BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Tuesday 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.
Standing next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Hungarian leader also promised a “zero tolerance policy” toward anti-Semitism.
“We are aware of the fact that we have quite a difficult chapter of history behind us. And I wanted to make it very clear to him that the Government of Hungary, in a previous period, committed a mistake, even committed a sin, when it did not protect the Jewish citizens of Hungary,” Orban said. “I want to make it clear that it is our belief that every single Hungarian government has the obligation to protect and defend all of its citizens, regardless of their birth and origins.”
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.
Orban said Hungary failed to live up to its commitment to its citizens during World War II, “both morally or in other ways. And this is a sin, because we decided back then, instead of protecting the Jewish community, to collaborate with the Nazis. I made it very clear to the prime minister that this is something that can never, ever happen again, that the Hungarian government will in the future protect all its citizens.”
Hungarian officials later pointed out this was the first time Orban referred to Horthy’s actions as a “sin.”
MK Yair Lapid, who had urged Netanyahu’s to cancel his planned trip unless Orban’s apologizes, welcomed the Hungarian’s leader’s statement, but reiterated his outrage over Orban’s previous praise for Horthy.
“We must be clear: Hungary had a significant role in the Nazi extermination machine and was actively involved in the murder of Jews, in the murder of my family. That only heightens the severity of praising Miklos Horthy,” Lapid said. “The State of Israel is a strong and sovereign country and we must fight the increasing expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe which come from both the left and the right. When a prime minister in Europe says that an anti-Semite was ‘an exceptional statesman,’ we cannot be silent. That it is our moral responsibility to the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust.”
During the joint appearance with Netanyahu, Orban pointed out that a “sizable” Jewish minority lives in Hungary today. “I made it very clear to the prime minister that their security, being Hungarian citizens that they are, will be fully guaranteed by the Hungarian state, I’ve also made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the Hungarian government has a zero tolerance policy against all forms of anti-Semitism.”
There is a renaissance of Jewish life here in Hungary, Orban added. “And this is something that we are proud of. We think that the renaissance of Jewish life is a substantial contribution to the common achievements of the Hungarian nation quite clearly.”
Orban praised Netanyahu as a “dedicated patriot,” adding that this is the key to his country’s success.
“There’s a lot for us to learn from Israel, ladies and gentlemen, because Israel teaches the world and us also that if you don’t fight for something, you will lose it,” he said. “Because nowadays, you have to fight for everything in the modern world.”
Netanyahu said he raised with Orban “concerns” about his recent praise for Horthy and an anti-immigration billboard campaign, focused on Jewish billionaire George Soros, many Jews felt was anti-Semitic.
“He reassured me in unequivocal terms, just as he did now, publicly. I appreciate that. These are important words,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister also thanked his host for standing up for Israel in international forums. “You’ve done that time and again. We appreciate this stance, not only because it’s standing with Israel, but it’s also standing with the truth.”
Budapest is at “the forefront of the states that are opposed to this anti-Jewish policy, and I welcome it,” the Netanyahu added.
Speaking in English after Orban, Netanyahu hailed Hungary as the birthplace of modern Zionism.
“When I come to Hungary, the first thing I think about, before anything else, is that Hungary was the, in many ways, the birth of modern Zionism, the movement that led to the establishment of the modern Jewish state because in Hungary was born our modern Moses, Theodor Herzl,” he said.
“It is probably inconceivable to think of the Jewish state, the State of Israel today, if it weren’t for that man born here in 1860, who envisioned the rebirth of the Jewish state and who saw in his mind’s-eye also the great challenges that would be posed anti-Semitism. He thought that this ultimately was the best solution for the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said, adding that he planned to visit the site where Herzl’s house once stood.
Before their statements, Netanyahu and Orban witnessed the signing of a bilateral culture agreement and declarations of intent regarding cooperation in innovation and technology. The culture agreement will enable reciprocal financing of cultural appearances, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Dozens of Israeli shows take place annually in Hungary via the existing culture agreement and dozens more will be added, thanks to the new one, thus allowing additional artists and directors – inter alia – to go to Hungary and expose Hungarian audiences to Israeli culture,” the PMO said.
The innovation and technology agreement is intended to increase cooperation between the Israel Innovation Authority and its Hungarian counterparts to promote Israeli-Hungarian startups. “The goal of the agreement is to promote cooperation between the governments including in the private sector with emphasis on high-tech, autonomous vehicles and new technologies,” according to the PMO.
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu and his wife Sara were welcomed by Orban and his wife Aniko Levai at the steps of the Parliament in Hungary, where they reviewed a military honor guard. The Netanyahus toured the parliament, which houses the Holy Crown of Hungary, which has been used by kings since the twelfth century.
On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu was met Hungarian President Janos Ader in the presidential palace. He concluded the day with a dinner with Orban at the prime minister’s residence.
On Tuesday, he will meet the leaders of the Visegrad Group, a political alliance of four Central European countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He will also hold individual working meetings with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Later in the day, Netanyahu and Orban will attend an economic forum attended by dozens of Israeli companies and more than 100 Hungarian companies from the cyber, high-tech, agriculture, pharmaceutical and technology sectors.
On Wednesday, the two prime ministers will visit the Dohany Street Synagogue and meet with Jewish community leaders. Relations between the local Jewish community and Israel have been tense over recent controversies surrounding Netanyahu’s apparent refusal to confront Orban over moves perceived as promoting anti-Semitism in the country.