Tag Archives: Ilan Mor

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

“Son of Saul” and its reception by the Hungarian right

A month ago Medián conducted a survey on the current state of anti-Semitism in Hungary. This was Medián’s fourth such survey since 2006, and the results are not exactly heartwarming. During this period Medián measured the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites as well as those who are free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The good news is that the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites dropped from 38% to 32% between 2013 and 2014, but of course this is still way too high in comparison to the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or Denmark, although it is more in line with some other Western European countries such as France and Spain. For a handy comparison, see the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100.

Jobbik, Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, is well known as a racist organization which has two arch-enemies, the Jews and the Roma. Although Gábor Vona, the party leader, believes that the party ought to move more to the center of the ideological spectrum to attract larger popular support, many members of the top leadership are staunch anti-Semites who have serious reservations about the new strategy. Moreover, as the Medián survey illustrates, 75% of Jobbik voters are also anti-Semitic.

It is difficult to keep the Jobbik party members in line, especially when there is a hot topic that stirs up the Hungarian anti-Semitic crowd–in this case, the new film “Son of Saul,” which just won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

No one, except for the people at Cannes, have seen the film yet, but critics find it exceptional. For example, “no single entry in this year’s competition impressed more than first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul,'” or “‘remarkable’ may not do Laszlo Nemes’ holocaust drama ‘Son of Saul’ justice.” By all indications, the film might be a strong contender for next year’s Oscar.

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul in Cannes

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, in Cannes

But the far-right crowd, including some of the leaders of Jobbik, are not at all happy. They were already outraged when Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for his book “Fateless” in 2002. As far as they were concerned, the book was not good literature and Kertész received the prize only because the Holocaust is a theme guaranteed to garner acclaim in literature as well as in the film industry.

László Nemes, the young director of the film, tried to get money for the production from all over the world, but in the end it was the Hungarian government’s fund for the arts that underwrote 75% of the project. When the funding decision was made in 2013, Előd Novák, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites of Jobbik, complained bitterly. He pointed out that this was the second film on the Hungarian Holocaust that had been paid for by the Hungarian government. The first one, directed by Lajos Koltai, was based on Kertész’s book (2005). Novák grumbled that “Fateless” had received 920 million forints, and now another Holocaust film was getting 205 million. Moreover, the committee also allocated 4.5 million forints for the development of a movie script (“The Lawyer”) about the trial of the Jews accused of ritual murder in Tiszaeszlár in 1882, “naturally written from the point of view of the lawyer who defended the Jews.” Instead of such films, he argued, the Hungarian government should support films about national heroes and great moments in Hungarian history–for example, the Battle of Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava) of 907 or the Ragged Guard (Rongyos gárda) that defended the western borders of Hungary in 1921. Novák called all this interest in the events of 1944 no more than “Holocaust industry.”

Novák is not impressed by the success of “Son of Saul.” He wrote on his Facebook page a couple of days ago : “Now they expect me to fall on my face because of the international success of the Hungarian Holocaust film. But it is not merely a joke to say that the greatest holiday of the Jews is the day the Oscars are given out…. Kate Winslet confessed that she decided to take a role in a Holocaust movie because then an Oscar is guaranteed. Earlier she had been nominated four times, but didn’t win once.” Winslet received the Oscar for her role in “The Reader” (2008).

For the government and its supporters, the fact that it was a government grant that made the production of “Son of Saul” possible comes in very handy. A group of right-wingers on HírTV who discussed the film had difficulty mustering enthusiasm for the prize and often referred to the Holocaust as a theme that guarantees critical success. One of the participants thought that “picking the Holocaust as his subject was a clever move on the part of a first-time director.” But, however critical they might be, they argued that the production of a film about the Holocaust “proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”

György Dörner, the far-right director of Új Színház whose appointment by Mayor István Tarlós was accompanied by demonstrations and protests, expressed his hope that László Nemes’s next film will be about that great battle between Árpád and the Bavarians in 907. Előd Novák’s views on the real task of the Hungarian film industry must have made a great impression on Dörner.

