Viktor Orbán was named “Man of the Year” at the Economic Forum held in the Polish city of Krynica. He was chosen from a list of dignitaries, politicians, and scholars that included Pope Francis, but the devout Polish Catholics preferred the herald of hate over the messenger of love. They can be proud of themselves.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the strong man behind the Polish government led by Beata Szydło, and Orbán Viktor declared a “cultural counterrevolution” in the European Union. While, earlier, the former Soviet satellite countries had tried to make up for the time lost in the deadly embrace of Moscow, the Visegrád 4 countries discovered that their backwardness is in fact an asset. They have set out to spread the gospel of a better Europe across the Continent. As Orbán put it, “the European dream moved to Central Europe.” It seems that they would like to remake Europe in their own image.
As The Financial Times editorial argues, this “cultural counterrevolution” stands against the tolerance, human rights, and liberal democratic values that are the cornerstones of European culture. Their attempt to create an axis against the rest of the EU is a dangerous game and an immoral one as well because they are using the difficulties the Union is currently facing to their own selfish political ends. In addition, wittingly or unwittingly they are serving Vladimir Putin’s mission to extend Russian influence westward.
While the Visegrád 4 countries are proud of their firm stand on the refugee issue, others are horrified at the inhumane treatment of the refugees by the Hungarian authorities and at the East European countries’ unwillingness to cooperate in trying to find a solution to the problem at hand. One of these people is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who delivered a speech at a gala in The Hague on Monday:
I wish to address this short statement to Mr. Geert Wilders, his acolytes, indeed to all those like him—the populists, demagogues and political fantasists…. What Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh. All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that.
The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats. Clever cheats….
History has perhaps taught Mr. Wilders and his ilk how effectively xenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists like them, and the extremists, as the commandants. The atmosphere will become thick with hate; at this point it can descend rapidly into colossal violence….
Do not, my friends, be led by the deceiver. It is only by pursuing the entire truth, and acting wisely, that humanity can ever survive. So draw the line and speak. Speak out and up, speak the truth and do so compassionately, speak for your children, for those you care about, for the rights of all, and be sure to say clearly: stop! We will not be bullied by you the bully, nor fooled by you the deceiver, not again, no more; because we, not you, will steer our collective fate. And we, not you, will write and sculpt this coming century. Draw the line!
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó responded promptly, accusing Zeid bin Ra’ad of “half-truths and lies” with which he tries to manipulate public opinion. “Because of these pronouncements he has become unfit to fill any position at the United Nations. He has completely ruined the reputation of the office of high commissioner for refugees.” The problem is that Zeid bin Ra’ad is the high commissioner for human rights and not refugees. Our instant diplomat still has a lot to learn.
Zsolt Bayer also noticed that this gentleman with a strange-sounding name said something unflattering about Hungary’s great prime minister and so attacked him in an article in his series “Intolerable.” After describing the horrors of the Islamic State, Bayer expressed his outrage that Zeid bin Ra’ad compared populists like Trump or Orbán to this terrorist organization. With this speech “the Jordanian prince demonstrated that, despite being a prince, he has not as much dignity as a pig, in addition to being as stupid and thick as a slop bucket.” There can be another explanation according to Bayer: “Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights of the United Nations, is a paid agent of the Islamic State. So, he is not a stupid pig but an ignominious, abject traitor, a miscreant who sold his conscience for money. By and large these are the two possibilities.”
Zeid bin Ra’ad’s speech wasn’t the end of the criticism of Hungary coming from the United Nations. Yesterday the UN held a High-Level Forum on Antisemitism where U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a speech. She spent a considerable amount of time on Hungary as an example of a country where public outcry against anti-Semitism has borne fruit. Hungarian papers described the length of the time Power spent on Hungary as 1.5 pages out of 4. Actually, it was more than that. Of the 2,225-word speech 935 were devoted to the Hungarian situation. Here are the relevant parts of the speech:
This brings me to the third challenge I want to highlight today. We must underscore the fact that antisemitism poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the principles of pluralism, diversity, and the fundamental freedoms that we hold most dear. Time and again throughout history, we have seen that when the human rights of Jews are violated, the rights of others are not far behind. This is true in the case of individuals – as we have seen how the people who troll Jewish journalists and disseminate antisemitic memes on social media also routinely target minority groups such as immigrants and, increasingly, refugees.
