Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to become the first Israeli prime minister to visit Hungary since the fall of the Iron Curtain 26 years ago. But next week’s three-day trip, hailed by both sides as an opportunity to further advance growing bilateral ties, is marred by bitter division over a controversy that emerged just this week, focusing on the Israeli government’s response to a Hungarian government campaign deemed “anti-Semitic.”

Hungarian Jews, and Israeli politicians from the opposition, have taken issue with Netanyahu’s too-gentle admonishment of a billboard campaign targeting Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, while maintaining that criticism of the liberal philanthropist was legitimate, and his apparent dismissal of the Hungarian prime minister’s praise for the country’s fascist wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy.

The Soros posters show a large picture of the Jewish businessman laughing, alongside the text: “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” a reference to government claims that Soros wants to force Hungary to allow in migrants.

Leaders of Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish community have said the campaign is provoking anti-Semitism. In going ahead with the visit, critics have accused Netanyahu of putting Israel’s political and economic goals ahead of the concerns of the Hungarian-Jewish community.

Bilateral trade between Hungary and Israel exceeds $500 million, and Budapest recently opened a $50 million euro credit line at Hungary’s Eximbank to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Israeli businesses. Budapest has also expressed interest in purchasing Israeli natural gas.

“Hungary and Israel are very important political, academic and economic allies”, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said last month during a visit in Jerusalem, as Netanyahu’s office indicated that Budapest and Jerusalem were looking to advance bilateral economic cooperation mainly in automotive technologies, energy, water and academics.

Ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival next week to discuss such matters and others, Hungarian authorities said the Soros posters will be removed, indicating that the campaign had achieved its goals and was no longer necessary.

But the damage appears to be done.

Soros released a statement in response to the campaign saying he was “distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign.”

András Heisler, who heads the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as Mazsihisz, wrote in an open letter last week that “the billboard campaign, while not openly anti-Semitic, can still very much unleash uncontrolled anti-Semitic and other feelings. This poisonous message hurts all of Hungary.”

Playing with fire

Whether consciously anti-Semitic or not, the posters clearly evoked dormant anti-Semitism, said Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, a senior Mazsihisz leader. Several of the posters have been defaced with Stars of David or slogans such as ‘Dirty Jew’,” the Budapest-born rabbi told The Times of Israel this week. “This billboard campaign is unacceptable and dangerous,” he said.

Soros, a declared non-Zionist and harsh critique of successive Israeli governments, is seen in Hungary “primarily as a Jew,” Radnóti explained. “And this has been stressed recently many times, implicitly and explicitly, playing with imagery resembling the interwar stereotypical caricature of the wicked Jew pulling the strings and laughing. In the context of this campaign, one cannot differentiate between slamming Soros and playing with blatant anti-Semitism.”

Ira Forman, a former US special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism (SEAS), concurred: “You don’t have to unequivocally call something out as anti-Semitic to point out it is wrong and dangerous,” he told The Times of Israel. “Given Hungary’s history and the levels of anti-Semitic sentiment inside the country, the [Victor] Orban government is once again playing with fire.”

A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Even former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan attacked Budapest over the anti-Soros billboards. “Beyond stopping the campaign, it is essential to have an open debate on xenophobia, anti-Semitism and above all on the indispensable role of independent civil society organizations in a democratic state,” he said in a statement.

Jerusalem’s change of tone

Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, initially agreed, too, saying last week that the billboard campaign not only evokes “sad memories but also sows hatred and fear.”

But the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday issued a “clarification,” reportedly at Netanyahu’s behest, which states that while Israel deplores anti-Semitism and supports Jewish communities in confronting this hatred, criticism of Soros was legitimate.

“In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” the Foreign Ministry stated.

For Hungary’s Jews, this clarification, or “retraction,” as some called it, came “as an utter shock,” Radnóti said. “We would expect the prime minister of Israel to stand up against all forms of explicit and implicit anti-Semitism — or even attacks that might trigger waves of anti-Semitism.”

For Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist researching European political extremism and populism, it is obvious that Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, put the interests of his government ahead of those of the Hungarian Jewish community. “It is also another example of how Netanyahu provides cover for radical-right politicians who at the very least use anti-Semitic dog-whistles,” he said.

Under Netanyahu, Israel’s realpolitik trumps the concerns of local Jewish communities, lamented Adi Kantor, a research associate at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“That’s a clear case of a double [standard],” she told the Times of Israel on Thursday. On the one hand, the prime minister recently disinvited German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because he met with a leftist Israeli human rights group. But then he gladly visits Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Victor Orban, who backs problematic billboard campaigns and praised Miklos Horthy, the Hitler ally, as an ‘exceptional statesman,’” she argued.