The Orbán government is trying to change the general perception that it doesn’t do enough to combat anti-Semitism in the country. Today I read with astonishment that from here on students at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University will be required to take a course on the Holocaust. Keep in mind that the Catholic University is an institution close to the heart of policy makers. The rector of the university explained that he had been impressed by the view of Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor that days of remembrance are not enough, that something new and different is needed to make a real impact. The one-semester course will be called “The Holocaust and Remembrance.” It seems that there is already a compulsory course called “Introduction to Catholic Teaching.” The right-wing reaction to the Catholic University’s decision is predictable.

As for “Son of Saul,” once it is available for public viewing, I suspect there will be a very serious discussion about the accuracy of its depiction of Saul as a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando. One such article already appeared in mandiner.hu.

A medieval macabre show: Hungarian Jobbik member symbolically hangs Israeli leaders

Hungarians always complain that foreigners know little or nothing about their country. Well, lately they really can’t complain. Almost a week and a half after Viktor Orbán’s controversial speech the international press is still full of comments on it. Just today I encountered an opinion piece in The Moscow Times which concluded that something is indeed coming from the East “but it’s not the wind. It’s a virus. And with Orbán’s help, this virus has begun to infect the EU.” David Brooks in The York Times described Orbán’s speech as “morbidly fascinating.”

And now here is this effigy story. AP described what happened in Érpatak, a village of about 1,500 inhabitants. Mihály Zoltán Orosz, who has been mayor of the village since 2005, described Israel as “the Jewish terror state” that is trying to “obliterate the Palestinians.” Moreover, he is opposed “to the efforts of Freemason Jews to rule the world.” On the video below you can see a shorter version of the “public execution” where an executioner with a black hood over his face kicks chairs out from under the puppets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres, each tied to a gallows.

The whole scene reminded the journalists of HVG of a medieval macabre show. Who is this man? He is a Jobbik member, but in 2010 when he ran again for the position of mayor of Érpatak he called himself an independent. He is known for his bizarre outfits which are supposed to be traditional Hungarian fare, but they are all terribly exaggerated and therefore ludicrous. He also likes military uniforms. The last time he made quite a splash was at the Budapest gay pride parade where he appeared in a female peasant costume. I am sharing a few of his most “spectacular” outfits.

Of course, a lot of people think that Orosz doesn’t have all his marbles, which is a distinct possibility. But he seems to function quite well and rules the village with an iron fist. Law and order dominate in Érpatak. He calls his “system” the “Érpatak Model,” which he claims is a great success and which should be emulated all over the country. He boasts about the low crime rate, though his critics counter that he exaggerates on that score. And there are some people in the village who are not altogether happy with his activities and the circus he creates around town hall and across the country.

orosz2

His latest performance might have serious consequences. Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor immediately expressed his outrage and said that in his opinion “the Hungarian government must act in order to stop these dangerous acts.” The Hungarian foreign ministry got the message. On Monday around noon they issued a statement in which they declared that what happened over the weekend “cannot be reconciled with European norms and with the rule of law. The mayor uses the war and its innocent victims as a pretext for spreading the propaganda of hate.”

Orosz1

How much do we know about Orosz? Not enough, I fear. We know from Professor David Baer’s Testimony concerning the Condition of Religious Freedom in Hungary, submitted to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) on March 18, 2013, that Mihály Orosz “was affiliated with, or the founder of, at least four different groups registered as [bogus] churches.” Indeed, I found the names of three of these bogus churches in a recent article in Gépnarancs: the Order of the Heart of the Sun, Church of the Sophia Perennis, and the Order of the Eye of Heart.

Orosz4

We know that in order to apply for a job in Érpatak’s town hall the applicants have to fill out a form with 165 bizarre questions on politics and everything else under the sun.

Some people believe that it is time to put an end to Orosz’s activities. Among them is Gellért Rajcsányi, a young conservative publicist of Mandiner. He quotes an announcement from Érpatak’s website which calls attention to a demonstration for June 2014 in front of the courthouse in Nyíregyháza. At this demonstration they “symbolically hanged a criminal prosecutor and a criminal judge to show them what will wait for them after their death because of their activities against the world and the nation.” Clearly, Orosz likes to hang those with whom he disagrees. He led a group of people in front of the building that houses TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of  the American Civil Liberties Union, where they verbally attacked the associates of the organization. The author calls for an end to the career of this wannabe Arturo Ui, a reference to Bertolt Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which chronicles the career of a 1930s Chicago mobster and his attempts to control the cauliflower racket by ruthlessly disposing of the opposition.

