President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday warned visiting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban against the rise of neo-fascism, in what appeared to be an unsubtle dig at the right-wing leader.
“I know what you are doing against anti-Semitism. I know the efforts. But we have to remember, when we say never again — neo-fascism and neo-fascist groups are a real danger to the very existence of the free world,” Rivlin told Orban, speaking in English. “It brings racism, it brings hatred” against its targets’ faith or nationality, Rivlin added.
Critics accuse Orban, the head of Hungary’s nationalist Fidesz party, of stifling Hungary’s democracy and stoking anti-Semitism.
Welcoming the Hungarian leader in his official Jerusalem residence, Rivlin said Israel considers itself a Jewish state and is therefore responsible for the well-being of Jews across the globe. Yet he stressed that Israel is not waging any sort of “religious war” and is, rather, proud to afford all its citizens the right to worship as they see fit.
The president also thanked Orban for his government’s positive attitude toward the State of Israel.
“You are great supporters of Israel in many international organizations and we appreciate that very much,” he said.
Orban, in his remarks, ignored Rivlin’s warning against “neo-fascism” in Hungary, focusing on bilateral relations and his government’s efforts to fight anti-Semitism and support the local Jewish community.
“It’s an authentic community. Families who survived the Second World War and Shoah and Holocaust. And they’re still there,” he said, also speaking in English.
The fact that Hungary is home to the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, and one of the largest in the entire continent, “creates a special responsibility” for his government, Orban said.
“We feel that responsibility and we fulfill our obligations to defend all the citizens of our country regardless of their faith, beliefs, ethnic origin,” he said, reiterating his vow to have “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism.
“Unfortunately, the modern shape of anti-Semitism is growing in Western European countries, but luckily enough in Central Europe it is decreasing,” he went on.
Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Budapest for its opposition to anti-Semitism, noting that Hungary had recently sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that condemned the phenomenon and inaugurated a renovated synagogue in Subotica.
“You said it was, ‘a moral duty that Jews live without fear and practice religion freely,'” he said, noting that Orban had allocated millions of dollars for the renovation of synagogues.
“I think that the task is always before us because anti-Semitism continuously rears its head but these actions point to a positive direction, which we encourage all our friends to continue throughout Europe, throughout the world.”
We spoke of the tragedies that afflicted the people, the Jewish people on the soil of Hungary and I heard you speak, as a true friend of Israel, about the need to combat antisemitism. pic.twitter.com/usEAKByJhb
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) July 19, 2018
Orban replied by stressing that all Hungarian Jews can “openly and proudly celebrate their Jewish heritage and feel secure.”
Hungary is actively promoting Jewish life by renovating synagogues, repairing decrepit Jewish cemeteries and investing in Jewish education, he added.
Orban also said the “excellent” relations between Budapest and Jerusalem are due in large part due to the fact that “both countries have a patriotic leader.”
Orban arrived Wednesday evening for a two-day trip — the first-ever official visit of a Hungarian prime minister to Israel — that has drawn criticism from Israeli opposition politicians and Jewish groups.
MK Yair Lapid, for instance, lamented that Netanyahu, during the public part of their meeting, did not condemn Orban for having praised Hungarian wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy.
Horthy “collaborated with the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, including members of my family,” Lapid charged. Netanyahu “has no mandate to forgive the murder of Holocaust victims. He has no mandate to remain silent in the face of modern anti-Semitism.”
Orban’s visit is a followup to Netanyahu’s trip to Budapest last year.
“The visit will promote the good bilateral relations that are notably expressed in supporting Israel’s positions in European and international forums, and underlining the importance of continuing the struggle against anti-Semitism,” the Foreign Ministry statement said in a statement moments before Orban’s plane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Burgeoning ties with the hard right
The trip is a striking sign of burgeoning ties between Netanyahu and the Hungarian statesman, who has been accused of playing up anti-Semitic stereotypes, and comes following reports of Israeli efforts to lobby the US to end the isolation of the man considered a symbol of Europe’s move toward the hard right.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, ties with Orban have warmed, prompting criticism from the local Jewish community over the Hungarian prime minister’s attacks on Jewish billionaire George Soros, which critics say flirt with anti-Semitic stereotypes, and his past praise for Horthy.
A year ago, Orban hailed as an “exceptional statesman” Hungary’s wartime leader and Nazi ally, Horthy, who enacted anti-Jewish laws and under whose watch over half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Then, Orban launched and defended a poster campaign targeting the Hungarian-born Soros, accusing him of seeking to flood the country with refugees.
The trip comes a day after reports in the Israeli media that, under Netanyahu’s orders, Israel has lobbied the US administration to “open doors” to Orban’s government, which has traditionally been kept at arm’s length due to its ultra-nationalist stances and the prime minister’s embracing of what he has termed an “illiberal democracy.”
In a break with protocol for EU leaders who usually meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah during such visits, Orban has no scheduled talks with Palestinian leaders.
On Thursday evening, Orban will be hosted for dinner by the prime minister and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, at their official residence in Jerusalem. On Friday, before returning to Hungary, he will visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Tamar Pillegi and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.