Diplomacy: The Israeli feel to Hungary’s crisis

Isolated, feeling misunderstood and misrepresented, Hungary is getting a taste of what Israel goes through.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BUDAPEST – Hungary feels oddly a bit like Israel these days. Obviously it has nothing to do with the ear lobe-tingling cold and the light snow that regularly dusts Budapest’s streets at this time of year. Nor does it have anything to do with the fairy tale-looking parliament on the banks of the Danube that dominates the capital’s cityscape.
Rather, this Israel-ness is felt in the way today’s Hungary feels intensely isolated, sadly misunderstood by much of the world and badly mistreated by the international press. It feels like Israel because the international discourse about Hungary is dominated by reports of undemocratic legislation, an extreme right-wing party, attempts to control the press and accusations of efforts to pack the judiciary. It feels like Israel because the EU is unabashedly pontificating about how Hungary should run its affairs. And it feels like Israel because right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban – who commands a two-thirds majority in parliament – is wildly unpopular abroad Speaking to a dozen journalists from Israel and Europe brought to the country this week for the launching of a year-long commemoration marking Raoul Wallenberg‘s 100th birthday, leading Hungarian politician Gergely Gulyas, vice president of Orban’s Fidesz Party, quipped that he was “extremely surprised by your courage to come to Hungary. The situation is not as bad as seen from abroad." Tamas Lukacs, head of the small KDNP Party affiliated with Fidesz and head of the Hungarian parliament’s Committee on Human Rights, Minority, Civic and Religious Affairs, said all he was requesting from the journalists was to ”ask first and form an opinion later.”
Not only were statements like these variations of comments made by numerous Israeli politicians siting around tables at Jerusalem restaurants over the years with visiting media delegations, but the whole Hungarian press tour itself had an Israeli feel.
Small, politically correct, popular nations don’t feel the need to invite delegations to their countries to see what they are “really” like. Switzerland, for example, probably does not spend a lot of money bringing over press delegations to learn about the country.
No, these types of efforts generally fall to countries that don’t feel they are being adequately understood or fairly represented abroad. Israel’s foreign ministry, as well as a number of private organizations and initiatives, have been running these types of visits for journalists and other opinion-makers and shapers for years. Hungary, which only recently hired the services of a British public relations firm to improve its image, has now joined the club.
And the Hungarians have their work cut out for them. On Tuesday, as the country’s Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi hosted the opening event of the Wallenberg centenary, and as both he and other Hungarian cabinet ministers spoke of the need to stand vigilant against authoritarianism, a Reuters story reported that the EU Commission in Brussels was very concerned about what it perceived to be the current government’s autocratic tendencies.
“The European Union raised the stakes in a showdown with Hungary on Tuesday, with the European Commission saying it would take legal action against the Hungarian government for failing to make authoritarian new laws comply with EU legislation,” the report read. “Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative Fidesz Party has been condemned by the international community for introducing measures that threaten the independence of the media, the judiciary and the central bank since sweeping to power in 2010.”
To read these reports, to listen to Hungary being criticized by EU officials, to take into account that the radical right-wing anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Jobbik Party won 17 percent of the vote in the country’s last elections in 2010, one could walk away with the impression that this country is slinking toward authoritative rule.
Shouting “Viktator Orban,” a play on the word “dictator,” tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the Hungarian prime minister in early January to protest a sweeping new constitution that his Fidesz Party initiated and pushed through the parliament at break-neck speed. This constitution, with its reference to a country based on “Christian values,” went into effect on January 1. This triggered a crisis with the EU, which is opposed to many of the document’s elements. And what makes the situation even more difficult for Hungary – a country whose collective psyche is scarred by memories first of Nazi and Hungarian Arrow Cross savagery and then of Communist repression – is that its economy is in deep trouble and badly in need of EU economic aid.
On Wednesday, EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso reiterated criticism of the legislation and demanded Orban show that his country remains committed to democracy.
“Beyond the legal aspects, some concerns have been expressed regarding the quality of democracy in Hungary, its political culture, the relations between government and opposition and between the state and the civil society,” he said. “I strongly appeal to the Hungarian authorities to respect the very principles of democracy and freedom.”
