Ronald S. 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.

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The Orbán family’s enrichment with a little government help

Today I read an editorial in Magyar Nemzet on the fate of Silvio Berlusconi.  It seems that Anna Szabó, the author, who is a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, forgot that the Hungarian prime minister is a friend of Berlusconi. Because she found Berlusconi’s sentence far too lenient and expressed her utter astonishment that the Italians, although they have long known about Berlusconi’s “dirty affairs,” only now were ready to punish him for his sins.

In the final paragraph of the editorial Szabó bemoans the fact that in Hungary many corruption cases have gone unpunished, pointing the finger at Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai. She lists among their sins the fate of the Posta Bank, MSZMP’s former retreat in Balatonőszöd, the Budapest Airport, and “stealing parts of Lake Velence’s shores.” In case you draw a blank, it was at Lake Velence that the Israeli businessman Joav Blum and his American partners who included  Ronald S. Lauder hoped to build a luxury hotel and a casino.

If I were Anna Szabó I wouldn’t mention these cases right now because practically all the accusations she hurls at the former prime ministers are without foundation. On the other hand, in recent days Hungarian newspapers have been full of descriptions of certain business activities of members of the Orbán family that are suspect.

I am not an overly suspicious person. In fact, I can even be called naive when it comes to questionable business deals. On the one hand, I’m inept in business matters and, on the other, since I’m not in the habit of cheating or stealing from others I find it very difficult to imagine people whose daily activities include such shady activities.

I have encountered people over the last twenty years who have floated fanciful stories about Fidesz and the “boys.” I know a woman who to this day is convinced that a group of MSZMP leaders allowed the formation of Bibó College, the dormitory where Fidesz was born, in order to develop “trustworthy cadres” who would eventually be entrusted with salvaging the Kádár regime’s essential features. Well, I think this is madness.

On the other hand, I take much more seriously the persistent allegations that seem to be well founded about the money Fidesz got from the sale of the building the party received from the Hungarian state in 1992. Here only one thing is not entirely clear. How much of the 750,000 million (in 1992!!!) remained in the party coffers and how much disappeared into private pockets. We know only that László Kövér didn’t allow top party officials to take notes while Viktor Orbán tried to explain the distribution of the money among various Fidesz companies. But Klára Ungár, who was by that time highly suspicious of the activities of Lajos Simicska, László Kövér, and Viktor Orbán, tried to keep the figures in her head. She found that at least 170 million was missing from the total. We also don’t know what happened to the rest of the money that was invested in several companies that were eventually liquidated under very suspicious circumstances.

It is also another fairly well established fact that some of the money went to help Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző, purchase the state quarry he ran before the change of regime. It was this quarry in the village of Gánt that established the Orbán family’s fortune. Since then Győző Orbán has been able to add various enterprises to his original business and has become very rich indeed. According to Krisztina Ferenczi’s calculation, two of the businesses in which the older Orbán has a majority share (the quarry in Gánt and a company that produces peat) netted 2,192 billion forints last year. In addition to these two companies, there is another one that is owned exclusively by Viktor Orbán’s father and his two young brothers. That company was also profitable, bringing in an additional 400 million.

The Orbán Quarry in Gánt

The Orbán Quarry in Gánt

Győző Orbán also owns land in Felcsút adjacent to a parcel of land owned by Viktor Orbán. The VIP parking area of the Aranycsapat Stadium will be located on this piece of land. (Aranycsapat means Golden Team, the nickname of the Hungarian team that became world famous in the mid-1950s and on which Ferenc Puskás played before he left Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian revolution.)

The prime minister’s father also purchased part of the former estate of Archduke József of Habsburg. The summer palace of the Hungarian Habsburg family was destroyed during the war and the 7,000 acres that went with it was distributed among the local landless peasants. Only the manor house and 13 hectares were retained by the Hungarian state. Perhaps we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that both the manor house and the 13 acres ended up in Győző Orbán’s hands. As far as I know, the manor house is under renovation. Rumor has it that it is being converted into a luxury hotel.