It is also true for governments. Consider the case of Hungary, where in 2015, a foundation planned to build a statue honoring Balint Homan, a government minister who championed antisemitic laws in the thirties and who, in the forties, called for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, an estimated 420,000 of whom were murdered in Auschwitz and other camps. And just last month, the Hungarian government bestowed one of its highest honors on Zsolt Bayer, a virulently antisemitic columnist. These actions have occurred against a backdrop of growing antisemitism in the country, reflected in part by the rise of the extreme ethnic nationalist Jobbik party, which refers to the Holocaust as the “Holoscam.”
In addition to being profoundly alarming in and of itself, this growing antisemitism has gone hand in hand with rising xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hungary’s prime minister has openly declared his desire “to keep Europe Christian” by barring Muslim refugees who come seeking sanctuary from mass atrocities and persecution, and he’s fanned popular fears by claiming that all terrorists in Europe are migrants. And both Homan in the thirties and forties – and Bayer in recent decades – mixed their antisemitism with the hatred of other minorities; Bayer once wrote of the Roma, “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”
Yet from Hungary we can also draw important lessons about how to effectively push back against antisemitism – and it is with this point that I wish to conclude. The planned statue to Balint Homan was never erected. A widespread coalition of Hungarian and international organizations, faith leaders, and governments came together to signal their opposition – persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw its support. I’m proud that American civil society organizations and government officials were part of this effort – including many of you here in civil society, and including U.S. Envoy for Combatting and Monitoring Antisemitism and the U.S. Envoy for Holocaust Issues, both of whom are also here with us today. Their engagement is one of the many reasons we continue to urge other countries to create a ranking position for monitoring and combating antisemitism within their own governments. But these envoys were far from the only U.S. government officials involved in the effort; as President Obama said recently, our government made clear that the statue was, “not a side note to our relations with Hungary – this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States.”
And while the Hungarian government may have given an award to Zsolt Bayer, organizations, civil society groups, and governments have rightly expressed their disapproval and dismay. So have more than 100 individuals who have received honors over the years from the Hungarian government – including some of the country’s most renowned economists, historians, politicians, poets, filmmakers, and scientists – who have returned their awards in protest.
Let me close, then, by reading from a few of the statements that they gave upon returning their awards.
Former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities Jenő Kaltenbach wrote: “With this you rendered dishonorable and unacceptable both the award itself and the one bestowing it. How you hold yourself to account for this is your business. How I choose to live with this is mine.”
András Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote: “I value diversity, not destructive extremism. As a civil activist I received the award, and as a responsible Hungarian citizen I am returning it.”
City mayor Tamás Wittinghof simply posted a picture of his award on Facebook with the caption: “Now we say goodbye to each other.”
And Hungarian-American Katrina Lantos Swett, who many of you know, who had received her award for setting up an organization in Budapest to defend minority rights, said she could not share an award with a man who “deserves censure, not honor, for his loathsome writings and speech.” Katrina named the rights organization she founded after her father – Tom Lantos – the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress, and a lifelong champion of human rights.
These efforts – which I find very moving – show us that when governments are willing to stand up and speak out in the face of antisemitism, rather than stand by, even hatemongers take notice. And when civil society groups and citizens partner in these efforts – and make clear that such hatred poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the pluralism, rights, and freedoms that we hold as sacred – these efforts are exceptionally more effective.
Imagine, for just a moment, how much violence – against Jews and other minorities – might have been avoided if similar efforts had been undertaken in the past. Imagine all of the hatred and suffering that we can prevent if we come together in such an effort today.
The last time I checked, no government response had been posted. A couple of independent media outlets reported on the speech, which elicited mostly hateful comments. Some commenters believe that Power is totally ignorant of what’s going on in Hungary despite her flawless description of the Hóman and Bayer cases. Others think that Jews and/or members of the domestic opposition are behind Power. Some go as far as to say that Jewish complaints usually follow a brilliant Hungarian move, so they should rejoice. And, of course, there are those who think that the United States has no business whatsoever poking its nose into Hungary’s affairs.
I assume Szijjártó will issue an official response shortly, and I can hardly wait for Bayer’s comments.