BUDAPEST — Billboards displaying messaging against Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist George Soros remained up in Budapest, some with anti-Semitic imagery on them, hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to arrive in the Hungarian capital Monday afternoon for a highly anticipated visit.
Netanyahu is making the first trip to Hungary by an Israeli prime minister since the end of Communism in 1989, but the trip had been complicated by the posters, which have been criticized as encouraging anti-Semitism.
Hungarian officials had said the posters would be down by the weekend, marking the end of a campaign against Soros for his pro-immigration stance.
Hungarian media had reported that the posters were being removed in order to not embarrass Netanyahu.
But a Times of Israel correspondent said at least six billboards remained up. Two billboards had black swastikas spray-painted on them.
A Hungarian government spokesperson said the campaign had ended on July 15, but the billboards would remain until the space had sold to another advertiser.
“The fact that the advertisement is still up in certain places is a technical issue relating to how the contracting agency is able to sell the given advertising space. The Government is not involved in putting up or taking down billboards. This is not our business,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment.
Hungarian Jews, and Israeli politicians from the opposition, had taken issue with Netanyahu’s too-gentle admonishment of the billboard campaign, while maintaining that criticism of the liberal philanthropist was legitimate, and his apparent dismissal of the Hungarian prime minister’s praise for the country’s fascist wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy.
The Soros posters show a large picture of the Jewish businessman laughing, alongside the text: “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” a reference to government claims that Soros wants to force Hungary to allow in migrants.
Many of the posters around Hungary had been daubed with anti-Semitic messages, including “stinking Jew,” drawing protests from Hungary’s over-100,000-strong Jewish community, one of Europe’s largest.
Its members have often accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power since 2010, of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism or even encouraging it with nationalist rhetoric that analysts say is aimed at staving off a rise in power for the far-right, a charge the premier denies.
In going ahead with the visit, critics have accused Netanyahu of putting Israel’s political and economic goals ahead of the concerns of the Hungarian-Jewish community.
Netanyahu and Orban have developed close ties over their shared anti-immigration stances and disdain for the left-leaning liberal global order bankrolled, as they see it, by the likes of Soros, an octogenarian US billionaire.
Soros, who hid from the Nazis in Budapest as a boy, said that the posters, plastered nationwide, used “anti-Semitic imagery.”
His spokesman said they were “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours.” The head of Mazsihisz, Hungary’s biggest Jewish organization, called the campaign “poisonous.”
Orban insisted they were not about Soros’s Jewishness but the “national security risk” posed by his wish to “settle a million migrants” in the European Union.
Orban’s government is also making life difficult for the prestigious Central European University in Budapest, created by Soros, and for civil organizations he funds — prompting EU legal action.
Netanyahu, whose relations with the EU are strained too, is also scornful of Soros because of his support for both Israeli and Palestinian rights groups critical of Israel’s government and the occupation.
Some in Israel called for Netanyahu to cancel his Hungary trip because of the posters, with Israel’s ambassador saying it “evokes sad memories (and) sows hatred and fear.”
But hours later, a Foreign Ministry statement backtracked — reportedly at Netanyahu’s behest.
While Israel “deplores” anti-Semitism, Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” it said.
“Connecting Soros to the migration issue is the (Hungarian) government’s aim, but it is a problem for Orban if the campaign is seen as anti-Semitic,” political analyst Csaba Toth told AFP. “So the Netanyahu visit helps him as it bolsters his claims that the Soros campaign is not.”
But whether consciously anti-Semitic or not, the posters clearly evoked dormant anti-Semitism, said Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, a senior Mazsihisz leader.
Soros, a declared non-Zionist and harsh critique of successive Israeli governments, is seen in Hungary “primarily as a Jew,” Radnóti explained. “And this has been stressed recently many times, implicitly and explicitly, playing with imagery resembling the interwar stereotypical caricature of the wicked Jew pulling the strings and laughing. In the context of this campaign, one cannot differentiate between slamming Soros and playing with blatant anti-Semitism.”
Ira Forman, a former US special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism (SEAS), concurred: “You don’t have to unequivocally call something out as anti-Semitic to point out it is wrong and dangerous,” he told The Times of Israel. “Given Hungary’s history and the levels of anti-Semitic sentiment inside the country, the [Victor] Orban government is once again playing with fire.”
Recently Orban also praised Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s wartime leader and Hitler ally until 1944, as an “exceptional statesman” for rebuilding Hungary after World War I.
Orban’s praise for Horthy, made in a June 21 speech, has been widely denounced by Jewish groups. The Anti-Defamation League called Horthy a “notorious anti-Semite.”
Critics have long suspected Orban of trying to rehabilitate Horthy, who oversaw the sending of over a half million Jews to the Nazi death camps, by tacitly encouraging new memorials of Horthy and other interwar figures.
In 2014, Mazsihisz boycotted state commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the 1944 deportations over concerns the government was “whitewashing” the state’s complicity.
But Orban is at pains to stress his “zero tolerance” of anti-Semitism, his supporters pointing to a new law outlawing Holocaust denial and state funding for Jewish-themed films like Oscar-winner “Son of Saul.”
“No government has done more to fight anti-Semitism in Hungary,” his spokesman said in a blog post on Thursday.