And then there is the Orbán family’s controversial peat business. The first mention I found of the marshlands that are necessary for peat production was in the March 5 issue of HVG. Bernadette Szél (LMP) discovered that Fidesz was preparing a bill that would lift the protection of marshlands and allow the mining of peat.  By July it became public knowledge that the prime minister’s father and two brothers already owned about 200 acres of marshland in the County of Zala. Győző Orbán purchased the land in 1999 during the premiership of his son. The head of the Mining Authority was for a while a silent partner in this peat business. They and others purchased the land for practically nothing. In 2003 the area was declared to be protected, destined to be converted into a national park. All of the landowners were forced to sell their land to the state, with the exception of the Orbáns.

Bernadette Szél went to look at this land, which consists of several thousands of contiguous hectares of marshland. The Orbáns’ 200 acres that presumably were so different from all the others lie in the middle of this large area. It seems that the Orbán company will have a peat mining monopoly in these parts. At the moment the company, in addition to mining, is building a helicopter pad. Business is good. In 2012 there was half a billion forint profit.

And, as people say, “if we just knew the whole truth.” I think we would be astonished at the depth of corruption of the man who is currently the prime minister of Hungary.

Another blunder by Fidesz-Jobbik: Naming a street after the anti-Semite Cécile Tormay

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Viktor Orbán promised zero tolerance of antisemitism in Hungary. Although attendees of the World Jewish Congress appreciated the resolute words, they reserved judgment on the Hungarian government’s policy pending visible signs of the promised zero tolerance.

And what happened? Budapest’s city government decided to name a street after the nationalist writer Cécile Tormay (1876-1937), an avowed anti-Semite. Ronald S. Lauder, president of the WJC, reacted with consternation to the news.”This decision by the Budapest city government, which is headed by a member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, puts into question the pledge given to the Jewish community that anti-Semitism will be fought vigorously by the Hungarian authorities. However, it seems that they need to be reminded that Cécile Tormay was not only one of Miklós Horthy’s favorite writers. She was also a notorious anti-Semite.” Lauder urged “Prime Minister Orbán to speak with the mayor of Budapest, who is a member of his party, and to persuade him to withdraw the plan for the naming of a street after Cécile Tormay.”

Formally, Mayor István Tarlós is not a member of Fidesz, but naturally he is Orbán’s man. Running as an independent was only a political ploy to make Tarlós more acceptable to voters who would under no circumstances vote for a Fidesz candidate.

Today’s WJC press release mentions Tormay’s most objectionable work, An Outlaw’s Diary, published in 1921. This book by the “Grand Dame of  the Nation,” as his admirers called her, was translated into English–in addition to German and French thanks to the generosity of the Hungarian government–in 1923 and is available online.

I regret that the blog format doesn’t allow me to write a longer study of this woman’s political and personal career. Both are fascinating. Women, especially women of her social class, couldn’t really be active participants in political life in the interwar period. Yet from 1918 until her death in 1937 Tormay was the head of the largest right-wing women’s organization, the Magyar Asszonyok Nemzeti Szövetsége (MANSZ) with a membership of half a million. In addition, she was editor of the right-wing national-Christian literary magazine Napkelet (Orient) that was established with government money as a counterpart to the liberal, urbanite, western-oriented Nyugat, the leading literary magazine (1908-1941) which, by the way, is available online. That wasn’t exactly a normal career for the daughter of a man who had been ennobled by Franz Joseph sometime at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cécile Tormay (1875-1937) / Wikipedia

Cécile Tormay (1875-1937) Wikipedia

Her first works appeared after 1899. Her best effort was a novel (1914) entitled A régi ház (The old house) that met with considerable critical success. In his obituary of Tormay, Antal Szerb (1901-1945), the famous literary historian and critic, talked about the book with appreciation. Szerb only regretted that after the war Tormay turned her attention to politics. “She proved to be so active and energetic that many turned away from Cecile Tormay, the writer.” It was a polite way of saying that the literary elite couldn’t identify with someone who espoused antisemitism and fascism.