Orosz5

Well, the moment might have arrived. Ágnes Vadai in the name of DK urged Peter Polt, the chief prosecutor, to order an investigation. That in itself wouldn’t have prompted Polt to lift a finger, but then Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor pressed charges because of “the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic horror show” that took place in Érpatak. Suddenly, the case had international implications that the government and the prosecutor’s office couldn’t quite ignore. The prosecutor’s office in Nyíregyháza began an investigation into the National Network of the Érpatak and the Youth Movement of the Sixty-Four Counties. If Orosz and the other organizers are found guilty they may receive up to three years in jail. I very much doubt, however, that he will spend even one night in jail.

The Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year: One step forward, two steps backward

It was exactly a week ago that I wrote about the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, which is still very much a topic of debate in Hungary. The core of the problem is the effort on the part of the Orbán government to rewrite the modern history of Hungary.

The problem started with the adoption of a new constitution that has a fairly lengthy preamble in which  the emphasis is on the concept of “nation.” The preamble is actually called “national avowal” and its first sentence reads “we, the members of the Hungarian nation.” For the sake of comparison the United States Constitution refers to the “people of the United States” and the modern constitution of Germany to “the German people.” As we will see a little later, this preoccupation with the idea of “nation” may have far-reaching consequences as far as the current controversy is concerned.

At the time of the release of the text of the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution a lot of legal scholars, historians, and commentators severely criticized it for being a hodgepodge of disconnected, unhistorical nonsense. But what must be an absolutely unique feature of this preamble is that the framers decided to eliminate 46 years, 2 months, and 5 days from Hungary’s history because the decision was made to “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. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” In plain language, Hungarians are not responsible for anything that happened during this “lost” period. It was immediately noted that the first Hungarian transports headed for Auschwitz and other death camps occurred after March 19, 1944. A lot of people suspected that this government was thinking of shifting the entire responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans who, with the permission of Miklós Horthy, moved their troops into Hungary. Regardless of how often officials of the current Hungarian government repeat that they accept responsibility for the Holocaust, the new constitution claims otherwise. And that is the basic law of the land at the moment.

Sorry about these repetitive prefatory remarks, but in order to fully understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and other high officials of the government we must keep in mind the emphasis both on the “Hungarian nation” and on the alleged lack of sovereignty of Hungary. Giving up the idea of erecting a monument that depicts Hungary as the innocent and long-suffering Archangel Gabriel would go against the very core of this view of history. And when we find more and more references to “Hungarians and Jews” in government parlance, we must also keep in mind the nation-centric views that found their way into the new constitution. I maintain that as long as this constitution is in force there can be no meaningful discussion between Viktor Orbán and those who don’t subscribe to this warped view of history. Viktor Orbán may suggest to the leadership of Mazsihisz that “the dialogue should be continued after the Easter holidays,” but there can be no common ground between the two views.

Still, one ought to appreciate the fact that he made the gesture at all. Viktor Orbán rarely retreats. As his critics say, “he goes all the way to the wall.” It seems that this time he bumped into that wall, a wall of condemnation by a civilized Europe that doesn’t take Holocaust denial lightly. Let me quote here from a speech Ilan Mor, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, delivered at the gathering to honor the recipients of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards. He said that “any attempts to rewrite or to reinterpret the history of the Shoa, in this country or elsewhere, for any reason, politically and/or ideologically, are part of the deplorable attempt to deny the Holocaust, the Shoa.” This is the kind of criticism the Hungarian government is facing when it tries to falsify history.

Just when we thought that, at least until April, we could have a little respite and prepare ourselves for the next round, János Lázár decided to upset the apple cart. He happened to be in Gyula, a city near the Romanian border, when he gave an interview to the local television station. During the interview the reporter asked him about Mazsihisz’s opposition to the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year. Lázár lashed out at the leaders of Mazsihisz, accusing them of wrecking the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. He charged them with fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries. According to him, the story of that common past was a real success. He predicted that Mazsihisz’s “ultimatum” will have a negative influence on the cohabitation of Jews and Hungarians. He added that he hopes “the local Jewish communities in conjunction with the officials of the municipalities will find a way to remember together.” Lázár expressed his belief “in the wisdom of the local Jewish leaders and even more so in the wisdom of the municipal leaders,” and he said he hoped that “this ultimatum was only part of a political move that will not be able to fracture that unity and symbiosis in which we have lived together with our Jewish compatriots in Gyula or for that matter in Hódmezővásárhely,” his hometown where he served as mayor until recently.

