Yedioth Ahronoth

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.