Judit Kádár, a literary historian, has studied Tormay’s works and politics. The couple of articles of hers that I read portray Tormay as a vicious anti-Semite infatuated with Mussolini and fascism. Kádár portrays her organization, MANSZ, as “a fascist organization,” invoking Juan J. Linz’s well-known definition: “hyper-nationalist, often pan-nationalist, anti-parliamentary, anti-liberal, anti-communist, populist and therefore anti-proletarian, partly anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical or at least non-clerical movement with the aim of national social integration through a single party and corporative representation not always equally emphasized, with a distinctive style and rhetoric, it relies on activist cadres ready for violent action combined with electoral participation to gain power with totalitarian goals by a combination of legal and violent tactics.”

I think Tormay would happily have accepted the label. In 1922 she wrote: “Look at Italy! Will they get to where we’ve arrived? Let’s hope so!” She claimed to be a forerunner of Italian fascism. As editor of Napkelet and Magyar Asszony she regularly published pro-fascist articles. In 1932 she personally greeted Mussolini, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Marcia su Roma.

Her support of the Horthy regime yielded numerous benefits. In 1935 after the death of Marie Curie, Hungary delegated her to one of the committees of the League of Nations. In 1937 they nominated her for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Eugene O’Neill received it that year.)

In the last few days, several foreign and Hungarian Jewish organizations raised their voices against naming a street after this notorious antisemitic and fascist writer. Mazsihisz, the Hungarian organization of Jewish religious communities, also felt it necessary to dwell on Tormay’s alleged lesbianism. Indeed, in 1925 there was a scandal that involved her and her friend, Countess Raphael Zichy. Zichy’s husband accused them of having a sexual liaison. The two women sued him. They eventually won and Zichy ended up in jail for a year and a half. Just recently a Pécs judge wrote a book on the trial and came to the conclusion that the verdict was correct. Zichy didn’t have solid proof. Others remembered differently. Apparently, Horthy’s personal intervention saved Cécile Tormay.

I don’t quite understand what Tormay’s sexual preferences have to do with her political views or her antisemitism. It would have been quite enough to quote a few choice passages from The Outlaw’s Diary. But even Judit Kádár makes a connection between her alleged hatred of men and her antisemitism, which I find forced. But I should probably re-read The Outlaw’s Diary. The first time around I read it as a historical document for the years 1918-1920. Perhaps it’s time to look at it again from a different perspective.

Finally, a few words about István Tarlós, the mayor, and Fidesz-Jobbik cooperation on the Budapest City Council. Outlandish ideas, like naming a street after Cécile Tormay, usually originate with the Jobbik members who then receive the support of the Fidesz delegation. Together they have a majority on the council. Tarlós, an engineer without much background in the liberal arts, readily (and I suspect often out of ignorance) obliges.

After Mazsihisz asked Tarlós to reconsider his decision to support naming a street after Tormay, he quickly backed down. He announced that he will suggest that the decision be reexamined. But it remains an embarrassment for Hungary.

Postscript to the World Jewish Congress in Budapest by Karl Pfeifer

Is the World Jewish Congress (WJC) a gathering of useless busybodies (“gittegylet” in Hungarian after Ferenc Molnár’s novel, The Boys of Paul Street) as the liberal Budapest weekly Magyar Narancs claims? An association of useless busybodies could never have gathered 500 delegates in Budapest for the occasion.

Is the WJC an entity that controls the governments of Israel or the USA as Hungarian conspiracy theorists claim? You must have lost any sense of reality to believe that.

Well, insofar as there was a discussion inside the WJC whether it was right to hold a meeting in Budapest, I can state that the conference was a clear and definite success. Rampant anti-Semitism and racism in Hungary have become the center of attention of the international media. All the delegates and journalists received a 20 page brochure entitled “Anti-Semitic Incidents in Hungary 2012” documenting the present situation.

When Orbán spoke about the Hungarians and the “Jewish people” in Hungary, that might have sounded good to an Israeli right-wing delegate who said to me accusingly: “Your definition of a nation is definitively European.”

Last autumn Prime Minister Orbán defined the Hungarian nation as an ethnically pure group held together by kinship and blood rather than by language and culture: “We are born into the myth of the Turul-bird just as we are born into our language and our history.”  A crazy notion considering that there are no ethnically pure Hungarians. But it helps you to label all those who do not believe in the pagan foundation myth as “Jews”.

