Tag Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

Viktor Orbán and the Chabad kosher business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 20, 2017

Meeting of the minds: Benjamin Netanyahu and the Visegrád 4

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

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

What a happy crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2017

The Hungarian Jewish community feels abandoned by Netanyahu’s Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 17, 2017

The “totally successful” anti-Soros campaign comes to a sudden end

It was over the July 1-2 weekend that Hungary was plastered with thousands of posters showing a smiling George Soros. The accompanying text declared: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!” That is, the strong and proud Hungarians must stop Soros’s efforts to send millions of Middle Eastern and African migrants to Europe, some of whom may end up in Hungary. This latest campaign cost the taxpayers 5.6 billion forints, over and above the 11 billion that had already been spent on earlier anti-migrant campaigns.

Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of religious Jewish communities, initially issued a bland statement about the unpleasant memories this poster campaign awakens in the Jewish community. A couple of days later, however, András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, wrote a stronger letter to Viktor Orbán asking him to end the campaign and remove the posters. Although the poster is “not openly anti-Semitic, nevertheless it is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments.” He pointed out that these fears are not unfounded because hateful inscriptions had already appeared on the Soros posters that recalled the darkest period of Hungarian history.

Hungarian and old German anti-Jewish poster from the 1930s, side by side

This letter couldn’t be ignored, and Orbán answered promptly. The bulk of the letter was devoted to the perils Hungary faces and the heroic efforts he and his government are undertaking for the safety of the homeland and Hungarian families. Illegal migration is clearly a national security question, and whoever threatens Hungary’s security will have to face the Hungarian state’s political and legal power regardless of ethnic origin or religious faith. He reminded Heisler that he is actually defending the Jewish community by opposing illegal migration, which is the hotbed of the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” Orbán left Heisler’s request for the removal of the billboards unanswered. 24.hu called Orbán’s letter impertinent.

It was at that point that Yossi Amrani, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, published the following statement both in English and Hungarian on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page.

I call on those involved in the current billboard campaign and those responsible for it to reconsider the consequences.

No gain can come from such a campaign recalling the historic lesson.

At the moment beyond political criticism of a certain person, the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear.

It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.

Yossi Amrani
Ambassador of Israel
Budapest, Hungary

A day after the ambassador called on Orbán to remove the posters, however, on the instruction of the Israeli prime minister’s office the foreign ministry backtracked, criticizing George Soros, who “constantly undermines Israel’s governments.” The foreign ministry’s spokesman refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán and strongly denounced George Soros. “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.”

This incident stirred quite a debate in Israel. Chemi Shalev, a Haaretz correspondent, wrote an opinion piece in which he didn’t mince words. According to him, the Israeli embassy in Budapest published an appropriate condemnation of the poster campaign against Soros “until Benjamin Netanyahu stuck a knife in their backs.” According to Shalev, “many Europeans, including Soros’ harshest critics, can clearly identify blatant anti-Semitism in these campaigns. Netanyahu apparently believes that his anti-Israeli position justifies throwing Soros to the anti-Semitic dogs.” He severely criticized Israel for its nationalistic, xenophobic, and insular policies which inevitably leads to “deepening ties and identification with similar countries that think and behave the same way.” Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Netanyahu and Orbán stand shoulder to shoulder despite Orbán’s recent praise of Miklós Horthy.

Gáspár Miklós Tamás (TGM) wrote a short thought-provoking essay in which he tries to define “modern anti-Semitism.” In his view it is not simply hostility toward a people or a religion but is an emotion that is against “universality.” Soros is an expression of that universality which the nationalistic, inward-looking far-right Orbán government finds unnatural. It considers it abnormal that someone identifies with others outside of his own people, religion, or sex. In that sense Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can be viewed as “anti-Semitic.” The Israeli prime minister will feel very much at home in Viktor Orbán’s company, he believes. “The boys will understand each other well.”

Meanwhile George Soros also raised his voice. “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign. Equally, I am heartened that together with countless fellow citizens the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community has spoken out against the campaign.” In addition, Michael Vachon, director of communications for the Soros Fund Management and spokesman for George Soros himself, sent a letter around to explain what’s going on in Hungary. Apparently, the letter was written by Soros but appeared over the signature of Vachon. In Hungary it was published by 444.hu.

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing to alert you to deeply troubling developments in the heart of the European Union, in Hungary.

It is urgent that you help spread the news about what is happening.

Last week the Fidesz-led government launched a nationwide billboard and television advertising campaign reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours.

The campaign uses an image of a grinning George Soros with the slogan “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!”

Thousands of these posters have been plastered around the country: on billboards, on the metro, on the floors of Budapest’s trams so that people cannot enter the tram without trampling on Soros’s face.

Understanding the government’s intent, some of the posters have been defaced with hateful graffiti such as “stinking Jew” scrawled across Soros’s face. The government has spent $12.9 million (5.7 billion HUF) on the campaign so far.

Because of its clearly anti-Semitic overtones, the campaign has created an outcry amongst Hungary’s Jews and others. The leader of the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities has called for an immediate removal of the poster as has Israel’s ambassador in Budapest.