“Israel’s reaction should have been a lot more severe. Where are the government’s moral red lines? Are we willing to speak to someone who praises a man on whose watch half a million Jews were sent to their deaths?” Kantor asked.

Praise for an anti-Semite

Orban’s praise for Horthy, made in a June 21 speech, has been widely denounced by Jewish groups. The Anti-Defamation League called Horthy a “notorious anti-Semite.”

The AJC noted that he was “responsible for the systematic discrimination and persecution of Hungarian Jews leading up to the Holocaust.” Horthy remained the head of state during the Nazi occupation, during which 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, according to the ADL.

Amrani, Jerusalem’s ambassador in Budapest, initially expressed his displeasure at Orban’s praise for Horthy and sought clarifications. But Israel’s Foreign Ministry later accepted the explanation provided by Foreign Minister Szijjártó. History must be respected, argued the Hungarian foreign minister, “and the historical facts indicate that the activities of Miklós Horthy as governor included both positive and extremely negative periods.”

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Szijjártó’s statement adds insult to injury, fumed MK Yair Lapid, the son of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. “The prime minister of Israel, son of a historian and a man with a keen sense of history, cannot ignore this attempt to whitewash Hungary’s past,” he stormed earlier this month in an op-ed in The Times of Israel. “If he has any national pride, the Prime Minister should demand a retraction from Viktor Orban. If this is not forthcoming, he must cancel his visit to Hungary in protest.”

Netanyahu is expected to see his Hungary trip through. After a short trip to Paris on Saturday night, the prime minister will on Monday head to Budapest for meetings with Orban and the leaders of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Normalizing ties with Europe’s radical right?

Once upon a time, Orban’s praise for Horthy would have caused outcry across party lines in Israel, assessed Mudde, the Dutch researcher, who was in Israel this week.

“The time has ended several years ago, when Likud and Netanyahu made the wrong assessment that Europe is anti-Israel and Israel should work with whoever is pro-Israel,” Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, said. “This has led to a formal and informal normalization of relations to the radical right in Europe and a bigger and bigger tolerance for anti-Semitic dog-whistles and historical revisionism by ‘pro-Israel’ forces.”

This policy will immediately backfire, he predicted, “as it will weaken Israel’s critique of anti-Semitism or historical revisionism of ‘anti-Israel’ forces.”

George Soros, Founder and Chairman of the Open Society Foundations arriving for a meeting in Brussels, April 27, 2017. (AFP/POOL/OLIVIER HOSLET)

George Soros in Brussels, April 27, 2017. (AFP/pool/Olivier Hoslet)

And yet, the criticism is not universal. Rabbi Slomó Köves from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, for instance, defended the anti-Soros billboard campaign as “definitely not very elegant” but not necessarily anti-Semitic. In today’s Hungary, the billionaire is not seen as a “symbol of the Jew, but of the international financial speculator,” said Köves, who is scheduled to meet Netanyahu next week in Budapest.

In this context, Jerusalem was right in its reserved response to the controversy. “Israel has to be very careful [about] when to get involved in a local political dispute,” Köves told The Times of Israel.

The Budapest-born rabbi considers Orban’s comments about Horthy inaccurate. This episode was especially hurtful for him since his family was “almost totally extinguished” by the fascist leader’s actions, he noted.

“But this issue actually connects to a general question that is faced in almost every country,” he added. “How should we relate to symbolic historical figures that have a mixed record of unquestionable accomplishments and sinful actions,” such as Germany’s Hindenburg France’s Clemenceau.

What about anti-Semitism in Hungary?

Earlier this month, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau “expressed his pleasure at the fact that Jewish life in Hungary is flourishing,” and thanked Orbán for his assistance in this respect, according to a press release issued by the prime minister’s office.

During their meeting in Budapest, Orbán assured Lau that “Hungary’s Jewish community is under the unconditional protection of the Government.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meets with a delegation of Jewish leaders on July 6, 2017. (European Jewish Association)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meets with a delegation of Jewish leaders on July 6, 2017. (European Jewish Association)

Köves, who attended the meeting, agrees. Last year, only 48 anti-Semitic incidents took place in his country, none of them violent, he said. In the UK, in the same period, 1,500 such incidents had taken place, he said.

The Orban government is “highly supportive of the cultural and religious life of the Jewish community,” he added. “There is not even a discussion about banning kosher shechita [slaughter] or brit mila [circumcision] in Hungary unlike in other European countries. I strongly believe that in today’s Europe we have to deeply appreciate these facts.”

An ADL poll from 2015, however, found that 40 percent of Hungarians harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Six out of 10 respondents agreed with the statement, “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”