A few days before the congress took place the German journalist Keno Verseck interviewed János Lázár, the powerful head of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office. “Lázár complained bitterly […] about the international criticism of Hungary, above all that ‘part of the world labels all of us as anti-Semites.’ It is ‘unethical,’ the 38-year-old said, when ‘injuries in politics and business life are retaliated against with accusations of supposed anti-Semitism.’”

Of course, Lázár did not and could not name any serious politician or journalist who has ever claimed all Hungarians were anti-Semites. Lázár’s statement was a demagogic variant of the paranoid theory that Hungarians are eternal victims of unjust prejudice. And the second part of his statement about the “accusations of supposed anti-Semitism” is the typical defensive counterattack which claims that anybody raising the issue of anti-Semitism is doing so in bad faith and dishonestly.

To quote from the brochure “Anti-Semitic Incidents in Hungary 2012 handed out at the meeting:

“[…] The growing number of violent physical incidents clearly shows the impact on “street anti-Semitism” made by the anti-Semitic utterances of Jobbik in the Hungarian Parliament or by the relevant crimes committed during World War II. In 2012, the media reported several cases where individuals suffered slight injuries because of their real or supposed Jewish identity. Furthermore, the proliferation of hate groups, speeches inciting violence and assault at neo-Nazi mass demonstrations and the military training of radical paramilitary skinhead groups are raising serious concerns. Finally, Jobbik is steadily becoming one of the most popular political parties amongst young people and the camp of its sympathizers aged between 18 and 37 is rapidly expanding. This constitutes a huge threat to democracy and social tolerance in the long run. Young people, who often lack a secure future perspective, are increasingly influenced and radicalized by popular neo-Nazi websites, such as kuruc.info, which publish illegal contents and the authorities have not yet managed to close down.

In 2012, the Hungarian Jewish community were not subject to complete marginalization. Some members of the Jewish community have started to flee their community and country, mostly to the neighboring country, Austria. Although the government has reiterated a clear statement that Hungary provides a homeland and safety for the Jews, just like for any other minority, Hungarian Jewry witness a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including media-reported incidents, graffiti and disgraced cemeteries, hate speech in both political and social forums, verbal abuse shared on social networks or personal stories that might never become public.

Anti-Semitism is not a problem of the Jewry but of the Hungarian society and government. In Hungary, there is evidence to prove that more and more people outwardly express their dismay towards Jews than those who are indifferent towards them or who are perhaps Philosemites. It is precisely for these reasons that this report has been prepared in order to shed light on the extent of anti-semitism in Hungary.“

When WJC president Ronald Lauder apologized to Orbán after the conference for not having mentioned an interview given by the Prime Minister to Eldad Beck of the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth, where he promised not to form a coalition with Jobbik or to depend on its tacit support, the right-wing media celebrated victory.

Jobbik supporter--"Honor is my loyalty" The Telegraph / Photo Reuters

A Jobbik supporter–“Honor is my loyalty” The Telegraph / Photo Reuters

Yet how true Orbán’s statements are can only be measured if he ever needs to depend on Jobbik’s support to stay in power–be it after the elections of 2014 or later. I personally consider them part of his usual “pávatánc” (peacock dance), the deft if tortuous maneuvers by which he has managed, so far with considerable success, to be applauded abroad for his non-anti-Semitism while gathering support from the all too real anti-Semites of Hungary.

A footnote to the attitude of Viktor Orbán’s government toward the Holocaust. Yesterday’s Le Monde reported that the Polish president of the Auschwitz Foundation, Piotr Cywinski, recently visited  the capitals of Europe asking for contributions for the maintenance of the camp. Some of the barracks are in very bad shape and need serious reconstruction. Professor Cywinski reported that he managed to collect 100 million euros from twenty-three countries. Even Turkey is among the donors. It was “only Hungary that offered nothing.”  Cywinsky has difficulty understanding the Orbán government’s attitude “when Auschwitz is the burial place of 400,000 Hungarians out of the 1.1 million victims.” So much for Orbán’s pious words at the World Jewish Congress in Budapest.–ESB

Breaking news: The World Jewish Congress’s Plenary Assembly in Budapest

Below, thanks to a friend, a contributor, and a regular reader of Hungarian Spectrum, I’m able to publish the speeches of Péter Feldmájer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ), and Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, at the Plenary Assembly in Budapest on May 5.