"Cohabitiation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin Source: Amerikai Nepszava Online

“Cohabitation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin”
Source: Amerikai Népszava Online

It was at this point that all hell broke loose and for good reason. First of all, Mazsihisz didn’t issue an ultimatum. Second, Lázár practically accused Mazsihisz of fomenting anti-Semitism in Hungary by not meekly accepting the falsification of history promulgated by the Orbán government. Third, it was especially tasteless to talk about Jewish/non-Jewish symbiosis and cohabitation in a provincial town. As is well known, there are practically no Jews left in Hungary outside of Budapest. The vast majority perished because Miklós Horthy wanted to start the deportations with those whom he considered to be the great unwashed. And fourth, what caused real furor was that Lázár excluded Hungarians of Jewish origin from the Hungarian nation. Commentators noted that this view comes straight from the Nuremberg laws and the anti-Jewish laws of Hungary. People are truly outraged.

Commentators are trying to figure out what motivated János Lázár to make a frontal attack on Mazsihisz. Some think that he was just careless and didn’t weigh his words. Perhaps in a more formal setting, they claim, he wouldn’t have said what he did. Others think that he is just outright stupid and/or crass.

I see it differently. Lázár is the messenger boy of Viktor Orbán. It is enough to recall the meeting between him and members of different Jewish communities. The participants were hoping for some solution to the impasse. It turned out that Lázár had no authority whatsoever to talk about anything substantive. He could only tell those present that he would relay the points they made to Viktor Orbán, who would answer them in writing. Therefore, I suspect that Lázár, when questioned in Gyula, simply repeated what he knew to be Viktor Orbán’s position. And I don’t think that I’m too far off when I predict that Viktor Orbán will not be any more malleable after Easter. Lázár’s words are only a forewarning of what lies ahead.

——

P.S. I would like to correct an earlier mistake of mine. I attributed a statement to Ambassador Mor that turned out to be erroneous. In his interview with Heti Válasz he did not speak critically of Mazsihisz as I assumed.

Viktor Orbán finally sent an answer, but the Jewish community’s boycott is still on

The deadline had long passed and Viktor Orbán’s promised answer to Mazsihisz’s three demands to ensure their participation in the events of the Holocaust Memorial Year still hadn’t arrived. So, it’s no wonder that Népszabadság headlined one of its articles “Orbán is ruminating.” And indeed, I don’t think that it was easy for a man who is not accustomed to retreating to admit that, despite all the power he acquired within the country, he might have to back down on the idea of erecting a monument to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944.

On February 16, in his “state of the nation” speech, he was still adamant and denounced those who “dare to tell us what we should or should not do, or what and how we should remember.” Commentators were convinced that Orbán would stand fast and wouldn’t give an inch.

There were other signs, however, that those harsh words were only for show. Zoltán Balog told ATV on Tuesday that the topic will most likely be “discussed” on Wednesday at the cabinet meeting. Mind you, we know from an earlier Balog interview that “discussing” something at the cabinet meeting means that all those present simply lend their support to Viktor Orbán’s decision. Still, he wasn’t the only one who indicated that the infamous memorial might not be in place on Szabadság tér on March 19. István Pálffy (KDNP) also suggested that it would be impossible to erect the structure given time constraints. Presumably they knew something even before the cabinet meeting.

Although word about the postponement became official only last night, the well-informed Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság already knew about the decision a few minutes after the cabinet meeting. Her sources indicated that there was intense international pressure on the government, including German disapproval. Israel also made its feelings known by requesting the newly appointed Hungarian ambassador to have a heart to heart with officials of the Israeli foreign ministry.

After the decision was reached, Orbán wrote his long-awaited letter to the leaders of Mazsihisz. In it he mentioned, as Fidesz politicians always do, that the Holocaust Center was established during the first Orbán government and that it was during his first term that they declared April 16 to be the day devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, he completely ignored the controversy surrounding the Holocaust Memorial Year: the falsification of historical facts symbolized by the planned monument, the appointment of a far-right historian to a newly established institution called Veritas who considers the Kaments-Podolskii deportations and murders of mostly Hungarian Jews a simple “police procedure,” and the concept and the person in charge of the planned House of Fates. Instead, Orbán claimed that the reason for postponing the erection of the “Gabriel” statue is the campaign season for national and EU elections that takes place between February 15 and May 25.

