In the 12 years since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party returned to power, they have racked up a number of accomplishments. Most notably, they have destroyed the country’s independent judiciary, took control of the major media outlets, corruptly enriched their supporters, rigged election rules and harassed non-government-controlled NGOs. Orban is not ashamed of these actions and calls the results illiberal democracy.
A couple of the deeds Orban is anxious to whitewash include Fidesz’s use of antisemitic electoral appeals and his government’s efforts to sanitize the history of Hungarian antisemitism. The government has done this by developing a set of talking-points. These include the fact that there are few violent incidents, that there is support for Hungary from some Israelis, and the claim that the regime has zero tolerance for antisemitism.
They use this list to deflect criticism from Jewish organizations and human rights groups, and argue that Hungary is wonderful for Jews. Most disturbingly, they recruit (often with government largess) non-government collaborators to echo these alternative facts. There is a grain of truth to some of these bullet-points – and a lot of hogwash. The hogwash does real harm to the fight against resurgent antisemitism in Europe.
An example of the use of this harmful nonsense – repeated by the regime’s enablers – is the release of a report in June by the European Jewish Association (EJA). While meeting in Budapest, the EJA, the leader of a small faction within the Hungarian Jewish community, EMIH, and a couple of Hungarian government ministers touted a new study that purported to be a scientific index of the quality of life for Jewish communities in 12 European countries. Lo and behold, this scientific study came up with an index that ranked Hungary as one of the top two countries for quality of life for Jews.
For those of us who have followed antisemitism in Hungary this index does not pass the smell test. As it turns out there is no genuine EJA report. The announcement about the report consisted of spreadsheets and some verbiage that reads like a press release but did not include any detailed information on how the index was created.
Per one expert this report was just a rough first draft of research into the topic of developing a possible index. When a European Union survey finds that 40% of Jews in Hungary have thought about leaving the country because of antisemitism, it’s hard to swallow that Hungary offers a high quality of life for Jews.
MARK TWAIN was fond of saying, “[t]here are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” While statistics can be useful in analyzing antisemitism, half-baked research and cherry-picked numbers fall under the category of Twain’s “damned lies.” Over the last 12 years, Hungarian government officials and Orbán apologists have cherry-picked from reports and invented numbers in an attempt to prove that Orbán’s Hungary is a paradise for Jews.
Damn the lies. Here are the real facts.
After returning to power in 2010, the Fidesz government tried to change the permanent exhibit at the Budapest Holocaust Museum by eliminating references to Hungary’s complicity in the murder of 75% of the country’s pre-war Jewish population. After protests stopped the efforts to sanitize the exhibit much of the Museum staff was fired and the regime drastically reduced the Museum’s budget.
In 2012, the late Elie Wiesel returned a Hungarian medal that had been bestowed upon him in 2004. Wiesel pointed out that the government had chosen to venerate an antisemitic, fascist ideologue and author of the 1940s, Jozsef Nyiro, as well as naming public sites after Miklos Horthy – the head of state who authorized the deportation of over 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944. Nyiro has been included in the government-mandated curriculum of Hungarian schools. In 2017, the prime minister called Horthy “an exceptional statesman.”
After undermining the Budapest Holocaust Museum, the government undertook a campaign to construct a second Holocaust Museum, the House of Fates. Orbán decreed that this Museum would be developed by the Prime Minister’s favorite historian, Maria Schmidt. Schmidt has been labeled a Holocaust distorter by the preeminent scholar of the Hungarian Holocaust. Fortunately, domestic resistance and international opposition (including from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) to Schmidt’s revisionist history of the Holocaust has put this project on hold for the last nine years.
In 2013, the Fidesz government created a historical research institute, Veritas, to propagate Orbán’s sanitized view of Hungarian history. In early 2014, the director of Veritas ignited a fire-storm of criticism from Hungarian Jewry. The Orban-appointed director, Sandor Sarkaly, claimed that the Holocaust’s first large-scale mass murder of Jews (as many as 18,000) was carried out when Hungarian authorities delivered Jews who were living in Hungarian territory over the border to be murdered, was merely a “police action against aliens.” Despite the outrage, the prime minister refused to replace Szakaly.
Nine months before the 2014 Hungarian elections, an American pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, well-known for his bare-knuckle tactics, advised Orbán that he needed to create an enemy to energize his populist base and that the enemy should be the Jewish financier, George Soros.
Orban: Meme lord extraordinaire
Orban has subsequently used such Nazi-inspired antisemitic memes as the laughing Jew and the puppet master to portray Soros. Though Orban was careful to avoid uttering the word “Jew” while campaigning, the fact that Orbán’s anti-Soros posters and billboards were often the target of antisemitic graffiti is evidence, along with polling, that antisemitism has an appeal to a certain portion of Hungarian voters.
As 2015 came to a close, the Orban government tried to put up a statue to a former Religion Minister of Hungary, Bálint Homan. Homan had advocated for the deportation of Hungary’s Jews in the 1940s – over 400,00 were eventually deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Homan also co-authored legislation stripping Jews of their citizenship. At the beginning of 2016, the government supported the creation of a memorial to another WW II era antisemite to be erected only steps away from the Holocaust Museum in Budapest.
In 2014, the government, over sizeable protests, built a statue in Budapest’s Freedom Square that is meant to convey the message that Nazi Germany was fully to blame for the Holocaust in Hungary and that Hungary should be absolved for its antisemitic policies of the 1920s and 30s, and its engagement in the deportations and murder of Jews in 1944.
To close out the 2018 parliamentary elections, Orban delivered a speech that shocked Michael Brendan Daugherty of the National Review – a columnist who has written sympathetically about the Fidesz government. Daugherty was scandalized by its barely disguised antisemitism, characterizing it as something that “reads like a checklist drawn from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
At the end of 2018, a staunchly, pro-government magazine, ran a negative story about Andres Heisler, the president of the country’s leading Jewish organization, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities. The cover of the magazine – a photo of Heisler with banknotes falling all around him – was widely condemned as deeply antisemitic. When the World Jewish Congress asked the prime minister to condemn the cover, Orban replied with a ludicrous claim that he could not criticize a vile antisemitic smear because it would limit freedom of expression and of the press.
Last year, Zolt Bayer (a co-founder with Orban of Fidesz) penned a stridently anti-American column, in which he used the antisemitic slur “rootless,” employed by both Nazis and Soviets to describe US Secretary of State Antony Blinkin’s Hungarian Jewish heritage.
At the 2021 CPAC Conference in Budapest, two of Orban’s close associates, the vicious antisemite, Zolt Bayer, and the Holocaust distorter, Maria Schmidt, were featured speakers. Recently a few right-wing, Jewish pundits in America have also taken to defending the indefensible in Hungary.
Of all the horrific forms of Jew-hatred, antisemitism promoted by governments is arguably the most dangerous. The Orban years will always carry the stench of government use of an opportunistic type of antisemitism. Unfortunately, this is not just dangerous for Hungarian Jewry. The Fidesz model of politics is being watched by other leaders in Central and Eastern Europe.
If the slick talking points and the chorus of enablers allows Orbán to instrumentalize antisemitism for political gain and to erase uncomfortable historical facts, what’s to stop those other leaders from doing the same?
The writer was the US State Department’s envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism from 2013 to 2017.