As I read Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech to the delegates of the World Jewish Congress, who assembled in Budapest this past weekend, I found myself visualizing the furrowed eyebrows and anxious seat shuffling going on in the audience. For not only was Orban’s speech a chain of platitudes from beginning to end, it was downright dishonest.
The WJC says it held its conference in Budapest as a gesture of solidarity with Hungary’s Jews, who are once again the targets of the kind of vicious anti-Semitism for which Eastern Europe is renowned. The direct source of the poison is the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party, which is these days the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, having won 17 per cent of the vote during the April 2010 elections. But several observers of the Hungarian scene have argued that Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party variously ignores, plays down or even encourages the anti-Semitism of Jobbik; Orban’s speech to the WJC, therefore, was his opportunity to clearly explain whether he considers Jobbik a threat, as well as his chance to make amends for his close friendship with Zsolt Bayer, an anti-Semitic writer who has compared Jews to “stinking excrement” and has opined that “a significant part” of the Roma gypsy population are “unfit for existence.”
In the event, neither Jobbik nor Bayer even made it into the speech. Instead, Orban declared that the situation in Hungary isn’t really that disturbing:
I know that Jewish leaders have come here from all over the world. Including from places where anti-Semitism sometimes claims the lives of schoolchildren. And from places where following the anti-Semitic murder of children, there is no consensus on whether a minute’s silence in memory of the victims may be ordered in state schools. From places where bomb attacks that claim lives are launched against synagogues. Nothing of this nature has so far occurred in Hungary.
Really? Try telling that to Ferenc Orosz, the head of Hungary’s Raoul Wallenberg Association. At the end of April, Orosz attended, together with his family, a soccer match at Budapest’s Puskas Stadium. A group of spectators sitting nearby were bellowing the Nazi chant, “Sieg Heil,” and Orosz courageously demanded that they stop. Of course, the hooligans turned on him, spitting “Jewish communist” and other anti-Semitic epithets in his direction. When Orosz attempted to leave the stadium at the end of the game, two men blocked him, one of whom punched him in the face, leaving him with a broken nose.
Evidently, the WJC wasn’t too impressed by Orban’s implication that anti-Semitism shouldn’t be taken overly seriously unless bombs are exploding in synagogues. In a statement released after Orban’s speech, the WJC expressed its “regret” that the prime minister had not “confronted…the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular…Mr. Orban did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe.” (Having spent several years working for American Jewish advocacy organizations, I know that their desire to maintain access to troubling leaders like Argentine President Christina Kirchner and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dampens down any criticism they might advance; the WJC statement is thus a notable and welcome departure from that unfortunate habit.)
Ultimately, the WJC wanted something from Orban that he wasn’t prepared to give them; not just an abstract statement that “anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable,” but a concrete undertaking to eradicate it from Hungarian politics. Orban’s silence on the nature of the threat to Hungary’s Jews will, rest assured, be interpreted as a license by the country’s anti-Semites (like the Jobbik parliamentarian Marton Gyongyosi, whose idea of solidarity with the population of the Gaza Strip was to publish a list of Jews he considers to be a “national security risk”) to continue their agitation.
For that reason, a precise understanding of Jobbik’s anti-Semitic worldview becomes all the more important. It is true that Jobbik leaders echo the Nazis in their constant associations of Jews with human waste and sexual mischief, and in that sense, it is correct to classify the party as a part of the extreme right. Yet, as the Gyongyosi episode demonstrated, Jobbik has also imbibed the visceral loathing of Zionism and Israel more commonly associated with the extreme left. Gyongyosi himself told an anti-Semitic rally staged in Budapest on the eve of the WJC conference that Hungary has “become subjugated to Zionism, it has become a target of colonisation while we, the indigenous people, can play only the role of extras”.
As James Kirchick has observed, statements like this one explain why Jobbik, with its “virulently anti-Europe rhetoric, anti-Western worldview, and undisguised anti-Semitism,” has “embraced the mullahs” who rule Iran. Nor is the romance with Iran confined to Jobbik. Eleven of the 27 parliamentarians on the executive of the “Hungary-Iran friendship committee,” which is chaired by Gyongyosi, belong to Orban’s Fidesz Party. And that, incidentally, is another detail that somehow didn’t make it into Orban’s speech.