Unfortunately Viktor Orbán’s speech is not yet available in English (although it’s already on YouTube in Hungarian), but the World Jewish Congress’s reaction was negative.

I should add that the translations are not mine.

* * *

Péter Feldmájer

Péter Feldmájer

Mr. President Lauder, Mr. Prime Minister, His Excellency the Cardinal, Bishops, Rabbis, Mr. and Madame Ambassadors, Dear Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Ma nishtano halailo haze?

What makes this night different from all other nights, we ask each Passover Seder evening; today we can ask the question: ma nishtano hacongres haze – i.e. what makes this congress different from all other congresses?

First and most, it is that we would like to welcome you in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, a glorious city that safeguards the joys and also the tortures of the past.

You have arrived in a country which – legend has it – saw the Jewish people from the Kazar empire come into this land together with the state founding proud horse tribes, and also where for many decades in the 19th century the Jews of the east were greeted with a warm and wholehearted welcome. The Jews here had become Hungarian patriots, they quickly lost their own language and supported the cause of Hungarian independence without reservations; nevertheless, already in the very first days of the 1848 heroic freedom fight, a pogrom was launched against the Jews of Bratislava.

You have come to a city that is proud to have Tivadar Herzl, the visionary of modern Israel, as its son and student.

You have come to a country which had lost World War I and with that 2/3 of its territory. The heroism of the Jewish soldiers and officers fighting the war as Hungarian patriots had become legendary, yet it did nothing to stop the political elite from blaming the Jews for the defeat and introducing the very first anti-Semitic laws of Europe, which served as models for the Nazis.

You have come to a country where the vast majority of the then mainstream society approved of the anti-Semitic laws and while most of them did not identify with the massacres, ultimately the entire Hungarian public administration – led by the Governor – successfully organised and implemented the gathering and deportation of Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. You have come to a city that is proud of its jewel, the blue Danube, whose water was once painted red by the blood of tens of thousands of Jews shot dead on its banks.

You have come to a city where despite decades of anti-Semitic propaganda, despite official prohibitions, there were still hundreds and thousands that risked their lives standing up for, hiding and saving the lives of Jews.

You have come to a country where the majority of Jewish people – despite the massacres – remained patriotic to the land.

You have come to a country in which Moscow-based concoctors of leftist anti-Semitic pogroms could not achieve anything because the otherwise loyal Communist leaders of the country were not willing to identify with and fulfil the mad plans and commands of red tsars that followed the footsteps of Hitler.

You have come to a country where after the fall of Communism, the largest Jewish community of Central Europe revived Jewish religious and cultural life with unparalleled enthusiasm; the education system they brought to life may be an example to all.

You have come to a country whose proud Jewish residents can freely express their love of Israel and may freely proclaim not to ever forget Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of the united Jewish people.

You have come to a country which – perhaps the first one in the world after Israel – adopted a bill to commemorate the victims of the holocaust and – in line with the measures of the first Orban-cabinet – does a tremendous lot to keep the memory of the holocaust alive, to make the history of the holocaust part of school education.

You have come to a country whose Jewish community is again under threat by horrific ideologies and acts, which are the remnants of the Middle Ages and the holocaust, where an elderly Chief Rabbi is attacked in the street, where Fascists are hailed, where the courts set murderers as role models for the young as squares, and streets are being named after keen anti-Semites, as the works of court poets of Hungarian Nazis are included in the national curriculum and thus polluting the souls of our students.

You have come to a country whose government is in support of the security of the state of Israel and is ready to stand up for the inalienable religious rights of Jews and would never consider placing animal rights before the religious rights of Jews.

You have come to a country, where Jews could live in peace and enjoy the support of the majority of Hungarian society if the holler of the vindictive minority did not suppress their sober and friendly voices.

Two decades ago, the director of MAZSIHISZ, Mr Zoltai, and I used to think that not only did Hungarian Jews have a great past, they also have a great future ahead of them. What has happened in this country in the past decades has proved that we were not wrong. We are still convinced today that not only is the present of Hungarian Jews great, but so is their future despite the raving of the anti-Semite rabble.

