Jewish organizations

The Orbán government and the international Jewish community

Today’s topics are seemingly unrelated: the lobbying activities of Tamás Fellegi in Washington and the Orbán government’s proposal to establish another Holocaust Memorial in Budapest.

On November 8, in my piece on the new American ambassador to Budapest, I mentioned Fellegi’s lobbying efforts. I also gave a link to the article by Lili Bayer of politics.hu that detailed his activities. For those who didn’t read her article, here’s the upshot. Fellegi is the Hungarian government’s chief lobbyist in the United States who simultaneously heads a U.S. foundation which claims that its leadership is independent of the Hungarian government. The complicated setup of three different organizations is most likely designed to get around U.S. tax laws regarding the nonprofit status of  an organization funded by a foreign government. In order to understand this complicated story, one really ought to go to Bayer’s article.

Here, however, I would like to concentrate on something else, the targets of Fellegi’s lobbying activities. According to the document filed with the U.S. Justice Department, Fellegi’s lobbying  activities include building and developing contacts in “Congress, the Executive Branch, think tanks, the investment community, the Jewish community, and the Hungarian-American community.” What struck many of us was the inclusion on this list of “the Jewish community.” What does the Orbán government hope to achieve by trying to influence U.S. Jewish organizations and individuals?

And that leads me to the latest government effort to influence the international Jewish community, perhaps even Israel, by demonstrating its commitment to bringing into the open the atrocities the Hungarian Jewish community suffered in the past. And naturally, to show that the current Hungarian government is doing everything in its power to curb anti-Semitism, a constant topic in the foreign media.

I don’t think they can fool ordinary Hungarian citizens of Jewish ancestry, but they might succeed when it comes to the official Hungarian Jewish organizations. Perhaps they can even impress the state of Israel. And obviously the Orbán government decided to target the American Jewish community. Fellegi as a lobbyist was an excellent choice because he is a Jew, and he makes sure that everybody in the American Jewish community is aware of that fact. I might add that another member of the group, Gábor Róna, is also Jewish. He was once secretary of the Council of Europe’s program against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The third person is Péter Heltai, who is not Jewish; he was reported to have been an informant for the Romanian Securitate.

So, let’s move back to Budapest where a mega-project is underway. Out of the blue, with unusual speed and a lot of money the Hungarian government doesn’t have, the decision was made to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust with a new museum. Spearheading the “Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Council 2014” is János Lázár. And overseeing the project is Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror where only one room out of dozens is devoted to the Hungarian Holocaust and its 400-500,000 victims as opposed to the few thousand victims of the Hungarian communist period. Moreover, Schmidt has rather odd ideas on Hitler, the war, and the Final Solution. Here are a couple of examples: “We stayed on the side of Nazi Germany in order to defend the Hungarian Jewry.” Or, “It was Germany that forced the 1938-1939 anti-Jewish laws on Hungary.” Both are false.

The site of the new museum will be an old, abandoned sideline railroad station in Józsefváros (Josefstadt), the notorious VIII. district, that badly needs refurbishing. It will be called the “Sorsok háza,” which most Hungarians understand to mean “House of Fate.” The word “sors” also appears in the title of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize-winning book: Sortalanság/Fateless. Some naturally objected to Lázár’s choice of Mária Schmidt. My distinct impression, having heard her talk about her ideas for the project on György Bolgár’s program, was that Schmidt will try her best to inflate the number of Hungarians who risked their own lives helping their Jewish compatriots.

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted only to child victims / Józsefváros Railway Station

The future site of a new Holocaust memorial devoted to child victims
Józsefváros Railway Station

Others objected to the name of the museum, saying that it wasn’t fate that destined these people to be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Rather, it was the decision of the Hungarian authorities who were eager to rid the country of its Jewish citizens. Still others couldn’t figure out why this particular station was picked as the site of the future museum since almost no transports left for Auschwitz from it.

I should mention that in order to justify creating another Holocaust Museum instead of giving more generous support to the existing one this new museum will be specifically devoted to the children who were victims of the Holocaust. Lázár explained the choice this way. “We chose the ‘child Holocaust’ as the theme because we were trying to find a point which cannot be relativized: no explanation, no answer can be accepted when it comes to the murder of a child.” As if the murder of adults can be relativized or explained. Some people commented that if Lázár had made such a statement in another country he would have had to turn in his resignation.

It’s an open question whether it is at all possible to finish the project by April–this date is no coincidence, since that’s when the election most likely will take place. But the members of the advisory board have already been chosen: Anne Applebaum (journalist), Annette Lantos (widow of Tom Lantos), Chava Baruch (Yad Vashem), Gabriel Gorodetsky (Oxford), György Haraszti (historian, Hungarian Jewish University), András Heisler (Mazsihisz), Joshua Muravchik (Johns Hopkins), Michael Wolffsohn (Universität der Bundeswehr), Rabbi Andrew Baker (American Jewish Committee), Mária Schmidt (House of Terror), János Szász (film director), and Yehudit Shendar (Yad Vasem). According to András Heisler of Mazsihisz, some of the members expressed sharp criticisms. He didn’t elaborate.

It is unlikely that these people can have much influence on the whole process. After all, there are only four and a half months before the planned opening. As you can see from the picture, the station is in very bad shape. Moreover, the inhabitants of the 23 service apartments within the building must be evacuated and provided with comparable or better apartments. All that takes time. Restoring the building will cost 6.6 billion forints, and then there are still the expenses involved in transforming it into a functioning museum. As a point of comparison, the Hungarian government gives only 240 million forints a year to the Holocaust Memorial Center on Páva utca.

I don’t know why the government is establishing a new museum and why in such a hurry. I don’t know why the Orbán government is lobbying American Jewish organizations. All I can say is that it never acts without a good, self-interested reason. Perhaps in time that reason will become more transparent.

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