By Dr. Alex Sternberg

The recent visit to Jerusalem by the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban stirred up controversy, not only in Israel but worldwide. Suspicions of Orban’s antisemitism have been simmering for years, but they bubbled forth during his recent reelection campaign, when he used age-old Hungarian code words meant to vilify Jews when referring to his nemesis, global financier and Holocaust survivor George Soros. Those not familiar with historical Hungarian antisemitism may not understand that specific adjectives have become synonymous with Jews and the Jewish menace in the Hungarian lexicon. Internationalist, liberal, financier, and foreign influence have all meant only one thing in Hungary — Jew!

Victor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu

So is Victor Orban an antisemite? He certainly denies such an ugly moniker and has stated that antisemitism in Hungary is nonexistent. He claims this despite a recent report of a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League that indicated that Hungarian antisemitism is the highest in Europe.

Victor Orban is a populist leader, and populist leaders worldwide know the bread-and-butter issues that mobilize the masses to the voting booth. In Russia it may be lowering the price of vodka, while in the United States it is denigrating gun control. In Hungary, for centuries, it was preaching against the ever-growing Jewish menace.

When Victor Orban preaches “Hungarian-ness” and Christian values, he is invoking the ghosts of Hungary past, populists who came before him preaching the same concepts. In Hungary, during the extreme antisemitic interwar years, those who advocated for “Christian values” were not calling for a renewal in the teachings of Christ. Rather, all Hungarians knew that “Christian” was a code word for “not Jewish.” When advertisements appeared in local papers stating: “Young Christian man seeking work,” the job seeker was simply indicating that he was not Jewish. Where did this Jew hatred come from?

To be sure, Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Jews living in its borders for centuries. Centuries of mistrust gave way to Jew hatred with famous blood libels in the 1880s and were exacerbated by the preaching of priests such as Ottokar Prohaszka. Prohaszka was a Catholic priest who rose to prominence in the Hungarian Church by becoming the bishop of Szekesfehervar. He was a populist writer and speaker who was the first to coin the term “Hungarist.” After preaching that Jews should never be emancipated, should be denied entry into universities, and are lice and vermin who should be “gotten rid of,” he maintained that he was not antisemitic but preached Christian values and was a Hungarist.

This rabidly antisemitic priest maintained there was no such thing as a Hungarian Jew — only Jews who spoke Hungarian. According to him, Jews could never be trusted and had “no moral compass.” Only by turning his back on Judaism and converting, could the Jew prove his fidelity to Hungary.

Prohaszka influenced many Hungarian leaders even after his death in 1927. He was the spiritual mentor to those who enacted the infamous anti-Jewish laws of 1938–1942. Prohaszka might have disappeared into history had he not been resurrected by Victor Orban and his Fidesz party. Now this hateful priest has streets named after him and statues erected, even though several years ago, in the Hungarian Holocaust Museum, Prohaszka was pictured next to Hitler, indicating their shared desire to resolve the Jewish Question with the Final Solution.

The Archbishop of Esztergom, on a visit to the museum, saw this and cried foul. Shortly after, the curator was removed by Fidesz and a revisionist “historian” put in his place. Now, the museum is focusing on listing those Hungarians who saved Jews during the war. (It will not be a long list.)

Under Orban’s Fidesz, Hungary is adopting the Polish model of denying their country’s role in the murder of Jews. Hungary erected a memorial to the victims of German aggression that implied that Hungary was also a victim. It’s no wonder that Jews living in Hungary are uneasy about the Fidesz government.

So, is Orban antisemitic?

That is hard to answer. Orban certainly has created an atmosphere that fosters anti-Jewish agitation among Hungarians. His adulation of Miklos Horthy, the wartime leader of Hungary, a self-confessed antisemite and friend of Hitler, adds to the feeling of mistrust.

Socialist Party chairman of Hungary Attila Mesterhazy wrote that Hungary was experiencing a “serious moral crisis” triggered by the government’s “revitalizing of the historic crimes of the Horthy era.” Under Horthy, some 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in Nazi death camps. Amongst them was most of my family, including my 4-year-old brother.

In addition to honoring wartime anti-Semitic politicians, Orban’s Fidesz has also revised the high-school curriculum by including the writings of numerous antisemitic writers. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Culture, urging them to remove these writers from the curriculum.

“It is unacceptable that their writings be taught to the young Hungarian people,” the letter reads.

Orban walks a tightrope. He erects a memorial to the tens of thousands of Jews shot into the Danube by Hungarian Arrow Cross Nazis without mentioning that the victims were all Jews. He allows his partner in the government, the ultra-right-wing Jobbik Party, to make threatening anti-Jewish speeches without any reprimand.

What Orban has been doing is dusting off the ash heap of history and taking off the shelf many of Hungary’s populist leaders for adulation. Prohaszka railed against the “foreign influence” that he attributed to the Jews. Orban whips up the anti-immigrant feeling among his countrymen. Unfortunately, the figures he holds up for emulation are those a truly repentant Hungary would leave in the garbage dump. But by feeding into Hungary’s age-old antipathy for Jews, he laughs all the way to the premiership.

I am not giving Orban a pass for antisemitism as Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have done by hosting and praising Orban in Jerusalem. As a Jew who was born in Hungary, perhaps I have a better understanding of the age-old Hungarian code words for denigrating Jews. 

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz – My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He teaches graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. 

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