Diaspora Jewry'If it’s good for Hungary and Israel it's good for the Jews'

Fans of Orban or not, Hungarian Jews are optimistic ahead of PM’s Israel visit

In a fractured Jewish community, Israel’s crumbling relations with the Diaspora and local anti-Semitism are on Hungarian Jewry’s mind as PM sets off to Israel on July 18

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, on July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, on July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flash90)

BUDAPEST – Andras Heisler, president of the politically and religiously progressive Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), has had his share of confrontations with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government.

Surprisingly, though, when it comes to the Hungarian premier’s upcoming July 18 trip to Israel — a follow-up to last year’s Budapest visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Heisler doesn’t begrudge the political benefits Orban will no doubt reap at home thanks to his ever-improving relationship with the Jewish state.

In fact, Heisler told The Times of Israel last week, the visit will be “good for the Jews.”

“It’s good for the Hungarian government — Israel is a strong country, and it’s a win for Prime Minister Orban’s foreign policy. It’s good for Israel, as well, if Hungary, an EU member country, is pro-Israel. If it’s good for Hungary, and good for Israel, then [as] I’m a Hungarian Jew — it’s good for me, and it’s good for the Jewish community,” Heisler said.

Even a member of the Jewish community who is often diametrically opposed to Heisler agrees. Executive rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) Slomó Köves is further to the right politically, more religiously stringent (EMIH is affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement), and has a warmer relationship with Orban’s government. But Orban’s current trip offers an instance of consensus between the two community leaders.

Andras Heisler (YouTube screenshot)

“When the prime minister of the country openly praises the Jewish state and the leader of the Jewish state, I don’t think there’s any other tool which is more effective at decreasing the anti-Semitism of the local population,” Köves told The Times of Israel.

Recent developments corroborate the trends Heisler and Köves are finding since Netanyahu’s visit last year: Hungary has repeatedly defended Israel on the world stage, and newly released research cites lower levels of anti-Semitism in the country.

Anti-Semitism on the wane

The recent survey, published by sociologist Prof. Andras Kovacs, found that in absolute terms, anti-Semitism in Hungary is down since 1999 even though a significant minority of the population continues to harbor anti-Semitic opinions. The research was a follow-up to the seminal study Kovacs conducted two decades ago and is considered to be the most authoritative examination of the state of Hungarian Jewry since the Holocaust.

Physical attacks on Jews are almost nonexistent, possibly due to what  Köves called a “zero-tolerance” policy on anti-Semitism by the Orban government.

“The most important thing is the physical well-being of the Jewish community, the feeling of security in our day-to-day lives,” Köves said.

Illustrative: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech in front of renovated Jewish graves at the Kozma street Jewish cemetery in Budapest, on January 26, 2015 during a ceremony for the grave refurbishment on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp held by the Nazis during WWII. (Photo credit: AFP/ ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Heisler, though more subdued, agrees that the past year has seen some improvement as the Fidesz government works to halt anti-Semitism in its own ranks.

“There are some examples of progress,” Heisler said. “When the deputy speaker of the National Assembly wanted to attend a ceremony at a church honoring [Nazi collaborator] Miklos Horthy on International Holocaust Day, after some pressure, the ceremony was canceled.”

“And Hungary’s new bylaws require authorities to defend ‘Christian values,’ which was a problem for the Jewish community… we brought this to the attention of the government, and now – yesterday, for example — the foreign minister was at an Independence Day event at the American embassy, and he spoke about Judeo-Christian values,” he said.

But despite the numerical drop in anti-Semitic incidents, the study says the Jewish community subjectively feels anti-Semitism more acutely and actually perceives it as rising.

The problem with Soros

The subject of anti-Semitism has long haunted Orban. In the year leading up to this past April’s elections, Orban launched an anti-immigration campaign highly focused on Jewish billionaire George Soros that has been seen by many as, at least indirectly, anti-Semitic. It featured widespread billboards with photos demonizing a laughing Soros that Heisler said “triggered bad feelings among us Jews.”

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

As a representative of a broad swath of Hungarian Jewry, Heisler is not one to hold in his discontent. When Netanyahu and Orban made a joint visit to Budapest’s famous Dohany Street Synagogue last year, Heisler criticized them in his introductory remarks, saying that Netanyahu was not doing enough to combat the campaign, and telling Orban that “The Jews of Hungary [have begun] to live in fear.”

Some, including Köves, have said that the claims of incidental anti-Semitism may have had political motives behind them. A study conducted annually by the Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) found that only two percent of Hungarians related Soros with the Jews, and vice versa.

