Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

The next victims of Orbán’s hate campaign will be the journalists

Hungarian commentators know from past experience that one ought to pay close attention to every word Viktor Orbán utters because his future plans are normally embedded in his speeches way ahead of time. Sometimes these references are too subtle to notice easily; more often, they are dropped in a phrase or two which those who listen to his speeches, especially the soporific ones, are likely to miss.

With the exception of the hired hands of the government media, all other commentators at home and abroad found that Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő-Băile Tușnad was on the dull side, containing practically nothing new. He refrained from announcing any controversial idea that would be greeted with consternation in political circles in the European Union. There was, however, something in that speech that upset Hungarian journalists to no end. Amidst the seemingly endless braggadocio there was one sentence that strongly indicated that, after the attacks on the NGOs and George Soros, the next victims will be journalists critical of the Orbán government, especially investigative journalists who have been unearthing the corruption endemic in Fidesz and government circles.

Orbán made no secret of the fact that, between now and the election sometime in April 2018, Fidesz’s “adversaries will not be the opposition parties at home.” In the forthcoming election campaign “first and foremost [they] will have to hold their own against external forces; against the bureaucrats of Brussels; the Soros mafia network and its media.” That last sentence sent chills down the spines of journalists working for media outlets considered to be unfriendly to the Orbán government.

Magyar Nemzet actually received information from Fidesz circles that this is not the first time that Viktor Orbán has expressed his strong disapproval of the activities of some journalists. Insiders reported that he often talked about the “liberal media” and its unwarranted bias and enmity toward the government, resulting in unfair reporting. The paper learned from several sources that this year’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad was the beginning of a new anti-media campaign. Thus far Fidesz’s targets have been media outlets owned by Lajos Simicska, but now they are apparently planning to go against individual journalists. The informants intimated that investigative journalists concentrating on economic matters will be in his cross hairs. A new enemy is needed after Brussels and George Soros, and the media is an obvious next choice. Especially since Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign has had its influence in Hungary, where the expression “fake news” is spreading in the English original.

Orbán has a point. The opposition in its current state is no threat to him whatsoever. If the chaos that exists on the political left isn’t resolved over the next nine months, Fidesz, especially with the assistance of Romanian-Hungarian voters, will be able to win the election easily and most likely will have the coveted two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. By now the only threat comes from high-profile NGOs, who insist on legality and diligently pursue government wrongdoings. They keep going to the European Court of Justice or to the European Court of Human Rights, and more often than not they win against the Orbán government. It’s no wonder that Orbán wants to get rid of them. Investigative journalists are also “enemies” as far as Fidesz is concerned. They have been working hard to discover the sources of the newly acquired riches of the Orbán family and to unearth the criminal activities of the oligarchs who are actively supported by the prime minister. If these NGOs and journalists would just disappear, life would be a great deal easier for Orbán and friends.

But Hungary is still not like Russia or Turkey where journalists are killed or jailed. Orbán most likely will choose a different tack. The suspicion in Hungarian journalistic circles is that the plan is to undermine the reputation of the most active investigative journalists. The government will try to find some dirt and, if there is nothing juicy enough, they will create stories from half-truths. As for character assassination, we know that Orbán is a master of the craft. It is enough to think of how effectively he managed to create a monster out of Ferenc Gyurcsány simply because he believed him to be his only effective political foe in the country. In comparison to that, the task of finishing off some journalists’ careers will be child’s play.

The journalists who either work for the handful of media outlets owned by non-Fidesz businessmen or those who have been supported by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation are worried. They wanted to know more about the targets of the new campaign from Szilárd Németh, deputy to Chairman Viktor Orbán, who gave a press conference on the subject. Németh immediately got into an argument with the journalists who were present. He accused Gergely Nyilas of Index of not being a journalist but an emissary of Lajos Simicska, the owner of the internet site. According to Németh, Nyilas is simply performing the task assigned to him, which is attacking Simicska’s enemy Viktor Orbán. Another journalist representing the Simicska-owned HírTV didn’t fare better. He was accused of reciting his questions, which were actually written for him by someone else. Németh most likely again had Lajos Simicska in mind.

