The Sleeping Dog

a96511b5_2f94_499d_b50a_866d7205cd14.jpg.ashxPrime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered the keynote address on the opening day of the 14th Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Budapest on May 5. The WJC elected to hold its plenary meeting in Budapest, the first held outside Israel or the United States since 1966 and the first ever held in eastern Europe, to draw attention to the “alarming rise of neo-Nazi political parties and anti-Semitic incidents in several European countries, including Hungary.” The following are excerpts from Orbán’s speech (source in English): 

History has taught the Hungarians that anti-Semitism must be recognised in time. Hungary lived through and is intimately aware of the inhumane destruction that anti-Semitism caused to the Jewish people, Hungary and the whole of Europe. It is with a broken heart that we bow our heads in memory of the victims. And at the same time we thank God that despite the Nazi and Arrow Cross destruction an authentic Jewish community, one of Europe’s most significant and ancient Jewish communities, managed to survive here in Hungary. We thank God that he has enriched all of Hungary as a result. We have also learned that anti-Semitism isn’t a natural disaster but the work of men. And as a result we must all feel and accept our own, personal responsibility. We are all aware of the growth of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, including Hungary. . . . Anti-Semitism is a state of mind in which evil takes control of people’s thoughts and actions, and this danger also threatens us, Christians. We are aware that during the course of history there were bad Christians and bad Hungarians, who committed grievous sins. . . . There is hope that our children may live in an era in which anti-Semitism is just as inconceivable as the past ages in which the world suffered from the plague. This is not just a dream, it is a possibility, and one that I feel is only up to us. We know that the triumph of evil requires only that good people remain inactive. We Hungarians are not and shall not be inactive. I would ask you all to take this message with you to the Jewish people of the world.

Much of the opposition to the Orbán government both inside and outside Hungary is based on the presumption that it is either directly or indirectly pursuing an anti-Semitic agenda as a means of solidifying its political legitimacy and attaining its nationalistic objectives. The prime minister’s widely publicized speech at the WJC Plenary Assembly explicitly refutes this notion. The above words represent a clear denunciation of anti-Semitism and are simply incompatible with those of a leader who may be attempting to arouse or otherwise exploit hostility toward Jews.  

Following Orbán’s speech, the WJC issued the following (source in English):

The World Jewish Congress appreciates Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision to address the international Jewish community by speaking here tonight. We welcome that the Prime Minister made it clear that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable.

However, the Prime Minister did not confront the true nature of the problem: the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular. We regret that Mr. Orbán 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.

The World Jewish Congress’s criticism of Orbán for not articulating the threat of anti-Semitism in general during his speech seems like fault-finding. The WJC’s conclusion that Orbán had failed to address the specific menace of the Jobbik party’s anti-Semitism and specific incidents of anti-Semitism in Hungary—which are really one and the same—is valid, though should not obscure the fact that the prime minister was uncommonly straightforward in his description of the “evil” and “destruction” of anti-Semitism.

As the prime minister of a government with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, Orbán has no interest in arousing the widespread anti-Semitic prejudice that exists within Hungarian society. With firm control over the country, he is interested in maintaining stability, not stirring the irrational passions of an excitable people. 

If one wants to criticize Orbán for exploiting anti-Semitism for his own political purposes, one must go back to the time before he formed his second cabinet in 2010, to the period of political upheaval in Hungary following the leak of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Őszöd Speech in September 2006. Though he was careful not to say anything that could be used against him later, Orbán the opposition leader tacitly incited radical nationalist, anti-Semitic forces in Hungary to engage in active rebellion against the government in the hope that they would serve as a vehicle for his return to power. At the time of the organization of the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) in August 2007, Orbán gave the following response to reporters after one of them asked him if the locution “to distance onself” could be used to describe his stance toward the paramilitary organization: “Yes, that is a poor expression, I am distanced from you, and from you too, as you see. At the same time, you are you and I am still me. The Hungarian Guard is what it is, while we are still here” (source in Hungarian). 

However, as prime minister, Orbán has clearly distanced himself from Jobbik and initiated legislation aimed at combating the “uniformed crime” of paramilitary organizations such as the For a Better Future Civic Guard Association (Szebb Jövőért Polgári Egyesület) and other successors to the Hungarian Guard, which the Bajnai government banned in 2009. Orbán will resort to the tactic of harnessing the considerable political power of anti-Semitism in Hungary to his own advantage only if his grip on power begins to slip.

Until that time, opponents of the Orbán government should focus on its flagrant violations of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy rather than its possible latent anti-Semitism. 

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