The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who has been accused of stoking antisemitism – has greeted his Israeli counterpart with a public promise to “protect” Hungary’s Jewish community.
Referring to Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis, the rightwing leader told Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Budapest on a controversial visit: “We decided in world war two, instead of protecting the Jewish community, to cooperate with the Nazis. This will never happen again.”
“I made it clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the government will secure the Jewish minority and that we have zero tolerance to antisemitism,” he added.
Netanyahu said Orbán had reassured him in unequivocal terms that the Hungarian government stood by the Jewish people, which he called “important words” coming on the back of Orbán’s recent remarks that unnerved Jews in the country.
Netanyahu’s visit – the first by an Israeli prime minister since the fall of communism three decades ago – has attracted sharp criticism in Israel, amid a campaign by Orbán’s Fidesz party targeting the Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to which Netanyahu, who also detests Soros, has lent support.
The result has been that what should have been a relatively uncontroversial trip has instead become the subject of much commentary in Israel asking why Netanyahu – who is usually quick to highlight anything he believes smacks of antisemitism – has given the Hungarian leader a free pass.
Orbán’s attitude towards his country’s history of collaboration with the Nazis, which led to the deaths of about 550,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, was also questioned recently following remarks in which Orbán praised Hungary’s Nazi-era figure Miklós Horthy – who signed anti-Jewish laws – as an “exceptional statesman”.
The row over the visit has also been heightened by the apparently inconsistent line taken by Israeli officials over Orbán’s campaign against Soros, which initially saw Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, issue a statement condemning Orbán and his Fidesz party, asking them to remove the posters and arguing that they were fuelling antisemitism.
“This campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” said Amrani. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”
Following Amrani’s statement, however, Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a second statement to clarify that the ambassador’s comments were not meant to “invalidate criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organisations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself”.
That in turn prompted a series of articles in the Israeli media criticising Netanyahu’s apparent keenness to cosy up to Orbán, including an editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz that was headlined “Israel sides with anti-semites”.
“Two weeks ago Orbán praised the Holocaust-era Hungarian ruler Miklós Horthy, who collaborated with the Nazis and under whom half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to the death camps,” it said.
“Israel protested Orbán’s comments, but so as not to affect Netanyahu’s planned meeting with him next week, made do with the weak clarification offered by the Hungarian foreign minister.”
Haaretz was not alone, with other newspapers publishing pieces in a similar vein.
At the centre of the controversy has been the mutual loathing Orbán and Netanyahu share for Soros, who has funded NGOs in Hungary and Israel, both of which countries have introduced legislation targeting foreign-funded organisations that work in the human rights and pro-democracy fields.
Responding to Orbán’s poster campaign against him, Soros said: “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of antisemitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign. Equally, I am heartened that together with countless fellow citizens the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community has spoken out against the campaign.”
Soros’s spokesman, Michael Vachon, went even further, describing Orbán’s nationwide billboard and television advertising campaign as “reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hours”.
He said: “The campaign uses an image of a grinning George Soros with the slogan: ‘Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!’ Thousands of these posters have been plastered around the country: on billboards, on the metro, on the floors of Budapest’s trams so that people cannot enter the tram without trampling on Soros’s face.
“Understanding the government’s intent, some of the posters have been defaced with hateful graffiti such as ‘stinking Jew’ scrawled across Soros’s face. The government has spent more that $20m (£15m) on the campaign so far.
“Because of its clearly antisemitic overtones, the campaign has created an outcry amongst Hungary’s Jews and others. The leader of the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities has called for an immediate removal of the poster, as has Israel’s ambassador in Budapest.”