LONDON — Britain’s Conservative party has come under heavy criticism from Jewish groups after it voted to defend Hungary’s controversial right-wing government in a key vote in the European parliament.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was “very concerning” that the Tories had chosen to back Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government, which it accused of “whipping up prejudice” and deploying “vivid anti-Semitism.”
It was a rare rebuke to Prime Minister Theresa May’s party, which has built a strong track record of support for the Jewish community in Britain and tackling anti-Semitism.
According to an analysis by the Independent newspaper, the Conservatives were the only governing center-right party in Western Europe to oppose triggering the European Union’s most serious disciplinary action against a member state. On Monday, Orban penned a letter thanking the Conservative party members, writing, “I appreciate the support you’ve shown towards national sovereignty and solidarity during the vote.”
The so-called “Article 7” procedure has never previously been instigated, and it requires the approval of a two-thirds majority in the European parliament in order for it to commence. In the September 12 vote, 448 MEPs backed the motion, which condemned Hungary’s government as a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law, thus narrowly clearing the threshold required to begin the disciplinary process.
The most severe punishment under Article 7 is stripping a country of its voting rights in the EU.
Hungary labeled the vote “petty revenge” for its trenchant opposition to the EU’s approach to migration.
The Conservatives joined with Orbán’s Fidesz party and a host of far-right and populist parties in voting against the motion, including Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Poland’s Law and Justice party, the Sweden Democrats, the Freedom party of Austria, and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s League.
Orbán’s government has been repeatedly attacked in Europe for alleged corruption, curtailing judicial independence and limiting media freedom. It has also been widely assailed for using barely disguised anti-Semitic tropes and Islamophobia.
In a strongly worded statement following the European parliament vote, Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies, said: “As we have stated previously, we are very alarmed by the messages at the heart of Orbán’s election campaign, including his comments about ‘Muslim invaders,’ calling migrants ‘poison,’ and the vivid anti-Semitism in the relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
“This whipping up of prejudice by the Hungarian government – alongside restrictions on press freedom and the independence of the judiciary – must be stopped before it undermines Hungary’s democracy irreversibly.
“It is very concerning that the Conservative Party MEPs chose to defend Hungary’s appalling track record, rather than supporting this motion to protect the rule of law,” she said.
Daniel Finkelstein, a prominent Jewish Conservative member of the House of Lords and columnist for The Times newspaper, joined the criticism, saying the vote against censuring Orbán was “a really distressing thing to have happened, and shameful.”
The Conservatives said they always opposed motions in the European parliament which “interfere in or censure the internal democracy of a particular country.”
The Times of Israel reached out to Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ) and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, for comment.
Jewish scapegoat Soros and the questionably worthy Horthy
Orbán was easily reelected to a third consecutive term in elections in April following a campaign which received much attention for the manner in which, facing a weak opposition, the government chose to run against Soros.
Last year, it launched a campaign against both migration and alleged foreign interference in the country and chose Soros, who was born in Hungary but left to live in the United States after World War II, as its principal target.
Billboards and full-page newspaper advertisements pictured the billionaire laughing and contained the words: “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” Some attracted graffiti saying “Stinking Jew.”
Open Society said the posters “invoked anti-Semitic imagery from World War II.”
Hungarian Jewish groups appealed to Orbán to call off the campaign, which the government vehemently denied was anti-Semitic.
“Please make sure this bad dream ends as soon as possible,” Heisler told the Reuters news agency last July. “This campaign, while not openly anti-Semitic, clearly has the potential to ignite uncontrolled emotions, including anti-Semitism,” he added.
Human Rights Watch campaigner Lydia Gall also told Reuters that the campaign against Soros uses “imagery that evokes memories of the Nazi posters during the Second World War showing ‘the laughing Jew.’”
“The campaign encourages anti-Semitism,” she argued.
Soros’s Open Society Foundations invests heavily in promoting liberal democratic values and human rights work. Hungary has accused Soros of seeking to flood Europe with refugees and held a “national consultation” on what it labeled the “Soros plan,” sending an allegedly loaded survey to all Hungarian homes. Voters were asked if they backed Soros’s alleged effort to “resettle at least one million immigrants from Africa and the Middle East annually on the territory of the European Union, including Hungary.”
“Soros allows Orbán to combine anti-Muslim bigotry with anti-Semitic conspiracy theory,” wrote the British journalist Nick Cohen of the campaign.