Thank you for coming and being here with us. We are proud to have been found worthy of holding the congress here, to be together, and for you to express your solidarity with the Hungarian Jewry.

I believe that the Jews of the world must unite their forces. This day also shows us that we are not alone, we are all listening to each other no matter where we may be living across the globe. The task we have is no little one to handle.

Hungary and Europe are on the wrong track.
As the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet put it:
“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, time is out of joint and only together can we set it right; it is as if we the sounds and voices of the sinister ’30s were back again. All of us here tonight, Jews and non-Jews can only succeed in preventing the dark era of anti-Semitism from retuning to Hungary, Europe and the entire world and in ensuring that not a single Jewish person is ever in fear of terror if we unite our forces.

Thank you for your attention, I wish you all a pleasant evening.

* * *

Ronald S. Lauder

Ronald S. Lauder

Prime Minister Orban,  President of Mazsihisz, my friend Péter Feldmájer,  Cardinal Erdő,  Rabbis, Ministers and Members of Parliament, Distinguished Ambassadors, Representatives of our Jewish Communities from all around the world, ladies and gentlemen, Dear friends:

First of all, I want to thank Péter Feldmájer and the wonderful Jewish community here in Hungary.

The fact that we are here tonight – representatives of Jewish communities from 100 countries around the world – is a tribute to the strength, resilience and vitality of Hungarian Jewry and to your leadership, Péter. Thank you.

Prime Minister Orbán and Cardinal Erdő, we thank you for being with us. Your presence here tonight is also fitting because Budapest’s history is tied to Jewish history.

Less than one hundred years ago, a quarter of this great city’s population was Jewish. Hungary’s Jews contributed to the country’s economy, its culture, and its universities as well as its extraordinary tradition of mathematics and science.

Albert Einstein happens to be one of the few top physicists in the last century who was not born in Hungary but figures such as Szilard, Teller and Johnny von Neuman were just some of the brilliant Jewish minds that all came from Hungary and left a huge impact on the world.

Joseph Pulitzer, one of America’s greatest newspaper publishers and the founder of the most coveted prize in journalism that still bears his name today came from Hungary. And of course, Theodore Herzl, who founded the modern Zionist movement that led to the creation of Israel is from here as well.

My own mother’s parents were born here. The Lauder family dates back to the 13th Century and there was a special Jewish community there at that time, so you see my connection to Hungary is both deep and personal.

But sadly, all of the famous Jews I mention – and there are many more – noble laureates, artists and scholars – all left Hungary because they were forced to leave.

The rise of anti-Semitic parties in the 1920s and the 1930s led to the darkest chapter of all – the deportation and gassing of more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children.  A staggering one-third of the 1.1 million Jews murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian.

It is so clear that if these dark forces of anti-Semitism had not been allowed to rise in the 20th Century – all of Hungary would have prospered.

This always strikes me as so obvious – when Jews are allowed to live their lives freely and practice their religion, countries always flourish. It is obvious. But all too often, the irrational hatred that is Anti-Semitism defeats common sense.

After 1920, the government of Admiral Miklós Horthy – a vicious anti-Semite – moved Hungary towards this irrational hatred. His government passed successive anti-Jewish laws and aligned itself closely at that time with the Nazis in Germany.  And in 1938, the Horthy regime enacted its version of the infamous Nuremberg Laws.

The first deportations of Jews from Hungary to concentration camps occurred in 1941, during the time of Admiral Horthy.

I am recalling these facts now not because we are not familiar with them, but because today we are seeing, once again, growing ignorance, growing intolerance, growing hatred.

Once again we see the outrage of anti-Semitism.

This is by no means only in Hungary, but also in other places in Europe – in Greece, where I was a few weeks ago, in Ukraine and elsewhere.  We see that Jews and other minorities are singled out, vilified, demonized.

We see that more and more people openly deny the Holocaust, which happens to be one of the most well documented tragedies in history.

We see that a growing number of people actually believe the old canard that Jews control world finance, or the media, or everything.

And we see that Jews again are being blamed for economic troubles.

Today, there are members of the Hungarian Parliament who want the government to draw up “Lists of Jews” who hold public office. That sends out warning signals around the world.