The contents of this letter didn’t make the slightest difference as far as the leaders of Mazsihisz were concerned. They announced that there is nothing in this letter that would necessitate calling together the entire leadership which decided on the boycott in the first place. This is only a postponement of the statue, with no mention made of the two controversial historians, Sándor Szakály of Veritas and Mária Schmidt of the House of Fates.

Gordon Bajnai agreed with the Jewish leaders. He called the postponement of the erection of the monument no more than a “cynical avoidance of conflicts before the election” which does not address the core problem: “Falsification of history still remains falsification of history two or three months later.”

Two fundamentally opposing historical views are clashing here, and in my opinion truth is not on the Orbán government’s side even if they decided to name their new historical institute Veritas. I want to make one thing clear. It is not only the Jewish community that cannot accept the Orbán government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. More enlightened members of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are only too aware of the respective Hungarian governments’ roles between 1920 and 1944 that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews.

Some people are not surprised that in the last twenty-five years perhaps the majority of Hungarians refused to look critically at their own past. After all, they say, it is a painful process, and it took at least that many years for the Germans to do the same. So far so good, but the difference is that now, twenty-five years after the regime change, instead of turning the corner and facing harsh facts, the Orbán government is doing everything in its power to prevent the kind of dialogue that might result in a fair assessment of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. In fact, it is undoing the fairly sophisticated re-examination of the past that already began to take place in the second half of the Kádár regime. Admittedly, publications on the Holocaust and in general on Jewish affairs are much more numerous today than in the 1970s and 1980, but I still have some very valuable books from those days in my own library.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about two issues. Today Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, gave out decorations to those who saved Jewish lives at their own peril during the Holocaust. Ambassador Mor bestowed the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards to the children or grandchildren of ten Hungarians. Alongside the Israeli awards, Sándor Pintér gave out decorations “For Bravery.” I didn’t find a lot of information on this bravery award except that it is given to firefighters. Even a German Shepherd dog received it not so long ago.

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

Mihály and Szabolcs Fekete-Nagy at the award ceremony

One of the awardees was Béla Fekete Nagy (1904-1983), a well-known painter, whose two sons were at the ceremony to receive their father’s posthumous award. Mihály and Szabolcs  Fekete-Nagy accepted the Yad Vashem award but would not accept the “For Bravery” decoration from Sándor Pintér. Mihály delivered a speech which the cameramen muffled, but the message was that they would defile the memory of their father if they accepted the decoration from the minister of interior of the Orbán government.

I also just learned that in the last four or five months the government allegedly stopped all subsidies to the Holocaust Memorial Center with the result that this month the Center cannot even pay the meager salaries to its employees. This stoppage of funds might be a bureaucratic mix-up, but given the present tense relations between the government and the Jewish community it might be more than that. Perhaps the goal is to put pressure on the Holocaust Center to convince Mazsihisz to be less rigid and make a deal with the Orbán government. Or there might be another explanation. As we have learned, the Orbán government had rather strong objections to the leadership and concept of the Center. Since, as Mizsihisz argued, two Holocaust centers in one city are not really necessary and since this administration came forth with the idea of the House of Fates, it might want to marginalize or eliminate the Holocaust Memorial Center. I’m just guessing, but whatever the reason it most likely reflects the Orbán government’s two-faced attitude toward the Hungarian Jewish community.

Israel and the international Jewish community want deeds, not words

The controversy over the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year is not subsiding. It was a week ago that Mazsihisz, the umbrella organization representing about a dozen Jewish groups, said that they will boycott the project as long as the government insists on moving ahead with the current plans. Three issues were in contention. First, they disapproved of the appointment of Sándor Szakály, a right-wing military historian, as head of a new historical institute named Veritas. Second, they wanted to be consulted in connection with a new Holocaust Museum named the House of Fates and expressed some doubts about the suitability of Mária Schmidt as the overseer of the project. Finally, they violently objected to the monument to be erected as a memorial to the German “occupation” of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The monument depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of Germany, as a country that lost its sovereignty and was thus absolutely innocent in the murder of about half a million Hungarian Jews.

