BUDAPEST, Hungary — Members of Hungary’s Jewish community expressed deep disappointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday evening, saying a speech by the Israeli premier at a Budapest Jewish center catered mainly to the Hungarian government and entirely ignored their concerns.
Wrapping up his three-day trip to Hungary, Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Wednesday delivered addresses in the headquarters of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, also know as Mazsihisz, which is located adjacent to the world-famous Dohany Street Synagogue.
In a markedly dry event attended by some 200 Jewish officials — free of the children’s choirs and other celebratory rites usually showered upon Netanyahu by Diaspora communities he visits — both prime ministers focused their remarks on bilateral ties, neglecting to directly address the community.
One senior rabbi said Netanyahu failed to respond to the community’s questions. Another community member spoke of a “betrayal.”
The chilly reception for the prime minister — including scathing criticism from the Jewish community’s president — underlined Hungarian Jewry’s unhappiness with Netanyahu’s decision to embrace Orban despite accusations of anti-Semitism. While Netanyahu is often criticized by Diaspora Jews for placing realpolitik over community concerns, such as his defense of President Donald Trump amid concerns over growing anti-Semitism in the US, he is normally welcomed warmly by Jewish leaders abroad.
The speech came a day after Orban acknowledged Hungary’s “sin” in not protecting the country’s Jews during World War II, seeking to quell a controversy over his recent praise for Hungary’s wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy. (Hungary’s Nazi-allied regime instituted anti-Semitic laws modeled on Germany’s Nuremberg laws beginning in 1938. After German tanks rolled into Budapest in 1944, Nazi-installed Hungarian leaders ordered the mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the war, through deportation to death camps or in massacres on Hungarian soil.)
This time, neither Netanyahu nor Orban dwelled on Horthy or an anti-immigration billboard campaign targeting the Jewish billionaire George Soros, which many Jews saw as encouraging anti-Semitism.
Highlighting the community’s angst over the issues, Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler delivered a speech ahead of the two leaders, lambasting Orban for the Horthy and Soros controversies, and Netanyahu for the non-recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish streams in Israel.
“It was possible to launch in Hungary a total propaganda campaign, whose language and visual tools revived in our minds the bad memories of the past,” Heisler said, clearly referencing the anti-Soros posters. “One can argue about the intent of the campaign but it became unacceptable for me for one thing: the Jews of Hungary started to live in fear. And a responsible Jewish leader cannot keep silent about that. Neither can a responsible head of government.”
Echoing criticism of Netanyahu’s government in the US and other Western Diaspora communities over decisions relating to the Western Wall pluralistic prayer plaza and recognition of conversions that favor Orthodox Judaism, Heisler said it was “painful” for Hungarian Jews “when the religious recognition of the Diaspora is attempted to be narrowed” in the Jewish state.
“Our community survived the Holocaust, remained faithful to its roots through the repressive Communist regime, and we are not recognized as Jews? Can you disregard all the conversions, brit milahs [circumcisions], weddings, rabbinical decisions taking place in our Neolog-majority communities?”
Neolog is a distinctly Hungarian stream of Judaism, which could be compared to the Conservative movement.
“We, who are labeled as ‘stinking Jews’ in Europe; we, who support Israel’s efforts; we, who dream about Israel — why couldn’t we be good enough Jews any more for Israel,” Heisler asked.
He also slammed the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s response to the anti-Soros billboard campaign as a “cold shower for our community.”
Initially, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, Yossi Amrani, denounced the posters, but apparently at the behest of Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, the Foreign Ministry appeared to backtrack, saying criticizing Soros was legitimate.
“This declaration of the Foreign Ministry caused sorrow in our community, many felt have been abandoned,” Heisler said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu, I ask you respectfully to foster higher respect for the Diaspora,” he added.
Orban, in his speech, mostly focused on Hungary-Israel relations, though he added that he was proud of the “Jewish renaissance” occurring in this country. He also reiterated his commitment to fight any form of anti-Semitism and spoke at length about Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who was born in Budapest.
Netanyahu’s remarks, likewise, touched heavily on bilateral issues and on Herzl’s legacy. “He brought a people seemingly dead back to life, and he said the solution to the problem, the Jewish problem as they called it, is to have a Jewish state,” he said.
The prime minister also spoke about Israeli innovation and the country’s ties with Africa and China.
Addressing modern anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, he praised Orban for opposing the delegitimization of Israel.
“You spoke yesterday very strongly against anti-Semitism in Hungary. You spoke about it in its current forms, and you spoke about it also in its previous forms – the sins, as you say, performed by previous governments,” Netanyahu said.
“You were very open it, including in our conversation. I think this is important. I think this is something that the world has heard. And it’s very clear to me that this something that the world should hear continuously,” Netanyahu said.
Many present at the event said they were underwhelmed by the Israeli premier’s words.
Netanyahu “fulfilled his duty” but failed to reply to any of the questions raised by Heisler, said Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, who heads Mazsihisz’s rabbinical council. “He did not give a clear message or support to the Jewish community, but [only] to the Hungarian government,” Radnóti told The Times of Israel.
One community member, asking to remain unnamed, went as far as calling Netanyahu’s speech “a betrayal.”
András Büchler, a member of World Jewish Congress from Budapest, said Hungary’s Jews were looking forward to Netanyahu’s visit because they hoped to hear words of encouragement in difficult times.
“Though we are very happy and honored that the prime minister dropped by, we didn’t really hear any message formulated directly toward the community,” Büchler said. “He was rather focusing his speech on sharing his appreciation for the PM of Hungary. But he was very much avoiding answering any challenges Hungarian Jewry is facing.”
Büchler added that he was nonplussed by Netanyahu’s lack of urging for community members to immigrate to Israel or even visit.
There were Holocaust survivors and members of Zionist youth groups in the hall, but “there was no message for them,” he charged. “This speech was aimed at the Hungarian government.”
Some others had no complaints about Netanyahu’s speech, however. “It was fantastic,” an elderly member of the community said as he left the community center.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which had defended Orban throughout the recent controversies, did not attend Wednesday’s event.
According to two sources, the Chabad rabbis were offended that they were only offered four tickets, and decided to skip it altogether.