The Mazsihisz, Hungary’s main Jewish representative body, voted on Sunday to boycott the government’s 2014 Holocaust commemorations. The decision to not participate in, or accept funding connected with, Budapest’s 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Year, comes amid allegations that the government has engaged in historical revisionism to minimize its role in the genocide.
The boycott, which the Mazsihisz has been threatening since the end of January, has been increasingly supported by Jewish organizations worldwide, although the Israeli ambassador to Budapest seemed to indicate that he thinks the move somewhat premature.
Hungary has one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, with an estimated 100,000 members, most of whom are concentrated in Budapest.
Last month the Mazsihisz, or Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, issued an ultimatum following a statement by a senior government historian diminishing the significance of Hungarian actions during the Second World War.
Sándor Szakály, director of the state-sponsored Veritas Historical Research Institute, aroused outrage when he termed the deportation and massacre of tens of thousands of Jews, most of whom were Hungarian, in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, a “police action against aliens.”
Calling for Szakály’s ouster, the Mazsihisz stated that it would “make use of the grant we received from the Civil Grant Fund only if there is a change in the direction of the whole project.”
The organization also objected to a statue commemorating the German occupation of Hungary that is slated to be erected in Budapest. Its inscription memorializing the victims of Nazism omits specific mention of the Jewish people. Germany occupied Hungary in 1944 after discovering that the former ally was discussing surrender terms with the Allied powers.
After Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote Jewish leaders in defense of the statue, Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler told The Jerusalem Post that the Mazsihisz “is being refused.”
Sunday’s boycott motion passed overwhelming, with 76 votes in favor and only two objections, the Mazsihisz reported on its website.
“If we do not get a real answer from the government on these issues, our decision will become final,” Heisler said, adding that Orban is expected to respond to the Jewish community’s grievances sometime this week.
“The unity that Hungarian Jews showed in that respect is unprecedented since the war,” he added.
The Jewish community also expressed its opposition to a new Holocaust memorial museum being built at a train station in the capital, which was used as the central transportation hub for deportations to Nazi death camps. The new museum, Hungarian Jews alleged, downplays the role of Hungarian nationals in the deportation of their Jewish neighbors.
Mazsihisz executive director Gusztav Zoltai, himself a Holocaust survivor, was quoted by Reuters saying, “It wasn’t the Germans who locked me up in the ghetto, but Hungarian soldiers and fascists.”
Support from Jewish organizations around the world came quickly after the announcement of the boycott.
In a letter read out loud during Sunday’s assembly, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder wrote that the WJC is “fully supportive of the position of the Hungarian Jewish Community. While he hopes the controversy could be solved through dialogue, Lauder stated, the international Jewish body will “support whatever decision Mazsihisz sees fit to take in this respect.”
The European Jewish Congress, a continental affiliate of the WJC that includes the Mazsihisz, added its support on Sunday, telling the Post that it “strongly supports the decision of its Hungarian affiliate.”
“Commemoration is not only about ticking boxes and marking off dates. It requires real introspection, a recognition of the true history of the times, and an acceptance of responsibility from all those involved in the destruction of Hungarian Jews during the Shoah,” an EJC spokesman said, calling for the government to take action against resurgent anti-Semitism in the country.
“The Jewish community’s decision to protest planned Holocaust memorial events is painful, but then the efforts of the Hungarian government to rewrite history are absolutely traumatic,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs said in a statement.
The AJC accused the Hungarian government of refusing to “alter these plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust or engage in a genuine dialogue with Jewish community leaders.”
“We support the Jewish community’s decision to boycott the 2014 Holocaust Memorial Year. They’ve lived through that era, they’ve survived that era, and their perspective on the issue is the most important,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman told the Post. “Now is the time for Prime Minister Orban to clarify that the government accepts state responsibility for the persecution of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and to ensure that any memorial sends the same message.”
While Jewish organizations were quick to express their support for the Mazsihisz decision, however, Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor was less effusive.
Citing a meeting last Thursday between Minister of State János Lázár and senior community representatives in which he promised a prime ministerial response to Jewish concerns, Mor told the Post that the “hard-line” decision “was taken in spite of the fact that conciliatory messages were sent to the Jewish community.”
During last week’s meeting, Minister Janos Lazar stated that he wanted to consult with Jewish leaders and pass on their concerns to the prime minister, who would make a decision this week, a government spokesman stated.
“The decision did not take into consideration the possibility that the government would accept some of the issues which are bothering the Jewish community,” he said. “I suggest that we will have to wait and see what the reaction of the prime minister will be this week.”
Asked if he thinks the boycott premature, he said that it is not his role to cast judgment and that he is “just stating the facts and the facts speak for themselves.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has not yet formulated its response to ongoing events in Hungary and is waiting to see how things develop over the next several days, Mor added.
Regarding a recent statement by Hungary’s ambassador to the UN taking responsibility for his country’s role in the Holocaust, Mor said that “there are right declarations and statements given time and again by high-ranking Hungarian politicians, but what is missing is the implementation of these very good statements, the implementation of the law which deals with Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.” The statement was seen in some circles as an attempt to reduce tensions with the Mazsihisz.
Some Jewish leaders say Orban’s attempts to rehabilitate Hungary’s past stem partially from his need to draw voters away from the Jobbik Party, which came out of nowhere to become Hungary’s third-largest parliamentary faction in 2010 and will seek to expand its representation in April’s parliamentary elections.
Despite government overtures, the Jewish community has remained adamant in its demand for immediate change in the government’s approach to the Holocaust.
Lazar’s statement on Thursday that, “it is important to unravel the events of 1944, in order to clearly determine responsibility,” earned special condemnation during Sunday’s deliberations.
Despite the boycott, the Rabbinical Center of Europe will hold a joint memorial with Hungarian officials in late March during a rabbinical conference being held in Budapest, RCE head Rabbi Menachem Margolin told the Post.