Meet the Ambassador: Hungary’s complex relationship with Israel

The cultural year essentially marked the 30th anniversary celebrations of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Israel which have become increasingly stronger over the years.

Hungarian Ambassador Levente Benko and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hungarian Ambassador Levente Benko and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The upcoming launch this week of the Herzl conference “From Vision to Reality” made Hungarian Ambassador Levente Benko a natural choice for The Jerusalem Post’s “Meet the Ambassador” series, ahead of the paper’s annual Diplomatic Conference on November 21 at the Jerusalem Waldorf Hotel.
Despite the fact that exiles and conquests have had a negative effect on its Jewish demography, there has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, but it was Budapest-born Theodor Herzl who is credited with being the visionary architect of the modern State of Israel.
In fact, a September 1, 1897, entry in Herzl’s diary following the conclusion of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, reads: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this aloud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
There are two other reasons for inviting Benko to be interviewed. In an era in which Israel’s diplomatic relations have reached unprecedented heights, despite the increase of antisemitism in the world, it should be remembered that Hungary was the first of the Soviet Bloc nations to reestablish diplomatic ties with Israel on September 19, 1989, which makes this the 30th anniversary year of Hungarian-Israeli rapprochement.
This was also the Hungarian cultural year in Israel, with a huge number and variety of cultural events, through which Benko arguably became one of the most visible and active foreign diplomats in Israel.
Other embassies had milestone anniversaries and cultural events to highlight them, but not on the same scale.
The cultural year essentially marked the 30th anniversary celebrations of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Israel which have become increasingly stronger over the years.
In addition, in March of this year, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó opened the Hungarian Trade Office with its diplomatic staff and status in Jerusalem. Hungary was the first European Union member state to take such a step.
However when Benko, who hit the ground running after presenting his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on October 25, 2018, was asked for an interview, he declined, saying he was under orders not to give any more interviews for the time being.
A little over a month after presenting his credentials, Benko hosted Hungarian Days at the Tahana in Tel Aviv to mark the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and his guests included Hungarian State Secretary Szabolcs Takács.
THIS YEAR, he moved the event to the Port of Tel Aviv where a Hungarian design exhibition was already in place at Federation Hall. Benko is a great believer in cultural diplomacy, but strangely enough, overlooks the fact that the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution is within a day of the birthday of one of Hungary’s best-known composers, Franz Liszt.
Aside from the many events conducted by the Hungarian Embassy, Benko has participated in events run by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, the annual International Tourism Exhibition as well as other organizations and institutions, and in many events that were incorporated into Hungary’s year of culture, including book and art launches of Hungarian expats living in Israel. In his addresses to the public there are certain points he frequently repeats, which indicate not only the image that Hungary wants to convey in Israel, but also in the wider international arena.
When speaking of the 30th anniversary of the renewal of relations, Benko also refers to “the magnificent events leading up to the collapse of communism and the regaining of our freedom and sovereignty.”
He also mentions that freedom, democracy and sovereignty were among the aspirations of the Hungarian people just as they were among Jewish people in their desire to establish the State of Israel.
In the sphere of bilateral relations and the revival of Jewish life in Hungary, especially in Budapest – which he says is the “proud capital of Jewish renaissance and a safe place in Europe for Jews” – he emphasizes that the Hungarian government is opposed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS and antisemitism. He also states that Hungary constantly defends Israel at bilateral forums and speaks out against attempts to delegitimize Israel.
Hungary has passed a law against Holocaust denial. The country observes Holocaust Memorial Day and has spoken out against antisemitism at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations
Despite ongoing media reports about antisemitic incidents in Hungary, and the neo-Nazi party Jobbik honoring the memories of leading Hungarian figures who collaborated with the Nazis, Benko often contends that Jews are more secure in Hungary than elsewhere in Europe.
When pointing to the closeness of relations between Israel and Hungary, he inevitably talks about the exchange visits between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yet Netanyahu’s office was not beyond criticizing Orbán when the Netanyahu believed that such criticism was merited. Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser Reuven Azar spoke to Benko toward the end of last year, when Orban refused to condemn the financial magazine Figyelo after one of its covers featured Hungarian Jewish Federation president András Heisler surrounded by floating banknotes. The cover was in conjunction with an article alleging that Heisler had been involved in inappropriate fiscal activities.
WORLD JEWISH Congress president Ronald Lauder called the cover “one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people” adding that it placed not just the magazine but all of Hungary in a bad light.
Orban, while defending the freedom of the press, stated in a letter to Lauder that his government has zero tolerance policy for antisemitism and was committed to Hungarian Jews and their security.
In his comments about the Hungarian Cultural Year, the very articulate Benko, whose English is fluent and devoid of the Hungarian accent and vocal cadences, says the Hungarian Cultural Year is a symbol of the strategic partnership between Hungary and Israel, appeals to Israelis of all backgrounds, and raises awareness that there is a friendly country in Europe that is worth visiting.
Although the Hungarian Cultural Year officially concluded last Wednesday with a gala farewell concert in Jerusalem by opera singer Andrea Rost and a leading Hungarian gypsy band, Hungarian events continue unabated. The Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra is scheduled to tour Israel from November 21-23, and there will be more Hungarian culture in store as Hungarian opera and operetta companies which have been coming to Israel every year, will continue to do so. There’s also an annual Hungarian film festival, and Benko will in all probability be in attendance.
At this year’s ITIM exhibition in February, the Travel Blog Lemetayel distributed certificates to ambassadors whose countries were among the 15 most popular travel destinations for Israelis, and Benko was naturally delighted that Budapest was in first place.
He seldom misses an occasion to tell Israelis that they are welcome in Hungary, which offers them “an open heart and an open hand.”
Prior to taking up his role as ambassador, Benko spent four years, from 2014 to 2018, as deputy state secretary for security policy and political director in the Hungarian Foreign Affairs Ministry. A member of Hungary’s diplomatic service since 2010, Benko has been engaged in matters covering European policy, international organizations and multilateral security policy, in particular the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, as well as energy diplomacy. Prior to joining the Foreign Ministry, he worked for the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels from 2008 to 2010, and before that for the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office and the Hungarian National Assembly in Budapest from 1999 to 2008.