In a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg that day, Orban seemed almost Israeli in facing overheated rhetoric by some left-wing European parliamentarians.
“We say you are taking the road of Chavez, Castro and all the world’s totalitarian and authoritarian regimes," said France’s Daniel Cohn- Bendit, a co-leader of the Greens and a constant, caustic critic of Israeli polices. He was joined in his criticism of Orban by Former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the parliament’s Liberals and Democrats and also a harsh critic of Israel.
Cohn-Bendit suggested the the European Parliament send a delegation to Hungary to see why “homeless people, intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals” are afraid.
But are they? Are the Jews afraid? Martonyi bristles when asked about Hungarian anti-Semitism and whether the Wallenberg centenary was perhaps planned to show the world that Hungary is not anti- Semitic.
“I don’t need to prove that Hungary is not an anti-Semitic country,” he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at Budapest’s National Museum. “It is just an insult. How can I have a reasonable discussion with insults? I fully reject it. We have an extreme right-wing party. They do use anti-Semitic rhetoric, they do use nasty language in general. They attack many members of the government , including myself, on a daily basis. They use a server in the US for a nasty website. Yes, this is anti- Semitic discourse. But this is not Hungary. This is is not Hungarian public opinion, and even less so the Hungarian government.
“This is a country ruled by the rule of law, and whoever violates our very stringent laws in this regard has to face very serious legal consequences,” he continued, “We have said many times that everybody in this country, every individual, and every community has the full protection of the government.”
But despite the foreign minister’s protestations, what are the Jews saying? Is Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish population worried about the direction the country is going in? Some Jews do express fear. “Right now there are only verbal attacks against Jews,” said Peter Feldmajer, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary.
“But if no one stops those attacks, I am afraid of where it will lead.” He claimed that 200,000 of Jobbik’s 500,000 voters cast a ballot for the party because of its anti-Semitism.
“Verbal anti-Semitism is very much part of common speech, something heard on buses. Speech against Jews is a normal part of the public discourse,” he said, adding, however, that over the last 20 years there have only been a few scattered physical attacks against Jews, cemeteries or Jewish institutions.
Robert Frolich, the rabbi of the majestic Great Synagogue on Dohany Street, the largest functioning synagogue in Europe, said that while the country’s Jews don’t “wake up and go to bed” with anti-Semitism on their mind, “we can feel that it is in our country.”
In a country in which 600,000 Jews, out of a pre-war Jewish population of some 800,000, were murdered by the Nazis and eager Hungarian accomplices during some 10 nightmarish months from March 1944 to January 1945, Frolich’s words are chilling.
Yet they are not universally shared.
Rabbi Slomo Koves, a Chabad rabbi at the reconstructed Obuda Synagogue, said that Hungary is still very much in the process of “digesting” both the Holocaust and the “Jewish question,” largely because of 45 years of Communist rule during which it did not deal at all with its Nazi past.
Yet Koves, who was born in Hungary but learned in yeshivot in Israel, the US and France, said there is less anti-Semitism on the streets of Budapest than there is in Western Europe.
“I experienced more verbal and physical anti-Semitism during two years in France than during 20 years in Hungary,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Jobbik party’s openly anti-Semitic rhetoric and posture has granted a degree of legitimacy to other similar voices being raised. He said that the government could do more to stamp out the rhetoric, pointing to the party’s virulently anti-Semitic website that not only the current government, but also the previous Socialist one, has allowed to remain open.
The disparity between Koves’s view of the anti-Semitism in the country and that of Frolich and Feldmajer may be due – according to one local Jewish source well-acquainted with the community – with the fractious nature of the Hungarian Jewish community and the fact that while those associated with the more liberal Great Synagogue were close to the former government, Chabad has excellent ties with the current one.
And the truth? Well the truth about the anti-Semitism and, indeed, about the changes taking place in Hungary itself is much more complicated, layered and nuanced than what is generally portrayed in 600-word news stories about the country or in a sound bite from a foreign stateman’s speech.
And that, too, gives Hungary a distinctly Israeli feel.