ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav has strongly criticized the Hungarian non-Orthodox, Neolog community over its opposition to ZAKA’s search for the remains of Holocaust victims in the waters of the Danube River in the capital Budapest.
Some 80,000 Jews were executed on the banks of the Danube in Budapest in 1944 by Hungarian Iron Cross forces, so that their bodies fell into the river below.
ZAKA initiated the search for remains of these Holocaust victims last week after several years of work organizing the project, but it has met with opposition from the large Hungarian Neolog community
, somewhat akin to Conservative Judaism, which has questioned the utility and necessity of the search.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Meshi-Zahav alleged that the Neolog community was opposing the search due to its political concerns with the right-wing, nationalist Hungarian government, and said it was “disgraceful” to oppose the search whose goal is to do the final honor for Holocaust martyrs and have them buried in accordance with Jewish law and custom
“As someone who has been operating in dozens of countries around the world in similar operations, I have never encountered such disgraceful conduct by Jewish community leaders who, in their struggle against the local government, have turned Holocaust victims into a political bargaining chip,” said Meshi-Zahav.
“We were taught that when it comes to the Holocaust, there are no interests and no politics, so I strongly condemn this conduct.”
Meshi-Zahav also insisted that everything ZAKA does, including the search for remains in the Danube, “is carried out in accordance with Jewish law and the rulings of the greatest Rabbis in the Jewish world including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.”
He added “Moreover, we consider this operation to be of great importance since it is the last act of kindness that we can perform for hundreds of our brethren murdered on the banks of the Danube.”
The Mazsihisz federation of the Neolog community issued a statement last week
stating its opposition to the search, arguing that it would not be possible to determine if any remains recovered are from Jews or non-Jews, and said that the project was “superfluous” and “contrary to Jewish law.”
Robert Simcha Yisrael Frohlich, chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Budapest and a member of the Neolog community, made similar comments to the Post on Tuesday.
Meshi-Zahav pointed out that according to Jewish law burial in water is not considered to be burial, and that there is therefore a religious obligation to find Jewish remains in bodies of water, if possible, and bring them to proper Jewish burial.
He also noted burial in the ground, even in mass graves, is considered to be commensurate with Jewish law and that there is therefore no need to search all over Europe for Jewish remains in Holocaust-era mass burial sites.
Meshi-Zahav said the search did not harm the Neolog community, and that this was the cause of his anger.
“Why do they care that we are doing this? Why do they care? Why are they bothered that we are brining these victims for Jewish burial?”
He also dismissed concerns that it would be impossible to determine Jewish from non-Jewish remains, saying that there are many instances when Jews are buried together with non-Jews, such as terrorist attacks in Israel when remains of the terrorists themselves often end up alongside their Jewish victims in Jewish cemeteries.
Speaking to the Post, Frohlich said however that his opposition to the search was because he feared it could prompt negative feelings amongst the general Hungarian population towards the Jewish community.
Noting that ZAKA’s search has yet to find any remains, the rabbi said that he had already seen a far-right website arguing that this failure proved that Jews had not been massacred on the banks of the Danube.
Frohlich also noted comments on Facebook of Hungarians demanding to know whether or not non-Jewish remains found in the river would merely be thrown back in.
The rabbi acknowledged that Meshi-Zahav was right to say that burial in water is not considered burial according to Jewish law, but said that other factors should be taken into consideration, principally the position of the Jewish population in the country.
Hungary’s current right-wing, nationalist government. led by the Fidesz Party, has been criticized in recent years for undermining democratic institutions and norms, and was sanctioned by the EU in September over such concerns.
These issues, as well as concerns over antisemitism, have unsettled parts of the Jewish community in the country.
“I very much admire Meshi-Zahav and ZAKA for the holy work they do, but I ask him very respectfully to try a little bit to think with our hats and not just his own,” said Frohlich.
“We are not living in a Jewish country. We are living in a multi-faith country and we are a minority here, and always will be. Pirkei Avot says do not judge your friend until you are in his place, and he must not judge us until he is in our shoes. Our position is not that of people in Israel.”
The rabbi also rejected the idea that he was opposed to the search due to internal Hungarian politics, saying that only Meshi-Zahav had mentioned the issue, not him or the Mazsihisz federation.
“My opinion is not political at all. I talked about moral philosophy and ethics, and respect for the dead, I didn’t discuss politics at all, and this is not a political issue.
“I respect Meshi-Zahav and I don’t want to fight with him, because I admire what he and his organization does, he just doesn’t understand the situation here, and I don’t want to fight with him and have sinat hinam, baseless hatred.”
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