Estée Lauder

Israel and the international Jewish community want deeds, not words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán remains silent.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gábor Vona at today's anti-Zionist demonstration

Gábor Vona at today’s anti-Zionist demonstration

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

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

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