“Soros in their eyes is not a symbol of the Jew, but rather of the rude capitalist,” Köves said.

Perhaps. But in a speech before the elections this past March, Orban played on historical anti-Semitic tropes when he told a crowd of 100,000 that, “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.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, in the garden of Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, July 19, 2017. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)

With friends like these

Orban has been accused of securing and holding onto his popularity through a combination of cronyism, rigid control over the media, and scare tactics centered largely around the issue of immigration, among other things. Critics also say that Orban turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry so as not to isolate far-right and nationalist voters from his base.

But despite criticism that he’s getting chummy with a leader who has been called Hungary’s “strongman,” Netanyahu is indeed seeing results for Israel when it comes to his budding friendship with Orban.

On July 3, Hungary sponsored a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 38th session condemning anti-Semitism. The statement garnered co-sponsorship from 21 other countries.

The United States, long seen as one of Israel’s only allies in the body, announced its withdrawal from the UNHRC last month on account a perpetual anti-Israel bias that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “an exercise in shameless hypocrisy.”

Illustrative: The Human Rights Council during an interactive dialogue with the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip on June 29, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. (UN photo)

The World Jewish Congress helped create and push the initiative, which Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó took up in cooperation with Heisler, who is also a WJC vice president.

In December, Hungary abstained from a UN General Assembly vote that condemned the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by Donald Trump, as well as a May vote in the UNHRC that proposed establishing an investigation into the violence along Israel’s border with Gaza. And, along with the Czech Republic and Romania, Hungary worked to block an EU statement criticizing Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

For its part, last year Israel’s Foreign Ministry retracted a call to end the anti-Soros billboard campaign made by the ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani.

“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,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

The great divide

If the issue of Soros divides Hungary’s Jews, it is only the manifestation of deeper differences within the community.

“On the surface, the [Orthodox-progressive] split is about what’s good for the Jewish community. But really it boils down to what is the Jewish community,” said Köves.

“In the US, many Jews oppose Trump despite the fact that he brought US-Israel relations to a never before seen high, because in their view, he is a rightist, a homophobe, an enemy of social justice. And in their view, Jewish identity is more about these values than about the well-being and the support of Israel,” he said.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, right, and a participant at Chabad Hungary’s 2015 Hanukkah on Ice event take selfies at Budapest’s City Park Ice Rink, December 6, 2015. (Courtesy of EMIH/via JTA)

“There is another side to the Jewish community that is more traditional, more conservative, more religious, usually, that has a stronger emotional and ideological tie to Israel. We have to stick to our values, and the well-being of the State of Israel and of traditional Jewish values are at the top of our priorities,” said Köves.

“It’s not a question of a Diaspora-Israel divide, but rather a religious one,” said Köves. “The core of the issue is really about what it means to be a Jew. And that’s a philosophical, ethical, metaphysical question, and everyone has the right to believe what he believes, and to fight for it.”

This dichotomy spills over into Israel-Diaspora relations, as well — a subject brought to the fore by Orban’s upcoming trip to Jerusalem.

Last year in his introductory speech at the Dohany synagogue, Heisler referenced the Israeli rabbinate’s increasing capriciousness in deciding whether to legitimize religious ceremonies conducted abroad. “Why aren’t we good enough Jews anymore for Israel?” he asked Netanyahu.

The vast majority of openly identifying Jews in Hungary belong to the Neolog community, a denomination closely related to the Conservative movement.

Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate refuses to recognize the legitimacy of ceremonies performed by any non-Orthodox denomination — a problem for Diaspora Jews the world over. A 2003 Harris poll found that two-thirds of American Jews — a community that rivals Israel’s in size — identify as denominations other than Orthodox. Only 22% identified as Orthodox.

Israel’s chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

One year on, Heisler tempered his criticism in conversation with The Times of Israel.

“My speech last year was about the importance of the connection between the two countries, about the Jewish communities being a bridge between the two countries, and I had a small criticism that we would like a bit more, as Diaspora Jews, from the Israeli government. But this part of the speech ended up getting the most attention,” Heisler said.

Heisler said that following the Budapest trip, Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to Diaspora Jewry in a speech in Washington, DC.

Köves, on the other hand, does not see the need for change in relations.

“When I look at the Hungarian government today, I see that there is some criticism of a so-called democracy deficit and corruption, and all these important things, but I also see that Hungary is practically the only country today in Europe where the Jewish community is physically safe,” said Köves.

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