, on September 28 the following exchange took place on Twitter. Lili Bayer wrote: “On September 26, 1920 the Hungarian parliament voted in its first anti-Jewish measures. September 2017: state-funded anti-Semitic campaign.” Zoltán Kovács, who is very active on Twitter, answered with a South Park cartoon: “Drugs are bad M’Kaaay?” which was not left unanswered: “I’m really lost for words now. The spokesman of the government of Hungary publicly accused me of being on drugs because I tweet on politics.”

888.hu, again on hand, this time called Lili Bayer “the number one American journalist of Soros” who dared to talk about the 1920 numerus clausus, but “luckily Zoltán Kovács put the agitprop blessed with modest historical knowledge in her place.” This was followed by a vigorous denial of any anti-Semitism connected to the anti-Soros campaign. Support for 888.hu’s argument in favor of the government’s position came from an article by David Ha’ivri that appeared in the Israeli Jewish Press. It claimed that anti-Soros activity has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

One would assume that after this exchange a responsible government official would have the good sense to stop this unseemly exercise. But no, both Kovács and his staff seem to be fixated on everything Lili Bayer writes and are intent on keeping the “debate” going. For example, back in August someone from the prime minister’s office accused her of writing about Hungarian politics without knowing a word of Hungarian. She posted a video to her Facebook page in which she proved otherwise. Apparently, an apology followed. But obviously, that was an aberration.

On September 28, the very same day that Kovács responded to her on Twitter, Kovács spent a considerable amount of time Bayer-bashing in an interview with Egon Rónai of Egyenes beszéd. He used the South Park cartoon, he explained, because Lili Bayer is affected by “the drug of calling certain people Nazis and anti-Semites.” He said that “we don’t consider her a journalist but a political activist.” She is coming “from the same universe as George Soros,” which naturally is a cardinal sin for the Hungarian government. Kovács admitted that he had already complained about her to the editor-in-chief of Politico “sometime at the beginning of the year.”

During the conversation it became clear that Lili Bayer is not the only journalist who has crossed Kovács. On the very same day two other journalists had to be “disciplined.” A German and a Brit. They had to be straightened out because, who knows, maybe Kovács will refuse to work with them in the future. The government has already declined to give interviews to certain domestic media outlets or doesn’t allow them to be present at key government functions. Now it seems that Kovács is contemplating extending the ban to certain foreign papers as well. At least this is what his threat of not working with Lili Bayer implies.

September 30, 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

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