On the eve of the election in March, the prime minister celebrated Hungary’s national day by reciting a list of those the country had successfully overcome in the past — the Ottomans, the Kaiser, and the Soviets — before going on to pledge: “Now we will send home Uncle George.”
Orbán’s attack on Soros was viewed by critics as containing anti-Semitic undertones: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world,” he said.
As one expert suggested after his landslide victory, Orbán’s rhetoric resembled an anti-Semitic dog-whistle, audible mainly to those whom such language would appeal. A 2015 study indicated that up to 40 percent of Hungarians harbor anti-Semitic views.
With the government planning to launch a crackdown on the work of nongovernmental organizations, what Orbán terms the “Stop Soros” bill, the philanthropist’s foundation announced in the spring it was closing its office in Budapest and relocating to Berlin.
Aside from its alleged demonization of Soros, Orbán’s government has also been accused of rehabilitating Hungary’s anti-Semitic wartime leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy. During its eight years in power, it has tolerated the unveiling of statues and plaques to the dictator, while the state-funded Veritas Institute for Historical Research has as one of its aims the examination of the “achievements” of the Horthy era.
The government has also allegedly added anti-Semitic writers to the school curriculum and in 2012, it was attacked for an insufficiently robust response when the deputy leader of the far-right Jobbik party used a parliamentary debate on the conflict in Gaza to call for “all Jews in Hungary be registered.”
Márton Gyöngyösi subsequently apologized and said he only meant to suggest that those of dual Hungarian-Israeli nationality should be screened for any “potential danger they pose to Hungary.” Opponents say the government’s stance was indicative of its wider desire not to upset anti-Semitic supporters of the far right.
You scratch Orbán’s back, he’ll back Brexit
In the UK, the row over the Conservatives’ European parliament vote was reignited when Michael Gove, a senior member of the Cabinet, refused to condemn Orbán in a television interview.
Gove, who has close relations with the Jewish community and is a passionate supporter of Israel, told the BBC he was not willing to “play that game” when asked about Orbán.
“I have views, but I’m not going to be drawn on my views of individual European leaders,” he said.
When pressed on his refusal, the Environment Secretary appeared to concede that May’s decision to order her MEPs to back Hungary was driven by a desire to curry favor with Orbán as Britain seeks friends in the stalled Brexit negotiations.
“I think it would be wrong for me, at a time when we need solidarity against a number of different threats — you mentioned anti-Semitism — we need to make sure that our voice is clear, our position on these issues is absolutely clear and resonant,” Gove said.
“And I don’t believe that individual criticisms of the kind that you are understandably tempting me to make necessarily help us in ensuring that we get both solidarity on the issues that count and the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union,” he said.
Orbán dropped a heavy hint along similar lines when he arrived in Strasbourg to address his critics ahead of the vote: “We would like to have a fair Brexit because we love the British and because we cooperated always well – and you deserve a good deal, a fair deal.”
In an editorial last week, the Jewish Chronicle described the Tory MEPs’ vote as a “truly shameful and a dark day for the party led by Mrs. May,” but added: “The subsequent refusal of a series of high-profile Conservatives to condemn the vote was, if anything, even worse.”
“In these of all times, it is vital that anti-Semitism is called out — wherever it is found,” the paper argued.
David Hirsh, senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, told the Jewish Chronicle: “It is striking that some people find it easy to recognize racism and anti-Semitism within political movements that they hate but that sometimes the same people are completely unable to recognize it within movements they believe are fundamentally good and they wish to support.
“Even more worrying is the suggestion that a person who does recognize anti-Semitism would pretend not to in the hope of gaining some advantage in return from the anti-Semite.
“The idea that Britain would now cozy up to an anti-Semitic and racist strongman regime… is shameful,” Hirsh said.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party also harshly criticized the Conservatives, accusing them of failing to stand up to Hungary’s “reactionary” government, which was “pandering to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
However, some senior figures in the Jewish community held back from attacking May’s government. “I’m reluctant to join in the condemnation of the Tories over this, given the extensive, consistent and strong support they give the Jewish community in tackling anti-Semitism here in the UK, including spending tens of millions of pounds on security guarding at Jewish schools and on Holocaust education,” said one.
“I think they are on the wrong side of this argument over Orbán, but that cannot be compared, even remotely, to the problem we have with Labour.”