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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gábor Vona at today's anti-Zionist demonstration

Gábor Vona at today’s anti-Zionist demonstration

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

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

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

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18 comments

  1. Thank you for posting on this Éva.

    I fear the WJC’s decision is going to backfire badly. First it’s a propaganda gift for Orbán, who will use it to create an entirely false impression worldwide (which will probably be mostly accepted at face value). And secondly, once the WJC circus moves on, the Hungarian Jews will be left behind to cope with, not just the already growing anti-Semitism, but with all the new negative attention focussed on them as a result of the WJC.

    We were discussing this on Facebook today and I wrote of how awful this all seems from a Western point of view – as a young lad growing up in post-war Britain and hearing/seeing the impossibly terrible evidence of the Holocaust, it would never have occurred to me that we would STILL have been dealing with anti-Semitism 50 years later. It seems impossible that this madness is still going on after all that we went through less than a lifetime ago.

    Orbán doesn’t just need to make speeches about this, he (and Hungary) needs to face up to the reality of this national sickness and begin a thorough and proactive campaign of education to get Hungarians to face up to their past and to recognise that racism, of any sort, is simply unacceptable in the modern world.

  2. Would that it were so, Paul…would that it were so. However, what happened to the Jews, and Roma, and homosexuals during the Holocaust is exactly the same thing that had been happening since time immemorial to these same groups, albeit in a much more concentrated and strategic manner. And, I fear that, for the forseeable future, anyway, things are unlikely to change…without owning the fact that it was culpable in the horror that was the Holocaust, Hungary will never be free of the insidious decaying effect.

  3. Not again, this troll doesn’t give up …

    Now for something interesting on UKIP – the Brit equivalent to Jobbik (and the German right wing loonies …):
    http://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/this-other-england-the-inevitable-ukip-post/
    I got to this via one of my favourite blogs:
    http://liberalengland.blogspot.de/

    And an interesting statement on today’s politicians:

    “Smart progressives who want to make a difference don’t go into politics, they go into public policy or advocacy or journalism or law or the police or the Royal Marines. Because smart people are leaving politics, the field is left clear for maniacs, illiterates, thieves, neo-Nazis and toytown power merchants.”

  4. I would like to reiterate something that Prof Balogh said. Hungarian Jewry was and still is probably the most assimilationist Jewry in the world. I say probably, because I have not researched this scientifically enough to assert it categorically, but anecdotal evidence, literature and my own experience bears it out. Just a quick story to illustrate: Sometime in the 1970’s I went to a meeting in Hove, England with George Mikes, the brilliant Hungarian comic writer whose book ‘How to Be an Englishman” had me in stitches every time I read it. At the end of his presentation there was a chance to ask questions, which were numerous. However, the only interaction with a member of his audience I remember to this day referred to a very hostile question coming from a well dressed, upper middle class Jewish lady who berated Mikes for the Hungarian Jewish middle class’s abandonment (her opinion, not mine) of their Jewishness by assimilating as thoroughly as they had done on the whole right through the 19th and 20th centuries. The reason why I mention this, is to illustrate that the consideration in Orban’s speech of Hungarians and Jews being different ethnic groups in the country is not only totally unacceptable not only because most Hungarian Jews would reject it, but because it precisely encourages views of spearateness and therefore anti-Semitism, as well as because it is said in a country where first and foremost the Jewish community, going back well over a hundred years, considered itself the intrinsic part of the country, nation and the people. My great grandfather, Daniel Czettel, established the first factory making printing type in Budapest and thus became one of hundreds, even thousands of investors, innovators and captains of industry that played a fundamental role in the development of Hungary in the second half of the 19th century. I know that most of the readers and commenters on this blog are aware of all this, but perhaps we should never forget that even well known things need restating now and again.

  5. OT, but worth noting. Controversial (a real corrupt **shole, and god only knows why he can still allowed to do what he does, he must be privy to enormous secrets, he being a still active attorney) mayor of Zuglo dictrict of Budapest and influential Fidesz MP submitted a bill that would amend the civil procedure rules — including for litigations already ongoing, thus almost certainly he would amend the rules just so that he could prevail in the lawsuit in which he is involved.

    If you needed a new info about the state of the rule of law in Hungary, there it is.

    But, hey, with a 2/3s this is perfectly legal. So what’s the big deal.

    ttp://hvg.hu/itthon/20130505_Kossuth_ter_Orszaggyules_beharangozod

    .

  6. ” Jobbik managed to get at least 1,000 people on the street. ”

    Having had the “privilege” to suffer through the whole thing in person, I can only quibble with this excellent article about the numbers present. This mob was at best a “mobllett.” Lucky if they amounted to 500, but I would rather estimate 300-350. At the opening the speaker-organizer asked them to come and gather closer below the rostrum, so they would look more mob-like in the evening news broadcasts. (I have the video recording to support my claim, if anyone should need to suffer through it again.)
    I must also report that the meeting, with all its flag-waving, patriotic singing and occasional out-crys of “dirty Jews,” was a painfully boring affair. It barely lasted an hour, it was subdued and not without the general feeling of helplessness.