The journalists naturally wanted to know which media outlets are the latest targets of the government, but Németh refused to name them, claiming that both he and the journalists know full well which ones the government has in mind. However, in the course of the conversation he talked about “criminal organizations” that will have to be dealt with by the prosecutor’s office.

In addition to Szilárd Németh, the almost forgotten Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary of education, also spoke about the ill-willed, irresponsible journalists. While claiming that Hungary’s reputation in Brussels is improving, “certain journalistic organizations falsely accuse Hungary on many accounts.” She also seems certain that these journalists are following a prescribed script.

We can expect a heightened assault on journalists as well as NGOs. In fact, Orbán promised that much when answering a man in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad who demanded harsher treatment of NGOs. It sounds ominous.

July 26, 2017

Are George Soros and Pope Francis part of a global conspiracy? Ask Zsolt Bayer

A few months ago Zsolt Bayer, the foul-mouthed journalist who was one of the founding members of Fidesz, publicly announced his intention to watch his language and to remain within the bounds of acceptable journalism. Well, it didn’t take long before he was back in his usual form. His latest is an incredible attack on Pope Francis, which went so far that even the editor of Magyar Kurír, the official newspaper of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, wrote an editorial about it, which is a sharp turn from the Church’s past practice of ignoring Bayer.

The independent Hungarian media has the bad habit of forcefully reacting to every objectionable word Bayer writes or utters. Critical journalists and politicians on such occasions announce that “we thought that one cannot sink lower,” after which they sadly note that “one obviously can.” It seems that even journalists’ memories are short because there is absolutely nothing new in Bayer’s preoccupation with and denigration of Pope Francis. He has been preoccupied with the pope for at least two years.

Before we condemn, as we should, Bayer for his intemperate attack on the pope, we must keep in mind that the leaders of the Hungarian Catholic Church share some of Bayer’s views. Of course, they don’t call the pope “an ass” because he calls on European Christians to support the refugees, but they share Bayer’s belief that Francis, by virtue of coming from Argentina, is unfit to handle the European crisis and that he is naïve in the extreme. Some of the more outspoken right-wing bishops like Gyula Márfi, archbishop of Veszprém, and László Kiss-Rigó, bishop of Szeged-Csanád, spoke quite openly about the pope’s ignorance of European reality.

The first example of Bayer’s writings on Pope Francis is from June 2015, in which we already find the kernels of his fully developed opinion on the pope–that his ideas were shaped by the fact that he was the son of “migrants,” his family was poor, and he is from “far-away Argentina.” Europeans wait in vain for Pope Francis to come to their rescue in these hard times; he ignores them and moves on to “the army of ferocious, screaming, murderous strangers.”

A couple of months later he went further and called Francis “either a senile old fool who is totally unsuitable to be the pope or a scoundrel.” When the leader of the Christian Democratic Party’s parliamentary delegation was asked to comment on Bayer’s description of Pope Francis as “a senile old fool,” he pretty much stood by Bayer, pointing out that the pope’s solidarity with the downtrodden is stronger than his feeling of responsibility for the safety of Europeans. Zoltán Balog in an interview brushed aside Bayer’s choice of words by saying that after all Zsolt Bayer is a Lutheran, and “one should read what Martin Luther had to say about the pope. In comparison [Bayer’s] words are outright tame.”

A few months later, at the end of 2015, he wrote his most comprehensive assessment of Francis and his unfitness for his job. It is not enough that he favors the migrants because his own family were immigrants and that he doesn’t understand Europe because he came from another continent. He is also an enemy of nations and thus must be a foe of Orbán’s Hungary. How do we know that? Francis abolished the papal “tradition” of incanting Easter and Christmas greetings in 60-odd languages after delivering the Urbi et Orbi Message. Bayer describes the moving scenes of people raising their national flags on St. Peter’s Square after they heard the greeting in their own language. This pope is like the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who turned his countries upside-down because of his mad, zealous reforms. As a result, he almost ruined his empire. “Today’s pope is not a believer in the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church.” He is moving away from what he considers to be antiquated and old-fashioned and is establishing new traditions alien to the Catholic Church. But he should have noticed that the reformation of the church is normally demanded by non-Catholics. By removing the multilingual greetings, the pope “removed the nation, the homeland, and the national language from the stage of the world.” In fact, “Francis is working on the creation of a United States of Europe instead of a Europe of nations.” Indeed, George Soros, Pope Francis, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, the only Hungarian politician who dares to suggest such a heresy, are comrades-in-arms.

