Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

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

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

Is this new far-right movement really new? No, it isn’t

The international media, which often ignores Hungarian domestic news, immediately perks up when a new far-right group appears on the scene. This is exactly what happened when the Army of Outlaws, a far-right movement led by Zsolt Tyirityán, and a lesser known radical university group called Identitesz, led by the young student Balázs László, gathered in Vecsés, a suburb of Budapest, to announce the formation of a new far-right, radical party they named Erő és Elszántság (Force and Determination). Both Reuters and the Associated Press published reports on the gathering of 200-300 people. According to Reuters, this new movement “looks to be more radical than any political organization targeting a serious political role since the fall of Communism, and uses openly racist language to oppose liberalism and immigration.” The AP report admits that this new formation “seems marginal for now, [though] efforts by the Jobbik party, Hungary’s largest far-right group, to attract more moderate voters could leave room for the growth of extremist groups like Force and Determination.”

Balázs László in Vecsés, July 8, 2017

I’m not sure why the Reuter’s reporter thinks that the ideas expressed by the leaders of this new group are substantially different from those espoused by other right-wing groups and parties. There is nothing new here except perhaps the more radical language with which these ideas are presented. The speakers said that the new party will fight liberalism. The prime minister of Hungary has been fighting liberalism for years and building an illiberal state. The organizers talked about defending white Europeans. The prime minister of Hungary gave long speeches about the defense of Europe as it existed before the migration from outside of the continent. True, he didn’t come right out and speak about “ethnic” or “race” defense, but that is what he meant. They said that they will fight “political correctness.” This is the same thing Viktor Orbán been saying for years about the straight-speaking Hungarians who shouldn’t fall into the destructive habit of political correctness. They talked about the danger of losing awareness of national and sexual identity. How often do we hear the same from Fidesz politicians, including the leader of the party, Viktor Orbán? But interestingly, the attention is on a group that managed to gather 200-300 people for “unfurling the flag of the far right” when the whole country is governed by a politician who espouses essentially the same ideas.

Moreover, there are signs that it is in fact Fidesz that is encouraging these fringe groups to organize themselves against Jobbik. At least it is somewhat suspicious that the government’s main media outlet, Magyar Idők, gave Balázs László of Identitesz the opportunity to acquaint the Hungarian public with his Nazi ideas. Balázs Gulyás, writing in Magyar Nemzet, rightly asked why a newspaper of any standing would publish a lengthy interview with such a person. Because there is no question that we are talking here about an echt Nazi. I saw an interview with him and can attest to the fact that he is a scary guy.

Identitesz is the Hungarian branch of the Identitarian movement, whose goal is “to make racism modern and fashionable.” Otherwise, the movement draws on all sorts of right-wing and conservative thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, and Aleksandr Dugin. Identitesz has close ties with the neo-Hungarist/Nazi Pax Hungarica Movement, a successor to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. In fact, László at one time was an active member of Pax Hungarica, to which no Jew, Gypsy, or non-Europid can even apply.

There have been far too many articles in Magyar Idők about these fringe organizations, starting with that lengthy interview with László. He no longer thinks in terms of “national radicalism” but of race defense for Europe as a whole. Just as Viktor Orbán no longer defends only Hungary from outside hordes but, thanks to the Hungarian government’s heroic efforts at closing the Balkan route of the asylum seekers, defends European culture and Christianity.

As for Zsolt Tyirityán’s speech at the Vecsés event, he talked at length about “the struggle for Lebensraum [élettér].” Commentators wondered whether Viktor Orbán will judge all this Nazi talk as severely as he did when a former Jobbik member of parliament used Jewish epithets against a Jewish entertainer. At that time he instructed Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, to act with the full force of the law against him. So far, all the Nazi talk in Vecsés has been conveniently ignored.

As for the infamous term ‘Lebensraum’, it has been in circulation for years in Hungary. As László Karsai, the historian of the Holocaust, called to my attention today, Viktor Orbán used the term in January 2002 on Magyar Rádió’s notoriously right-wing program Vasárnapi Újság, which at that time he described as his favorite. When an opposition member inquired in parliament about the exact meaning of Lebensraum in this context, Orbán explained that “Lebensraum is that territory where Hungarians live.” Well, this is not different from the way Adolf Hitler used the term.

According to Balázs László, “ethnic defense” is a critical task that must be vigorously pursued. In his opinion, it is more important than matters of education and healthcare. One of the goals of the new movement, he said, is the spread of this truth in public discourse. Again, I don’t see anything revolutionary in this. This is exactly what’s been going on for at least two years in Hungary. Everything, with the possible exception of supporting sports, especially football, is of secondary importance to the defense of the country from those hordes from outside of Europe. Viktor Orbán has been systematically fueling Hungarians’ hatred against the refugees and found in George Soros the embodiment of everything that he is fighting against: humanity, charity, legality.

In brief, let’s not lose sight of the real danger that besets Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his government. Let’s not forget that Orbán’s Hungary is the only country in the European Union where a far-right government is in power which has by now more or less introduced a one-party system, which normally has a very long lifespan.