Fidesz rejects charges that the campaign is anti-Semitic in nature and claims that the Hungarian government’s goal is to stop Soros’s “migrant campaign,” which they claim is promoting the immigration of a million illegal immigrants into Europe.

The government has consistently and willfully misrepresented Soros’s views on migration and refugees.

As a survivor of the Holocaust who hid from the Nazis in Budapest and later was himself a refugee, Soros knows first-hand what it means to be in mortal peril. He carries the memory of the international community’s rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It is from the crucible of those experiences that his empathy for refugees from war-torn Syria and elsewhere was born.

Soros’s actual position on migration is that the international community should provide more support to the developing countries that today host 89% of refugees and that Europe should accept several hundred thousand fully screened refugees through an orderly process of vetting and resettlement. He believes that qualified asylum seekers should not have to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety.

He also believes that Europe needs a common asylum system that equitably shares responsibility for protecting legitimate refugees rather than placing that burden on only a few countries. Soros’s position is entirely consistent with mainstream European values. The Hungarian regime’s xenophobia and demonization of refugees are anti-European. The claim that Soros is promoting a scheme to import a million illegal immigrants into Europe is Victor Orban’s fantasy.

Please help us spread the word about this anti-Semitic and anti-refugee campaign in the heart of Europe.

At the end of this email I have included sample images of the Fidesz poster campaign. I have also provided links to recent news stories that attempt to explain why George has inspired the wrath of authoritarian rulers around the world.

Regards,
Michael Vachon

The following day ATV reported that, according to an influential Fidesz insider, the anti-Soros campaign is coming to an end. In Orbán’s opinion, the campaign was a “complete success” because it not only solidified the forces of the liberals and socialists but even Jobbik became a defender of Soros. They all showed their true anti-nationalist colors. And the real sign of the success of the campaign is Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that the anti-Soros campaign is not anti-Semitic. But Orbán wants to avoid a situation in which all those posters take attention away from the Aquatic World Championship. So, allegedly, the posters must come down because of this sporting event.

This explanation is questionable. The world championship begins with a lavish opening ceremony on July 14, so one assumes that visitors and athletes will be coming to town already tomorrow and all through Friday. Will it be possible to remove the thousands of posters by then? Or, as some people suspect, is the real reason for the removal of them by July 15 Netanyahu’s arrival on July 18? Perhaps Orbán fears that the sea of posters might change the Israeli prime minister’s opinion of the nature of this hate campaign. MSZP compared the Orbán government’s swift removal of the billboards and posters to the temporary disappearance of most of the anti-Jewish signs before the commencement of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Historians well acquainted with Nazi propaganda methods find more and more common features between German anti-Semitic posters from the 1930s and the two anti-Soros posters that have appeared to date. Almost as if the propagandists hired by the Orbán government turned to the Third Reich for inspiration.

July 12, 2017

George Soros and George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein

Ever since April 1, when thousands of hard-hitting Jobbik billboards appeared all over the country, a poster war of sorts has been going on in Hungary. The Jobbik campaign by all accounts irritated Viktor Orbán to no end, so he made sure that in the future he will not have to face billboards depicting him as a common thief. After some difficulty, Fidesz smuggled in an amendment to an otherwise innocent enough bill about “community image” that forbids political advertising at any time other than a few weeks before national and municipal elections. Of course, the government will be able to post “informational material” anytime it deems necessary. Which is practically all the time. One poster campaign ends, the next begins. This has been going on for over a year.

I must say that the thousands of posters and billboards, which are everywhere one looks, don’t do much for the “community image” or “beautification of the cityscape,” but apparently people on the spot have become inured to them. In the last few months there have been billboards on “More respect for Hungarians,” “Let’s Stop Brussels,” and “Hungary is a strong and proud European country.” Now they can enjoy a new 5.4 billion forint campaign with thousands of billboards featuring an enormous picture of George Soros. In small print the text reads: “99% reject illegal immigration” and in large letters: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”

The first thought that popped into people’s heads when confronted with the billboard was the person of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, who was the principal figure in the programs of the Two-Minutes Hate in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of these people was Gábor Török, a well-known political scientist, who quoted at some length from Orwell’s famous novel:

The sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were – in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State.

Indeed, Soros has become Viktor Orbán’s Emmanuel Goldstein. Naturally, those who read Török on Facebook—and he has close to 50,000 followers—wanted to refresh their memories of Orwell’s book, which had been available in the Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár (MEK). But as of today the Hungarian translation of the work has been removed for copyright reasons. I know this sounds suspicious, but from what I read on the subject MEK might have made the book public without properly checking the copyright status of the book.

Almost all commentaries on the billboard itself start with the observation that the message makes no sense. I disagree. For me it is crystal clear what the creator of this particular political message had in mind. It is a different matter that the message is based on false information and premises. The first problem is the unspecified 99% who say no to illegal migration. It gives the misleading impression that 99% of the whole population voted against allowing refugees to settle in Hungary, when the reference is actually to the so-called “national consultation” in which, according to the government’s own admission, only 1.4 million people participated while 7.1 million people stayed away. As for Soros’s last laugh, I think the message is that Soros wants Hungary to be invaded by millions of Middle Easterners and Africans. Once this task is accomplished, he will have a good laugh. But the present-day Goldstein will be stopped by the brave government of the 99%.