This is an imaginative theory that has little to do with reality. There are at least two problems with Bayer’s argument. The first is that this “ancient” tradition is only 50 years old. Pope Paul VI introduced it in 1965 when the decision was made to conduct mass in the local tongue instead of Latin. The second problem is that if Pope Francis is such a universalist, why did he decide only recently to abandon Latin as the official language of the synod of bishops? Yes, from here on the language of the synod will be Italian, the lingua franca of the Vatican. That doesn’t mesh with Bayer’s ideas on Francis’s alleged hatred of nation states and national cultures.

And now comes the latest upheaval over Bayer and Pope Francis. This time it was an interview with Bayer at a local television station in the town of Miskolc that caused the Hungarian non-governmental media outlets to raise their voices against the extremist Fidesz journalist. During the interview he repeated his earlier objections. The pope has a non-European past, when it would be of the utmost importance to have a European pope who represents “European interests.” In his opinion, the pope is no different from the politicians of the European Union because he goes against the will and goals of European citizens. “Do not imagine that what [the pope] says is divine revelation. It is only stupid, moronic political opinion,” Bayer said.

It looks as if Bayer’s notions about the pope have evolved over time because by now he is convinced that “it is no accident that a non-European man became the pope.” I guess it was part of an international conspiracy. Knowing something about how these guys’ minds work, I can easily conjure up a scenario by which George Soros and other Jewish financiers with business designs on a Europe with a mixed population conspire with the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church to pick a man who would serve their interests. One could call this, as does Christopher Adam of Hungarian Free Press, typical double talk, but since Bayer a couple of days after the interview insisted that he had listened again to the interview and would not take a word back from it, I think he actually believes this foolish idea which, let’s face it, is not very far from the thinking of the top Fidesz leadership, including that of Viktor Orbán. I would like to remind everyone that Orbán, especially during 2015, kept repeating that the move of so many refugees at once “cannot be a coincidence.” And if it is not a coincidence, then it is the result of design. But design on the part of whom?

I guess by now it is clear to readers that I see no serious differences between the thinking of the mainstream Fidesz and Catholic leaderships and the ideas of Zsolt Bayer, expressed in crude prose. The message is more or less the same. I suspect that the reason for Viktor Orbán’s lenient attitude toward Bayer’s “artistic endeavors” is his satisfaction with his old friend’s way of expressing his and his government’s position in down-to-earth, direct language that can reach audiences on the far right. Two years ago I reported on a far-right journalist who claimed that Pope Francis is not a bad man, just not a European and not a Catholic. He is not only manipulated by Jews but is a Jew himself, a son of Jewish refugees from Italy. It is these people Bayer is supposed to reach, most likely with Orbán’s blessing.

Admittedly, this kind of talk comes only from what I call the lunatic fringe, but even Magyar Idők and subsequently Válasz in August 2016 reported the discovery that in countries with a sizable Catholic population George Soros targets the Catholic church with the goal of influencing public opinion on issues he cares about.  He spent a great deal of money, for instance, to convince Catholic priests in the United States to emphasize issues that would help the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. When the right-wing internet site Flag Polgári Magazin republished the article, its title was changed to “Shocking! A leaked e-mail reveals why Pope Francis supports migration at any cost.”

Linking George Soros and Pope Francis is perhaps the quintessential conspiracy theory. Zsolt Bayer is helping the far right develop its conspiratorial imagination.

July 24, 2017

Viktor Orbán, the leading statesman of Europe

I’m not sure whether it is worth devoting a whole post to the latest Orbán speech at the Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad gathering of Fidesz leaders, especially after I waded through the dreadfully boring text. A reporter from one of the Hungarian internet sites asked some people in the audience after it was all over what particular sentence or idea they thought was most memorable. The less imaginative ones just stood there mum, while a clever middle-aged lady in a state of rapture announced that “every word the prime minister uttered” was equally unforgettable. How clever.

