BUDAPEST — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his way to Budapest for a three-day visit Monday, senior leaders of Hungary’s Jewish community expressed their disappointment over his handling of two recent controversies in which they felt he “deserted” them.
The president and a senior rabbi of the country’s largest Jewish organization urged Netanyahu to rectify the impression that he was putting political concerns ahead of Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jewry.
“The mood here is very bad and bitter,” Andras Heisler, who heads the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, also know as Mazsihisz, told The Times of Israel in his central Budapest office.
“We are waiting for Bibi to emphasize in his speech the importance of the relations between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Netanyahu on Monday afternoon arrived in Hungary for the first visit of an Israeli prime minister in the country since the end of Communism. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he is scheduled to meet several times with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been embroiled in two recent controversies surrounding the country’s 100,000-strong Jewish community.
First, Orban hailed, as an “exceptional statesman,” the country’s wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, who enacted anti-Jewish laws and under whose watch over half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Then, he launched and defended a poster campaign targeting Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, accusing him of seeking to flood the country with refugees.
Orban was heavily criticized by Jewish leaders from across the globe, and some Knesset members called on Netanyahu to cancel his trip, in light of his host’s praise for a Hitler ally and over his anti-Soros campaign, which critics said toyed with anti-Semitic stereotypes.
In both cases, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, initially sided with Hungary’s Jews in criticizing Orban. But at Netanyahu’s behest, Israel later retracted its criticism or accepted the government’s clarifications.
The State of Israel defends the entire Jewish people. And the PM is the Holy of Holies. But suddenly this prime minister, for political reasons, was deserting us’
That left many local Jews feeling betrayed by Netanyahu, according to Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, who heads Mazsihisz’s rabbinical council.
“For us Diaspora Jews, especially in Europe, the State of Israel is a symbol. It stands for Judaism, freedom, defense, everything. The State of Israel protects the people of Israel. It defends the entire Jewish people. And the prime minister is the Holy of Holies. But suddenly we saw that this prime minister, for political reasons, was deserting us,” he told The Times of Israel, in his office, adjacent to Budapest’s central Dohány Street Synagogue.
“All of a sudden, our holiness, Bibi himself, goes over to the other side,” Radnóti continued. “He embraces [Orban] and hugs him. What happened here? That hurt us, deep in our hearts and souls… He’s not with us. He’s with Orban.”
Despite their criticism of Orban, and the fact that many started worrying about rising levels of anti-Jewish attacks in the aftermath of the anti-Soros campaign, most Hungarian Jews do not believe their prime minister is an anti-Semite.
Rather, Radnoti said, the government realized too late that the billboard campaigns, showing a grinning Soros next to the sentence “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” was a mistake, but refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing.
“They can’t say they erred. Because if they make mistakes, that would be interpreted to mean they can’t keep the country safe,” he said.
On Wednesday, Orban and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet Jewish leaders at the Dohány Street Synagogue for a public event and a meeting behind closed doors. “This will be difficult for us,” Radnóti said.
Heisler, who has been the president of Mazsihisz since 2013, met Netanyahu’s senior foreign policy adviser Jonathan Schachter two weeks ago, in Jerusalem, and asked him to address the painful issues. “I told him Netanyahu should fix this.”