For a few hours people who are against the Orbán government’s attempts at falsifying history were ecstatic . They praised Mazsihisz’s courageous new leadership. But the next day the government made public a letter Viktor Orbán had received from Mazsihisz which created a huge storm within the Jewish community. It seems to me that the majority of people who publicly expressed their opinions believed that the top leaders of Mazsihisz had recanted on their earlier stance. Accusations of treachery could be heard.

What were the problems with the letter that made so many people unhappy? One was the style of the letter, which a lot of people found too servile. The repeated “Igen Tisztelt Miniszterelnök Úr” (Very much honored Mr. Prime Minister) was too much for those who think very little of Viktor Orbán. The other objection was the omission of Sándor Szakály’s name from the document. Did this mean that Mazsihisz was abandoning its insistence on the removal of the controversial historian who thinks so highly of the Hungarian gendarmerie, the ones primarily responsible for leading Jewish victims to boxcars to be shipped to Auschwitz? Some leading Jewish activists, like Tamás Suchman, formerly MSZP member of parliament, insisted on the resignation of András Heisler, Péter Tordai, and Gusztáv Zoltai who signed the letter.

I would most likely have been outnumbered with my own opinion that sending a letter, admittedly one less servile than the letter Mazsihisz sent to Orbán, was a good move. I talked about my feelings on the subject once already. The suggestion of establishing a House of Co-existence devoted to the symbiosis of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in Hungary is a wonderful idea. I interpreted the absence of Szakály’s name in the letter as an indication that his appointment was not subject to negotiation; he had to go. As for the  monument, Mazsihisz asked that its very concept be revised. Their position was strengthened by the support of  the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’s Division of Philosophy and History which declared that the monument gives a false impression of the history of the German “occupation” and Hungary’s position vis-à-vis Germany between March and October 1944.

But this was not the only reason for public outcry. Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, gave an interview to Heti Válasz, a right-wing weekly, on February 12. In this interview Mor announced that he “has no doubt about the good intentions of the government” and spoke critically of Mazsihisz. Unfortunately, the interview is not yet available in its entirety on the Internet, but Mazsihisz didn’t take too kindly to Mor’s remarks. Gusztáv Zoltai, one of the three who signed the letter to Orbán, responded that “although we think very highly of the Israeli ambassador, we are an independent religious community in Hungary. We have very good relations with the Israeli ambassador but he should not make declarations in our name. It is our job and we disagree with him.” Well, this is clear enough.

To c0mplicate matters, a day after Mor’s interview the Hungarian ambassador was summoned by the Israeli foreign ministry. The topic was rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, but Rafi Schutz, deputy-director-general for Europe, also brought up the Orbán government’s attempt to rehabilitate Miklós Horthy, “who was complicit in the mass deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps in 1944, which resulted in the deaths of around 450,000 Hungarian Jews.” The infamous monument didn’t escape the attention of the Israeli foreign ministry either: “Hungary’s whitewashing of history has included plans to build a massive monument commemorating the 1944 invasion of Hungary by the Nazis, which is seen as an attempt to portray Hungary as a victim rather than an active partner of the Nazis. … The recent trends of historical whitewashing raise concerns in Israel, particularly since Hungary decided to hold a series of events memorializing the Holocaust. While the Jewish state initially supported the decision, it now fears the trends throw such efforts into doubt as further attempts to rewrite history.” Rafi Schutz added that Hungary was chosen to chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) starting in March 2015, but doubts are now being raised “about Hungary’s ability to properly preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” Strong language.

Thus the Israeli government stood squarely behind Mazsihisz while Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, believing in the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government, criticized the organization for its stridency. I think Ilan Mor is too charitable to the government.

Yesterday Ronald S. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, wrote an article that appeared on Népszabadság‘s op/ed page. Lauder is heavily involved in Hungarian affairs on account of his mother, Estee Lauder, who was born and brought up in a Hungarian Jewish household in the United States. Among other things, Lauder established the Lauder Javne School, a Jewish educational institution that houses a kindergarten, an elementary school, a gymnasium, and a conservatory. He was also involved in the project to build a resort complex with an attached casino at Lake Velence in Sukoró which was torpedoed by Viktor Orbán, then still in opposition.

deedsLauder’s article bears the title: “To unify, not to divide.” In it he announced that the decision of Mazsihisz is fully supported by the World Jewish Congress. He expressed his disappointment that instead of remembrance of the victims, the Hungarian government is trying to rewrite history. The year 2014 was an opportunity for Viktor Orbán to confirm his good intentions hitherto only expressed in words by deeds. László Kövér accused Hungarian Jewry of “standing by the left again.” The Holocaust for the Jewish people is not a question of left or right and the government must make sure that it is not.

