Leading Hungarian rabbi deconstructs Viktor Orbán and the lean towards the right

Rabbi Shlomó Köves, chief rabbi of the EMIH-Hungarian Jewish Alliance and a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Budapest, discusses the prime minister and his nationalistic approach, as well as the thinking of some of his critics.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (second from left) in the Old City of Jerusalem on the last day of a two-day official state visit to Israel, on July 20, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (second from left) in the Old City of Jerusalem on the last day of a two-day official state visit to Israel, on July 20, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

While anti-Semitism is increasingly being used as a tool by the left to attack nationalist leaders, such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, those on the left side of the political spectrum are becoming more associated with actions against Jews and Israel, Including groups pushing BDS.

Rabbi Shlomó Köves, chief rabbi of the EMIH-Hungarian Jewish Alliance and a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Budapest, says that as far as Orbán goes, he is not anti-Semitic, but a nationalist.

“Anyone who knows him knows this,” the rabbi told JNS in an interview. “He is an advocate for nation-states, a patriot of his country, and [yet] many people try to connect him with anti-Semitism. This is also obviously related to a historical perspective since in the first half of the 20th century, the nationalist right-wing movements were the driving force behind European and Hungarian anti-Semitism.”

Chabad Rabbi Shlomó Köves of Hungary. Credit: Wikipedia.

Of course, the German Nazi Party was named National Socialist, and therefore anything that has to do with nationalism is accused of xenophobia, though Koves said “while Israel is also a nation-state and has a nationalist government, we also have to realize that the direct threat on European Jewry today is the anti-Semitism coming from radical Islam and the far-left, which at times unite.”

Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C., and a European correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, said that Israel’s relations with Hungary can be viewed as a mixed bag.

“On the one hand, Orbán is pro-Israel and, for example, refused to implement the E.U.’s policy to demarcate Israeli products from the disputed territories as a form of punishment,” explained Weinthal. “The E.U.’s policy to punish Israeli merchandise was widely criticized as anti-Semitic and a modernized version of the Hitler-era boycott slogan: ‘Don’t buy from Jews!’ ”

On the other hand, he continued, “Orbán praised Miklós Horthy, a Hungarian ally of Adolf Hitler, as an ‘exceptional statesman.’ On Horthy’s watch, the Nazis and Hungarian collaborators murdered more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews. Horthy was a well-known anti-Semite since the 1920s.”

Hence, from the viewpoint of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, there is a need for Israel to advance its interests in Europe as a whole because of the wildly out-of-control anti-Israel policies of many Western European countries, according to Weinthal. “Germany, for example, is working overtime to bust U.S. sanctions against Iran’s regime—the top, international state sponsor of terrorism, lethal anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” he said.

The flip of the European right

The ironic switch of the historically anti-Semitic right-wing European parties to pro-Israel has been most pronounced in Eastern Europe, where countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania have become stalwart backers of Israel. Their swing to the pro-Jewish side has not come without political ripples, such as the controversy over Poland downplaying its role in the Holocaust and attempting to make certain claims over its actions during World War II as legally punishable.

A poll cited in Commentary magazine found that Jews feel safer in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe.

Koves pointed out that European right-wing movements are linked to a blood-soaked history. “We can’t forget this, just as we cannot forget their responsibility in the Shoah. At the same time, we have to be aware of the contemporary threats, and that today the right-wing parties are becoming more a partner with Israel and religious Jewish communities,” said the rabbi, who is himself Hungarian-born and holds a Ph.D. in Hungarian Jewish history.

Asked if he has asked Orbán to act against nefarious anti-Semitism that does exist on the right, Koves replied that indeed, “Orbán rejects the openly anti-Semitic extreme-right Jobbik party. His government had just accepted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and has pledged a yearly budget of close to 2 million euros to combat anti-Semitism in Hungary and in the European Union.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Credit: Wikimedia.

Orbán and his party are nationalists, and the European Union—from elites to mainstream media—has continued to attack his government, similar to how the American left has reacted to U.S. President Donald Trump, said Koves. Both have been bandied as anti-Semites, despite their pro-Israel and pro-Jewish policies.

Asked about the well-known magazine cover from the pro-government outlet that had the picture of Andras Heisler, the president of the more Reform-minded Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) being showered with banknotes, Koves said that by now this appears to be another false charge as well.

The article on Heisler, which was published at the end of 2018, looked into the approximately 10 million euros that Heisler’s community received from the government in order to repair their synagogue. Heisler chose to boycott the magazine and not to respond to their questions about possible financial misconduct, and then later accused the article of being anti-Semitic. Since then, an internal investigation revealed that more than $400,000 of the funds was diverted to an “unknown swindler.”

Furthermore, noted Koves, corruption has been a very intensive public theme in the country; along those lines, many non-Jewish political figures are also pictured in a similar fashion in the press with banknotes.

The Orthodox EMIH community led by rabbi Koves and the more Reform-minded Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities each have around 4,000 members in a country with about 100,000 Jews that are non-denominational.

Koves explained that Heisler stakes out positions on the far-left, attacking both the Orbán government and the leadership of Netanyahu. The roots of Heisler’s Jewish organization go back some 150 years and lived through the country’s Communist era, when the regime would tolerate the movement since many of its lay leaders were active in the Communist party.

“Today, most of the intra-Jewish conflict is really about politics of some of these lay leaders,” claimed Koves.

As for the community Koves leads, he said that it is growing, and there are 16 Chabad rabbis in the country who serve in eight synagogues with three more opening in the next year, along with an elementary, a high school and a university. The community’s outreach to unaffiliated Jews is making inroads, he said, and the youth seem very interested in their Jewish identity, much more so than their parents.

“Our focus,” he said, “is strengthening positive Jewish identity, reconnecting people to their roots and to Israel.”

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