The most “exciting” moment of the event was a sight to behold. Muscled-up Szekler “gentlemen” began roughing up a woman who foolishly braved the crowd alone to protest the building of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. One of her attackers dragged her to the ground by her hair. Judging from what we can see on the video, the incident could have ended very badly.

I don’t know how other people will judge this speech, how others will interpret the speaker’s state of mind, but my overarching impression is that Viktor Orbán is afraid. This judgment might surprise some people, especially since most people, just like Péter Magyari of 444.hu, would undoubtedly find the speech little more than an attempt to explain “why he is the most important person in the world today.” It was precisely this extended and continuous self-aggrandizing that made me suspicious that the Hungarian prime minister is not as self-assured as he would have us believe.

Let’s start with “the strengthening of the Visegrád 4 countries,” which he considers to be the most momentous event for Europe in the last 12 months. Admittedly, there was the U.S. presidential election and the French presidential and parliamentary elections, which “swept away the whole French party system,” but they fade in comparison to the reality that “the cooperation of the Visegrád 4 has become closer than ever before.” Of course, he takes credit for this feat. But even a superficial perusal of the international media tells a different story. The coming reform of the European Union will most likely force these four countries to make choices that may vary according to their perceived national interests. Orbán’s claim that “Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest speak the same language” might have been true regarding their position on the refugee issue, but it is most likely a very temporary phenomenon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with the Visegrád 4 may have served Israeli interests, but it had no appreciable effect on the cohesion of the alliance.

From his alleged diplomatic success he moved on to his incredible foresight in recognizing ahead of everybody else that the days of global, supranational elites are over and that the future will be in the hands of “patriotic national leaders.” Here, I believe, he is thinking of the U.S. presidential election, because the description fits only the political system Donald Trump is trying to create, for the time being without much success. In Europe, most likely to the chagrin of Orbán, those extreme right-wing leaders whom Orbán calls “patriotic political leaders” have not yet emerged–with the exception of Poland, and let’s hope that the European Union will muster its courage and ensure that the Polish “disease” does not spread across Europe.

It is a well-known fact that Orbán, who spent his first 14 years in a small village, is no friend of Budapest, where he never felt quite at home. Yet now he decided to brag about the country’s capital as the only city between Vienna and Istanbul that is a metropolis. As he put it, “our capital is capable of serving more than the Hungarian state.”

Naturally, a good portion of the speech was devoted to the refugee crisis and the dire situation that awaits Europe, which will inevitably be Islamized. He repeated his usual arguments, especially about the alliance of George Soros and the Brussels bureaucrats. The only noteworthy passage from this section of the speech was Orbán’s claim that his determined anti-migrant policies saved Europe “from the migrant invasion.” Therefore, “next year’s Hungarian election will be a special one because all of Europe will have a stake in it.” If he loses the election, his political opponents will take down the fence he built and will allow immigrants into the country. Thus, “they are ready to hand over the Europeans of today to a new future continent with a mixed population.” There are forces in Europe that want to see a change of government in Hungary because they want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance and, with it, the whole of Central Europe.

From this rant I think we can hypothesize that Orbán is actually worried about the outcome of the election, however crazy this sounds given the utter disarray in which the opposition finds itself at the moment. The incredible effort Orbán has expending lately urging all Romanian-Hungarians to vote is telling. At the last national election 97% of Romanian-Hungarians voted for Fidesz. So virtually all votes coming from there will be cast for Orbán’s party. Fidesz has managed to get close to a million people to register and the campaign is still under way. Second, the reference to certain political forces that want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance is also a telling sign of his worries about the stability of the group.

So, what kind of a picture emerges from all this? He is a politician who wants to portray himself as the leading statesman of Europe. In addition, he, and not Donald Trump, was the harbinger of the “patriotic leader” whose main concern is national interest. He was the man who saved Europe from a migrant invasion. Budapest is destined for greater things than being the capital of Hungary. And finally, his rule over the country is so important that all Europeans must keep fingers crossed for his political survival because otherwise Europe as we know it will be lost. It’s no wonder that the opposition claims that Orbán has lost his sense of reality. Yet, all that brings to mind the saying about the man who whistles in the dark although, in fact, he is fearful of the world around him.

July 22, 2017

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