This new anti-Soros campaign elicited some vehement reactions. One of the strongest came from Lajos Bokros, former minister of finance and currently chairman of a small opposition group called MoMa, who called the campaign “anti-Semitic propaganda based on lies = fascism.” Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet claimed that Orbán’s system is totally void of value, ideology, and ideas. He simply wants to remain in power. All his political moves are subordinated to this end. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious communities, reacted cautiously to the poster and what’s behind it. In his opinion the poster campaign creates troubling thoughts in the Jewish community, but this was not the intention of the creators of the campaign. But, he added, the posters themselves may prompt anti-Semitic reactions in certain segments of society, which is something that should be avoided.

Heisler in that interview expressed his doubts that the government can be persuaded by Mazsihisz or any other group to stop this particular campaign because, for one reason or another, this Soros bashing at top volume seems to be a very important goal of the regime. Here a few examples from yesterday and today. Híradó reported that “Lajos Bokros admitted that he gets his money from George Soros’s university.” Sure, he is a professor at Central European University. “His money” is actually his salary. Bokros’s designation of Orbán’s political system as fascism elicited an answer from the Government Information Center: “Lajos Bokros is a member of the Soros network; he is paid by Soros; he lives on Soros’s money.” János Halász, undersecretary in charge of culture in the prime minister’s office, described Bokros as someone “who is simply George Soros’s political mercenary.”

Because of the upcoming Budapest Pride this weekend, a favorite topic on Lőrinc Mészáros’s Echo TV has been homosexuality. Yesterday three right-wing women discussed the dangers homosexuals pose to society. In no time George Soros was accused of pro-homosexual propaganda through NGOs he supports. It is time to recognize that George Soros’s activities are an open attack against families, they warned. Magyar Idők reported this morning that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, also sponsored by George Soros, is giving “sensitivity training” to judges when “dealing with migrants, homosexuals, and other groups living at the periphery of society.” Once the paper found out about these activities, one of its worried journalists contacted the Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH), which reassured him that of 3,000 judges only 106 signed up for the sensitivity training.

Tamás Fricz, a so-called political scientist who has a regular column in Magyar Idők, found an article by Bálint Magyar titled “The EU’s Mafia State” published in Project Syndicate, which is, as he put it, “Soros’s own internet site.” Soros also called Orbán’s political system a mafia state and therefore, says Fricz, it is worth looking at these two people’s relationship. Magyar is described by Fricz as an ultraliberal who is against such traditional values as family, churches, and nations. Thus, “Magyar is one of Soros’s favorites.” After this introduction, Fricz accuses Magyar of being the secret agent of Soros who has been publishing book after book spreading the bad name of Viktor Orbán and his government. “Bálint Magyar is a good boy in the eyes of members of the global elite because he is working for [them] against his own country and therefore he gets lots of candy.” Soros has been in such close contact with Magyar that he “by now goes so far as to call the Orbán government a mafia state.” And now Magyar got the opportunity, I guess granted by Soros, to publish in Project Syndicate. The country must defend itself against the network to which these people belong. The fact is that Project Syndicate does receive some money from the Open Society Foundation, but it is funded by many other foundations as well, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is not Soros’s publication. As far as the description of the Orbán regime as a “mafia state,” by now this phrase is so widespread that any kind of mysterious connection between Soros and Magyar is outright ludicrous.

Origo, which practically overnight became a far-right publication, occasionally outdoes Magyar Idők in hate mongering and spreading false news. This time it attacked László Majtényi, president of Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKINT), for organizing all the Soros-funded NGOs under his own EKINT. Majtényi is also a trusted man of Soros, claims the paper. The truth is that Majtényi met Soros three times at large gatherings where he didn’t even have a chance to talk with him. According to Origo, George Soros is also relying on his son Alexander who was in Budapest lately to use NGOs as their instruments against the Hungarian government. Most of these connections described by the government propaganda machine as sinister are based either on nothing or on distorted facts. When reading these concocted stories, one really does have a feeling of total unreality, very much the same way as when one reads about Goldstein in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There have been a few reports of defacement of some of the Soros posters where someone has scribbled the words “büdös zsidó” over his face. (“Büdös” literally means “stinking” but perhaps “filthy” would be a better match here, so “filthy Jew.”) I find such an outcome almost inevitable. This might be especially uncomfortable since Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Budapest in two weeks’ time. At the Israeli request Péter Szijjártó already had to recant Viktor Orbán’s statement that Miklós Horthy was an exceptional statesman. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government wasn’t pleased given Horthy’s indisputable role in the Hungarian Holocaust. In fact, Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party, wrote an opinion piece in The Times of Israel in which he insisted that “if Viktor Orban doesn’t personally and fully apologize, Prime Minister Netanyahu should cancel his visit to Hungary.” And now we have reports about the defacing of the Soros posters. It’s hard to imagine that the propaganda gurus didn’t anticipate such an outcome.

July 5, 2017