When Jewish leaders from around the globe gathered at the World Jewish Congress in Budapest in 2013, they were greeted at their hotel by far-right supporters of Jobbick chanting anti-Semitic slogans. The success of Jobbick at the ballot box was one reason WJC president Ronnie Lauder, of Hungarian-Jewish extraction, chose the Budapest venue.
As Board of Deputies delegate to the meeting, I decided one afternoon to leave the formal sessions to stroll along the Danube and visit the memorial of the shoes, created by sculptor Gyula Pauer to honour the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest.
The simple memorial is of particular significance to me and my family because two of my father’s elder brothers (and later a younger brother) had been rounded up by the Arrow Cross in the early 1940s to work in the forests. At first there was correspondence and the dispatch from my grandparents’ home of food and clothing parcels. Then silence.
On my way to the memorial I was stopped by a young man who asked if was attending the WJC. His father, he told me, was an economist working in the Hungarian finance ministry and had recently been told, without reason, he was to be made redundant.
No one had explained why, but his father believed he was being singled out as the most senior Jew in his department. The young man wanted advice on whether he should continue his studies in his native country or move to Manchester, where he had been offered a university place to read finance.
Antisemitism in Hungary is deep rooted and, unlike in Germany, the fascist past has never been fully confronted. There is a paradox in this. Because the Nazis did not start the systematic elimination of Hungarian Jewry until 1944, they never completed it.
As many as 100,000 if not more Hungarian Jews escaped the camps and community life has continued to flourish – one of the great tourist attractions in the centre of Budapest is the magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue used as a wedding destination by Jews from all over Europe. Kosher food and drink is prominent in Hungarian supermarkets.
At the time of the WJC meeting, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was seen as a moderating influence holding out against the extreme views of Jobbick. The latter, in an echo of the past, was demanding among other things a list of all Jewish property owners. Since then, Orban has been on a political journey to the right driven partly by economic hardship in the eurozone and waves of immigration coming from the Middle East and Africa.
It is into this vortex that Board president Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, has found herself sucked. There is nothing unusual about the engagement between the Board and Hungary. The Board’s international division spends its time defending Jewish communities worldwide.
The current cause of anxiety relates to the demonisation of Hungarian billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros. The Orban government objects strongly to his advocacy of open-society and pro-immigration views and has used antisemitic tropes to attack him. At the time it has also been trying to combat the tide of anti-Semitism, recently allocating $3.4m in the budget.
Negotiating this maze of conflicting actions by the Hungarian government probably explains why the country’s secretary of state, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, reacted so strongly to the meeting with van der Zyl, telling the Board to ‘mind its own business’.
The BoD stepped into a hornet’s nest of nationalism, pride and Shoah history. It was right to remind Hungary of its responsibility not to fan antisemitism. It was perhaps less than diplomatic to have been so publicly noisy about the Board’s uncompromising message.