According to Lauder, it is worrisome that the Hungarian government is sending out contradictory messages: it recognizes the country’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews on the one hand and, on the other, it wants to erect a memorial which is offensive to Jews. The picture that has emerged of Hungary in America, Europe, and Israel is completely negative.

Viktor Orbán remains silent.

Getting ready for the World Jewish Congress in Budapest: What is the message?

I don’t know exactly when the World Jewish Congress (WJC) decided to hold its next meeting, the largest ever, in Budapest. I became aware of it only at the beginning of April, at about the same time that Ronald S. Lauder, the president of WJC, wrote an opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. One can find the English version of it on the website of the WJC.

Ronald S. Lauder is the younger son of Estée Lauder, one of the most influential businesswomen of the twentieth century. Estée Lauder was born in the United States, but both of her parents came from Hungary. The Lauders are still deeply involved with Hungarian-Jewish affairs and, judging from the article I just mentioned, Ronald Lauder seems to know the Hungarian political situation quite well. In his opinion, “Viktor Orbán has lost his political compass.” Orbán’s second term as premier has been marked by “an increasing narrow-mindedness.” Moreover, with respect to Orbán’s promised protection of the Jews and the Roma, Lauder notes that although “words are important, they are not sufficient.” Moreover, the Hungarian prime minister has “turned into an ideologue of Hungarian nationalism” who, instead of uniting, polarizes Hungarian society.

What Lauder didn’t mention in this article is Orbán’s penchant for double talk. One of the first opinion pieces that I read was a satire of the speech that Viktor Orbán will deliver to the audience gathered at the congress. He will try to dazzle the audience with his stories of the Jewish renaissance that is taking place in Budapest and the government’s efforts at curbing anti-Semitism.

Why did Lauder and the leadership of the WJC decide to hold this gathering in Budapest? No one seems to be able to give a compelling answer to this question. Those who oppose the decision point out that Viktor Orbán will use the occasion to launch a propaganda campaign on behalf of his government when, in fact, his efforts to curb anti-Semitism are less than half-hearted. And indeed, Foreign Minister János Martonyi in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung expressed his satisfaction that the WJC decided to come to Hungary where the delegates can see for themselves whether reports about the Hungarian situation are warranted or not. Naturally, he added that the “far right gained strength during the left-wing government” while Orbán’s government is trying its best “to lead the followers of the far right back to a consolidated democratic society.” A far cry from the truth.

Viktor Orbán himself prepared the ground in Israel. He gave an interview to a Tel Aviv paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, on Friday. My attempts to get hold of the original have so far been unsuccessful, so I’ll have to rely on the Hungarian summary of it with some direct quotations. First, he rejected the “accusation” that Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country in the European Union. Unfortunately, according to the latest polls, the country is up there, right next to or just ahead of Spain. Orbán simply couldn’t  figure out the reason for that perception until he hit upon the most likely reason. “Look around in Europe, especially around its eastern part. Hungary is the only country in which, despite the Nazi reign of terror, there is a large original Jewish community. Therefore Hungarian anti-Semitism is not a theoretical question, it is a personal issue…. There are Jewish families who survived the Holocaust and Hungarians who collaborated with the Nazis. This coexistence brings more problems in Hungary than in other countries.”

Well, this sounds pretty terrible to me. First of all, there is the problem of Jews versus Hungarians. Perhaps outside of Hungary this doesn’t sound as awful as it does in Hungary. Hungarian Jewry never considered itself to be an ethnic minority. “Izraelita” in Hungarian was simply a religious term. Hungarian Jews are very sensitive about this issue. But Viktor Orbán, especially lately, draws a sharp line between Jews and Hungarians. “We Hungarians will defend the Jewish minority.” This is unacceptable to most Hungarian Jews.