July 16, 2017

Is Zoltán Balog emotionally unfit to oversee the ministry of human resources?

It’s hard to pick the least sympathetic minister in Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, but Zoltán Balog, the former Calvinist minister, is definitely somewhere at the top of the list. Admittedly, my acquaintance with Calvinist ministers is limited, but I imagine that a good minister should be a compassionate human being who is ready to listen to the joys and sorrows of others. Someone who can offer solace. Someone who knows the meaning of empathy. Someone whose love of his fellow human beings is discernible in all his actions and words. Although I have never met him in person, when I think of a man who is the embodiment of the ideal clergyman it is Gábor Iványi who comes to mind, the Methodist minister whose church has been the victim of Viktor Orbán’s inexplicable hatred.

On the other hand, Orbán became very fond of Zoltán Balog, who joined the still liberal Fidesz party in 1991 as an adviser on church-related matters. In his student days and even later, Balog was highly critical of the conservative Hungarian Reformed Church and, in turn, the church hierarchy believed he should probably not become one of them. First, he was expelled from the Hungarian Reformed College of Debrecen and later from the Debrecen University of Reformed Theology. Although for a while he worked as a practicing minister, soon enough, after 1990, he drifted toward a political career. In 1993 and 1994 Viktor Orbán was refashioning the liberal Fidesz into a Christian Democratic party and was in need of people, Catholics as well as Protestants, who knew something about Christian churches.

By the time Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 1998 and Balog his chief adviser, Balog had abandoned his earlier liberal, even radical, ideas about relations between church and state and about a thorough revamping of the Hungarian Reformed Church. As time went by, he became more and more conservative, even radical in some ways. He was one of the first Fidesz critics of “politically correct” speech. He fought any legal restriction of “hate speech” and made some unfortunate remarks about the situation of the Roma when he claimed that the greatest danger the Gypsies face is not racism but hopelessness. Some of his earlier liberal friends didn’t know what to make of his sudden metamorphosis. One thing is sure. Balog today is one of the greatest apologists of the regime Viktor Orbán has built since 2010.

These are the bare facts of Balog’s transformation from Protestant minister to super minister of “human resources,” the person who is supposed to oversee education, health, sports, culture, churches, and family and youth. One would think that a former Protestant minister would be well suited to manage such human endeavors, yet over the years it became evident that Balog is singularly unfit for the job. Almost every time he opens his mouth he insults somebody or at least presents himself as an uncaring person.

Balog’s “mishaps” are too numerous to recount here, but I recommend my post from 2013 on the Hungarian Reformed Church Charity’s brilliant move of collecting 40 kids who live in poverty for a luxury dinner in the Budapest Hilton Hotel. They were served goose consomé with vegetables and rotini, chicken breast with a mushroom sauce prepared with Calvados, vegetable lasagna, broccoli, and rice. The dessert was yogurt strawberry cake. All this for kids who like pizza, hamburgers, and gyros. But then came the Reverend Balog’s speech in which explained that perhaps these children, when they have a job or “perhaps even go to college, who knows,” will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant like this. Or perhaps they will be able to visit Paris or Cluj/Kolozsvár. It was an incredible performance.

Since this incident, there were many others that demonstrated Balog’s insensitivity. For example, a couple of months ago at a gathering to celebrate the Day of the Ambulance Service he gave a speech at a breakfast meeting held in a relatively expensive restaurant in Budapest. It is a well-known fact that the members of the ambulance service receive shamelessly low salaries. Balog began his speech by cracking a “joke” about his audience whose members “eat breakfast here every day.” No one laughed.

More serious was when Balog and the newly appointed chief of the National Ambulance Service gave a press conference about the dreadful accident involving Hungarian high school students, 16 of whom burned to death in the bus near Verona. Balog introduced the new director by saying that “Gábor Csató just took over the leadership of the organization and it was a real baptism by fire, if one can say such a thing.” I guess one can, but one shouldn’t.

Balog made headlines a couple of days ago when he gave an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk). He explained that Hungarian healthcare is not as bad as one would think after reading the Hungarian media, which entertains the public with fake news which in turn has a negative effect on healthcare itself. The conversation turned to the case of a little girl who was being operated on but since the Országos Kardiológiai Intézet (National Institute of Cardiology) doesn’t have a CT machine she had to be transported to another hospital in the middle of the operation. Balog saw no problem with this situation. At least there is another hospital to which she could be transported. Instead of talking about the lack of CT and MRI machines, the media should concentrate on the higher salaries doctors are getting thanks to the government. He seemed to be totally unsympathetic to the little girl’s plight, who died a few hours after she was transported to the other hospital.

Most likely the trip to another hospital was not the cause of the girl’s death, but people nonetheless felt that Balog’s reaction, as usual, was inappropriate to the occasion. HVG pointed out that there are two possibilities. First, Balog may have been unaware of the death of the patient about whom many articles had been written lately. Or, second, he knew about it and yet showed no sympathy or emotion. In the former case, he is not fit to be a cabinet minister, and in the latter, he is unfit to be a clergyman.

July 13, 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