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Hungary’s PM meets with Jewish leaders amid anti-Semitism fears

Orban says ‘committed to maintaining full freedom of religion’; rabbis ‘deeply impressed’ by premier’s efforts to combat anti-Jewish sentiment

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Rabbi Menachem Margolin on July 6, 2017. (European Jewish Association)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Rabbi Menachem Margolin on July 6, 2017. (European Jewish Association)

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday met with a delegation of Jewish leaders amid concerns over his government’s alleged tolerance of anti-Semitism, pledging he would protect the rights of the country’s Jewish community.

“Hungary is committed to maintaining full freedom of religion for its Jewish community,” Orban said, according to a statement from the European Jewish Association.

The delegation, which was inaugurating a new kosher slaughterhouse, included Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, General Director of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe and European Jewish Association Rabbi Menachem Margolin and Hungarian Rabbis Baruch Oberlander and Shlomo Kovesh.

During the meeting, the rabbis said they were “deeply impressed” by Orban’s commitment to combat anti-Semitism, as well as his “unconditional support” for “the continuation of Jewish religious life in the country.”

“In times like these, when the Belgian parliament passes a law banning kosher slaughter and other countries are undermining freedom of religion all over Europe, we were happy to inaugurate a new kosher slaughterhouse and to witness the help of the government to the Hungarian religious Jewish community,” Lau and Margolin said.

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)

The meeting between Orban and the delegation of Jewish leaders came after the head of Hungary’s largest Jewish organization said a “poisonous” poster campaign by the government that targets US billionaire George Soros is stoking anti-Semitic sentiments.

The posters show a large image of the Hungarian-born Jewish emigre Soros laughing, alongside the text: “Let’s not let Soros laugh last,” a reference to an accusation by the government that the 86-year-old is behind pressure to force Hungary to let in migrants.

This photo taken Wednesday, July 5, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, shows an anti-Soros campaign reading "99 percent reject illegal migration" and “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh”. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)
This photo taken Wednesday, July 5, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, shows an anti-Soros campaign reading “99 percent reject illegal migration” and “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh”. (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)

Since the posters appeared in public spaces nationwide last Friday, local media has reported several incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti daubed on them.

“These poisonous messages harm the whole of Hungary,” said Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), in a letter to Orban published on the group’s website Thursday.

“We ask you and your government to take action to stop the campaign immediately and remove the posters from our streets and squares,” he said.

Orban has regularly accused Soros, 86, of orchestrating flows of migrants to Europe by financially backing pro-immigration and pro-refugee civil groups.

The government also says groups supported by Soros interfere in Hungary’s domestic affairs and ultimately aim to topple the hardline Orban.

George Soros at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 20, 2016. (Peter Foley/Pool/Getty Images/via JTA)
George Soros at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 20, 2016. (Peter Foley/Pool/Getty Images/via JTA)

The graffiti “harks back to dark periods in Hungarian history,” according to Heisler whose organization represents Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish community.

“This campaign is not openly anti-Semitic, but it is quite capable of giving rise to uncontrolled sentiments including anti-Semitic ones,” said Heisler.

“As our elected leaders you have a historic responsibility to stop hatred getting stronger in our homeland, and not to turn Hungarians against each other,” he said.

The latest campaign is the fourth nationwide media blitz by the government this year that attacks Brussels or Soros for allegedly pressuring Hungary to take in migrants.

Laws passed by parliament this year have also been widely seen as aimed at non-governmental organizations supported by Soros, and the Central European University, a Soros-founded institution in Budapest.

A senior government official said later Friday that the campaign is “not about Soros’s background or identity.”

“It calls attention to the danger represented by Soros in the immigration issue,” Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar told a press briefing.

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)

Remarks by Orban last month praising Hungary’s wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy have also sparked controversy.

In response to a request by Israel’s envoy in Budapest for clarification, Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary has “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism.

The rows come shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Hungary July 18, the first ever by an Israeli premier.

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