Hungarian Jews say government anti-migrant campaign ‘like Nazi propaganda’

Community warns public discourse on refugees has crossed line into hate speech as referendum results deal blow to populist PM

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban looks at supporters before delivering a speech in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban looks at supporters before delivering a speech in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

Members of Hungary’s Jewish community expressed concern this week that the government’s campaign against migrants and refugees — which culminated in a national referendum on Sunday since declared legally void — has crossed the line into hate speech, and even Nazi-style propaganda.

On Sunday, Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a blow in his revolt against the European Union after low voter turnout voided his referendum aimed at rejecting a contested migrant quota plan. Although a whopping 98 percent of those who voted supported his bid to reject the plan, turnout reached just 43% of the eight-million-strong electorate, falling short of a 50% threshold.

Orban’s right-wing government led an expensive media offensive urging voters to spurn the EU’s plan, which seeks to share migrants around the 28 member states via mandatory quotas without the consent of national parliaments. Hungary has not accepted a single one of the 1,294 refugees allocated to it under the scheme and instead joined Slovakia in filing a legal challenge against it.

“The public discourse on the migrant issue has crossed the line into hate speech,” said Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, according to news site Walla.

“For us it’s completely unacceptable to incite hatred, not just against Jews, but also against Christians, members of the gay community and migrants,” adding that “hatred acts like a virus, and can slowly but surely infect all of society.”

Diana Gru, a director of historical documentaries, told Walla that the government campaign is “reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.”

“This is a very dangerous situation,” said Shoshanna Vijnu, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Hungary.

“Hitler said the same things, he incited against one part of society. Today’s victims are Muslims and migrants. This is a very violent campaign that has been going on for more than a year and has caused a tear in our society,” she said.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Orban government has spent some 16 million euros on the campaign, distributing booklets to 4.1 million Hungarian households “filled with distorted facts about Europe’s refugee crisis, portraying asylum seekers and migrants as dangerous to Europe’s future.”

As part of the campaign, the government ran billboards nation-wide with messages like “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” and “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?”

Voters wearing traditional 'Matyo' cast their ballots at a polling station in Mezokoevesd, eastern Hungary, on October 2, 2016. (AFP / FERENC ISZA)
Voters wearing traditional ‘Matyo’ cast their ballots at a polling station in Mezokoevesd, eastern Hungary, on October 2, 2016. (AFP/Ferenc Isza)

Top EU officials had warned the referendum threatened to further split the quarreling bloc, already weakened by Britain’s vote in June to leave the union — a decision Orban has blamed on the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said Sunday that Orban was playing “a dangerous game” that could affect the entire bloc, merely to cement his power at home.

The referendum asked voters: “Do you want the EU to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

In an editorial, Orban warned on Saturday that Hungarians had “a duty” to fight the failed “liberal methods” of the “Brussels elite.”

“It’s true that the campaign was exaggerated but no-one can tell me if these migrants really are refugees of war,” Zoltan, a 38-year-old lawyer and voter for the “No” camp, told AFP.

More than 400,000 refugees trekked through Hungary toward northern Europe in 2015 before Hungary sealed off its southern borders with razor wire in the autumn and brought in tough anti-migrant laws, reducing the flow to a trickle.

Other countries on the so-called Balkan migrant trail followed suit, leaving some 60,000 migrants stranded in Greece.

Many of those migrants live in grim conditions in camps dotted around the Aegean islands and the mainland, desperate to continue their onward journey.

The EU said last week it hoped to relocate half of them by the end of 2017.

A deal struck in March with Ankara to halt the influx looks shaky in the wake of a coup attempt in Turkey in July.

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