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.
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.