There are other problems with this passage. Take, for instance, the theoretical versus personal issue. By now relatively few people who were old enough in 1944 to collaborate with the Nazis are still alive. Most likely there are more survivors of the Holocaust, considering that some of these people might have been only babies at the time. Is there a personal antagonism between these two groups that translates into today’s anti-Semitism? This makes absolutely no sense to me.

The conversation turned at one point to Ronald S. Lauder’s critical op/ed piece. Orbán not too diplomatically charged Lauder with a personal grudge against his regime because of the active lawsuit between the Hungarian state and Lauder. In case the readers of Hungarian Spectrum have forgotten, Lauder was one of the investors who wanted to construct a wellness center and casino at Lake Velence. The plans of Lauder and his fellow investors were aborted and were used to build a criminal case against Ferenc Gyurcsány. Lauder’s financial losses were considerable. Anyone who wants to know more about this case should read an earlier post on “What can happen to investors in Hungary.”

Orbán also touched on his personal feelings about anti-Semitism and claimed that “it is his Christianity that protects him from this sin.” Quite a few people would doubt Orbán’s Christian devotion and would therefore also doubt his sincerity. He claimed that he discovered why some people charge him with anti-Semitism. “The root of this charge is that I’m a national [nemzeti] politician. I’m for Europe but I am a Hungarian and a Christian Democrat.” Of course, there is no such thing as a “national politician.” Let’s face it, all the talk about “nemzeti” simply means “nationalistic.” And indeed, the most potent political weapon in Orbán’s hand is his nationalistic propaganda. It always seems to work, perhaps with even the majority of Hungarians.

Orbán admitted that the far right poses a danger in Hungary but naturally portrayed himself and his party as the bulwark against this growing tide of extremism. This is standard Fidesz strategy. If the outside world criticizes and attacks his government and his party, it only opens the door to the extreme right. Fidesz is the only party that can stop the growth of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party. In reality, the extreme right and Fidesz live in a symbiotic relationship. In this interview, however, he categorically denied that he would ever work politically with Jobbik or that he would accept Jobbik’s assistance in case he has to form a minority government. We heard such a promise before in 1998 when he said that he would never form a coalition government with the Smallholders.What happened? As soon as it became clear after the first round of voting that he wouldn’t win the election without the assistance of József Torgyán, the leader of the Smallholders, he made a deal.

By the end of the interview Orbán became outright poetic. He described the Jews in Hungary as “the gifts of God. God created the Hungarian nation to be a colorful one and the Jews also as part of this nation.” An interesting twist especially because a couple of lines later he said that “it is difficult look squarely at the past because those Jewish and Hungarian victims of the Holocaust whom we didn’t defend properly are among us.” First, I didn’t realize that there were non-Jewish Hungarian victims of the Holocaust unless he is talking about the Roma. And when it came to defending the Jews, unfortunately it was the Hungarian government that handled the transports with deadly efficiency. The simple truth is that the Hungarian people, unlike the Germans, refuse to admit their active participation in the Holocaust.

Gábor Vona at today's anti-Zionist demonstration

Gábor Vona at today’s anti-Zionist demonstration

Meanwhile Jobbik also made preparations for the WJC meeting tomorrow. Although the prime minister ordered his minister of the interior to forbid the anti-Zionist demonstration, Jobbik managed to get at least 1,000 people on the street. Gábor Vona delivered a speech with the message: “We won because we are here!” He also promised to sue Viktor Orbán for trying to stop their lawful demonstration. As I’ve argued before, instead of relying on illegal interference by the prime minister, Hungary either should have laws preventing anti-Semitic, anti-Roma gatherings or should allow them in the name of free speech. The present situation is unacceptable.

Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, is pleased that the WJC is holding its meeting in Budapest. In this way Jewry all over the world is showing its solidarity with the Hungarian Jewish community during trying times. Moreover, the Hungarian government is showing its readiness to handle the difficult problem of anti-Semitism.

When the reporter from Népszava noted that the Orbán government’s responses to the problem are not always unequivocal, Mor responded that “this meeting marks a new beginning, a new dialogue about the importance of the struggle against anti-Semitism. The conference might prompt the Hungarian government to make a more serious effort in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Israeli sentiments.” Mor is a good diplomat, but I somehow doubt that deep down he really believes that the WJC’s conference in Budapest will be a watershed moment as far as the Hungarian government’s attitude is concerned.