In the press and on television, anti-Semitism and incitement against the Roma minority are becoming commonplace, and sometimes even accepted. We were shocked to learn that an anti-Semitic TV presenter was awarded a prize.

Thankfully the Government withdrew this prize.  But the fact that it was awarded in the first place is the kind of thing that has us worried.

And there is this journalist, Zsolt Bayer, who recently called Gypsies “cowardly, repulsive, noxious animals.”  He said they were “unfit to live among people” and called for “dealing with them immediately.”

Such words are reminiscent of the darkest era in European history.  Let us never forget the Roma were also victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

Today, Jews are again wondering whether they will have to leave the country, for similar reasons.

Because they wonder why anti-Semites like Miklós Horthy are being glorified, and why statues honoring them are unveiled by Hungarian officials. Horthy was equivalent to Hitler and seeing statues of him going up sends the wrong signal.

Perhaps because they wonder if Jews have a future in Hungary?

Whatever the reason, their concerns must be taken seriously.

When Hungarian Jews are attacked by fanatics, they should be able to count on the unequivocal support of their government and of their authorities. It is the authorities that must stop this before it even begins.

Mr. Prime Minister, I know that the Hungarian people love freedom.  They are courageous.

In 1956, Hungary was the first country to rise up against the Soviet oppressors.

Hungary was the first country in 1989 that set off the chain reaction, which opened the Iron Curtain and brought down the Berlin Wall. For this the world thanks the Hungarian community.

Mr. Prime Minister, you were part of this. You did many things positive at that time.

The fall of Communism paved the way for a rebirth not just of a new Hungary but also for the revival of Jewish life here in Hungary and frankly no one frankly after the Shoah could ever imagine that. I remember when I opened my summer camp here we had 400 children from all over Europe attend a ceremony and the translator as I was speaking started to cry. I turned to him and asked “why are you crying?” He said “old man, I never thought I would see Jewish children again in Hungary.”

I decided to support that Jewish renaissance as much as I could. In 1990, I established the Lauder Javne School in Budapest.  It is now welcoming 600 Jewish students a year and enriching their lives with Jewish values.

I am very proud of all the things we have accomplished, and tomorrow we shall all have a chance to see more of the children when we have dinner at the school.

I have also had the honor to rebuild many synagogues here – showing my strong commitment to Hungary’s history and it’s great heritage.  Let there be no doubt: I still believe in the future of this country. And so do many others.

Prime Minister Orbán, I thank you for your presence here tonight.

It is no secret that Hungary’s international reputation has suffered in recent years.

But Hungary’s good name was not smeared by the foreign press, but by extremists.

Mr. Prime Minister, we are especially concerned about one particular party.  I am talking about Jobbik, a party that won almost 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 elections.  Through its anti-Semitism, its hostility to the Roma, and its paranoid rantings at the outside world, Jobbik is dragging the good name of Hungary through the mud.

That same party held a demonstration just yesterday against our gathering here in Budapest. Granted there were only a few people but it was symbolic because they were told they should not protest.

Hungarian Jews, Mr. Prime Minister, need you to take a firm and decisive lead. They need you to take on these dark forces. They need you to be pro-active.  They need your leadership in this fight.

They need you to send the message to the entire population that intolerance will not be tolerated.

As President of the World Jewish Congress, I ask you to do precisely that and thus to demonstrate and talk about this great country’s finest traditions.

It is time for leadership and strong actions.  We truly hope that you will be successful.

Fascism and intolerance always single out the Jews first.  But they are never the last victims.  All good people suffer.  Countries suffer.  In the end, this hatred and intolerance only destroys a nation’s hopes, its progress and its future.

Mr. Prime Minister this hall is full of hope.  We welcome you here to our gathering as you and the majority of your compatriots have welcomed us to your country.

We thank you for being with us in your stunningly beautiful capital city.

Thank you very much.

 * * *

It seems that Viktor Orbán’s speech didn’t meet the expectations of the World Jewish Congress.

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.

The  prime minister’s speech is available on YouTube in Hungarian:

I may add that Ferenc Gyurcsány, who was present at the plenary assembly, left before Viktor Orbán delivered his address. In a Facebook comment he said that he had no intention of listening to the Hungarian prime minister’s lies.

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.