  7. Eva, I suspect the decision to have the meeting in Budapest is more to influence Jewish groups and the rest of the world about the situation in Hungary. Jews have a pretty good BS detector when it comes to rhetoric of politicians friendly to anti-Semitism.

    If Orban turns the conference into his own advantage in Hungary, the world-wide community will have a better understanding of how he manipulates Hungarian politics. I find the meeting a good chance to raise awareness about Hungary to the world.

    As a Hungarian Jew in the US, I am more concerned about preserving democracy in Hungary than in partisan interests or religious loyalty. I’m a big defender of free speech and the rule of law, so Orban has already shown his non-democratic colors by disregarding the court on the Jobbik protest.

    They say the best way to help an author is to have them “banned in Boston.” Banning the Jobbik protest is a great gift to them- it allows them wear their flag of martyrdom. Let Jobbik protest. My favorite way to fight people like them is to let them speak. The best way to fight darkness is with light.

    But, again, I think the main point of the gathering for me is to show the whole world the weird, disturbing nature of Hungarian politics.

  8. Hungary is a disgrace to Europe.
    Hungary is a disgrace to Western Civilization.
    Hungary is a disgrace to the 21st Century.

  9. Orban’s speech at WJC was pretty flat.

    He praised his own flavor of a constitution, said that it is better for every country to be more nationalistic and claimed to be a Christian-Democrat.

  10. Reaction by the World Jewish Congress to Prime Minister Orbán’s speech at the opening of the WJC Plenary Assembly in Budapest, 5 May 2013

    05 May 2013

    BUDAPEST – “The World Jewish Congress appreciates Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision to address the international Jewish community by speaking here tonight. We welcome that the Prime Minister made it clear that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable.

    However, the Prime Minister did not confront the true nature of the problem: the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular. We regret that Mr. Orbán did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe.

    As the Jewish people have learnt throughout history: Actions speak louder than words, no matter how well intended they are. The WJC will continue to urge all democratic forces in Hungary and elsewhere to combat with great determination rising extremism, anti-Semitism and hatred. We will continue to evaluate the situation in this regard.”

  11. petofi :
    Hungary is a disgrace to Europe.
    Hungary is a disgrace to Western Civilization.
    Hungary is a disgrace to the 21st Century.

    Ms. Balogh
    Would you please consider to tame this “Petofi” individual?

  12. The WJC has shown the cowards of the EU the way to go when confronted by the friend of (and apologist for) racist and anti-semitic bigots.
    No other democratic party in no other civilised country would be happy to accomodate filth like Zoltan Bayer in their midst.
    He remains a member of Fidesz and a personal friend of our Prime Minister.
    Well done WJC, actions do indeed speak louder than words.

  13. kormos :

    petofi :
    Hungary is a disgrace to Europe.
    Hungary is a disgrace to Western Civilization.
    Hungary is a disgrace to the 21st Century.

    Ms. Balogh
    Would you please consider to tame this “Petofi” individual?

    Well, Kormos, if it smell like it and looks like it …

    When the Hungarian PM one day is fraternizing with the biggest anti-Semite of the country, Zsolt Bayer, his good ol’ buddy, then the other day gives a heartbreaking speech at the WJC … well that is a disgrace. We all are a disgrace when we let him stay in power undisturbed in exchange for a 10% cut in our utility bill.

    When the government is going against the European values – that is a disgrace. To say it out loud is the only patriotic thing to do.

  14. All true, but do you think the majority cares about the Jews? Not much. For two days the media, at least a part of it, deal not with jobs (the lack thereof), economy or the tobacco swindle but with the JWC. This is a no. 28 issue of the voters. If Orbán will ever be voted out it will not be because of civil rights or constitutional issues but because of the economy and because they became too agressive and think they can do anything and get away with it (weel, its true unfortunately – there is no backtracking on the tobacco swindle, 5400 licenses to firends, family and party activits will go ahead and the contracts will be written in smart legal language so that they could not be terminated).

  15. kormos :

    petofi :
    Hungary is a disgrace to Europe.
    Hungary is a disgrace to Western Civilization.
    Hungary is a disgrace to the 21st Century.

    Ms. Balogh
    Would you please consider to tame this “Petofi” individual?

    Now “kormos”, I believe, means dusty. Having shoveled coal in my time, I know what that’s like.
    But I think our Kormos has been getting his nose to close to the crack pipe that his mafioso, Fideszers feed him. Hence the name.

    Quite frankly, the more time passes, the less I can understand, or accept, patience in the face of the complete indignity of the situation in Hungary.

    To bring coal to Newcastle, Mr. Mustachio himself, none other than Herr Kover, has seen fit to financially penalize two Parliamentary members–I have yet to see a financial penalty visited on parliamentary members in either Britain or Canada.

    But of course, Hungarians know better….and they were the ones to teach ancient Greeks all about Democracy.

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