Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday that his predecessors had made a “mistake” when they failed to protect Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed towards the end of the war, a fact Orban recalled in a press conference with Netanyahu. It was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister since 1989, when Hungary was still under communist rule.
“At an earlier time, the government of Hungary made a mistake, moreover, committed a sin when it did not protect its citizens of Jewish heritage,” Orban said through a translator. “Every Hungarian government has the duty to protect all of its citizens, regardless of their heritage.
“During World War II, Hungary did not comply with this moral and political requirement. This is a sin because at the time we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis. I made it clear to the prime minister that this can never happen again. In the future, the Hungarian government will protect all its citizens.”
In his remarks, Netanyahu recalled his meeting earlier this week with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said: ““We will never surrender to the messages of hate; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
Netanyahu told Orban that this new anti-Semitism “is delegitimizing the one and only Jewish state. In many ways, Hungary is at the forefront of the states that are opposed to this anti-Jewish policy and I welcome it and I express the appreciation of my government and the people, many people in Israel for this.”
As he has in the past, Orban spoke also of his government’s “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism, a claim that many in the Jewish community questioned last week after Orban’s ruling party mounted a reported $21 million billboard campaign that targeted Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire George Soros for his support of migrants – something Orban opposes.
“Hungary does not want a mixed population,” Orban explained, adding that his country “does not want to change its current ethnic composition, it does not want to defer to any external, artificial influence.”
The billboard campaign was ended last week after Jewish leaders and the Israeli ambassador to Hungary called for its termination in advance of Netanyahu’s visit. In a statement, Ambassador Yossi Amrani called upon “the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle. … The campaign not only evokes sad memories, but also sows hatred and fear.”
The billboards showed Soros laughing, alongside the words: “Let’s not leave Soros the last laugh.” Soon after the billboards appeared two weeks ago, many were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
The day after Amrani’s comment, the Israeli Foreign Ministry released a “clarifying” statement saying that although the Israeli government “deplores any expression of anti-Semitism … in no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by finding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny its right to defend itself.”
Soros told The Jewish Week in a statement that he is “distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic 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.”
Orban also came under criticism from Jewish leaders for his praise late last month of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s anti-Semitic post-World War I leader who signed anti-Jewish laws in 1920, 1938 and 1939. Orban called Horthy an “exceptional statesman.”
Yair Lapid, chairman of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, wrote in a blog that Horthy “made anti-Semitism a central tenet of his regime,” under which “tens of thousands of Jews were sent to forced labor camps, then deportations began to the death camps. Among the victims were many members of my family, all of them loyal Hungarian citizens whose only crime was being Jewish.”
“If Viktor Orban doesn’t personally and fully apologize, Prime Minister Netanyahu should cancel his visit to Hungary,” Lapid wrote.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, pointed out that at some point “you cross the line in looking to promote a proud heritage and encouraging and promoting the kind of forces that brought so much misery and worse to the Jews in that country.”
He told The Jewish Week that he is mindful of “the trend in Hungary with this government … to rewrite and sometimes to whitewash that era.”
Another man who lost 186 members of his family when they were transported to Nazi death camps aboard the Hungarian State Railroad (also known as the MAV), Gabor Eichler, told The Jewish Week that he too would like to see Netanyahu cancel the trip unless there is an apology.
“I would call on him not to go, but I know he will go because he needs Hungary’s support at the United Nations and other international forums,” Eichler, a Miami businessman, said from his Manhattan office.
He said he also fears that Netanyahu’s trip will overshadow the civil suit he filed in Chicago federal court along with 167 Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their families against the MAV. Although the case was dismissed in 2013 to allow Hungarian courts to hear it, it was resubmitted June 21 after a Hungarian court dismissed it citing the statute of limitations.
In court papers, their attorneys, Robert Pavich of Chicago and Richard Weisberg of Cardozo Law School, pointed out that their attempts to press their case in Hungary has been “frustrated unreasonably or arbitrarily” despite assurances to the federal court that Hungary had extended the statute of limitations for Holocaust-related claims.
The attorney for MAV, Konrad Cailteux, argued in court papers that the federal case should not be reopened because the court in 2013 had said only that it might be “refiled” if the case was not resolved by Hungarian courts. He said also that there is no evidence the plaintiffs had exhausted their claims in Hungary, and that the request to reopen the case was made nine months after the Hungarian court ruled.
“The long delay undercuts the motion’s assertion that ‘time is of the essence,’” Cailteux wrote.
Pavich and Weisberg had noted that at least 24 of the plaintiffs have died since the case was first filed.
District Court Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan asked plaintiffs to submit their reply by July 25 before he issues his ruling.
Eichler said he is “hopeful” the judge will allow the case to be heard. It is believed to be the only Holocaust restitution case pending in the U.S. Plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars in compensation from the railroad for the property it took from them in violation of international law.
In 2015, the French government agreed to pay $60 million for putting Jews on government-owned trains and shipping them to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Holocaust survivors and their families had sued the railroad seeking compensation.
Eichler noted that when their suit was first filed, there were some in Hungary who claimed it was “another example of money-grabbing Jews trying to extract blood from honest Hungarians.”
“This is not about money, this is about justice,” he insisted. “Should there ever be a settlement that results in monetary compensation, I will give my share to fight anti-Semitism.”
Eichler noted that last week in the Hungarian town of Vecses “a new political party was launched that is violently neo-fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. It is planning to share space in the official opposition with the ultra-right Jobbik Party of Gabor Vona. They are using the same uniforms, slogans, flags and ideology the Hungarian Nazis used.”
The Foreign Ministry’s “clarifying” statement triggered a response from Zehava Gal-On, the leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, who complained that Netanyahu “ordered the Foreign Ministry to retract its condemnation of the campaign and to attack Soros. … Netanyahu’s support legitimizes this despicable campaign, and anti-Semites around the world will use it.”
She noted that as part of the campaign against Soros, billboards had been glued to the floors of trains so that passengers would step on Soros’ face.
Chemi Shalev, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was also critical of the Foreign Ministry’s clarification, writing that it said “in essence, that anti-Semitism is generally a bad thing but Soros is a legitimate target. Soros deserves it.”
Israeli officials insisted, however, that the clarification was issued to stress that Israel was not seeking to meddle in Hungary’s internal politics but rather to simply deplore the anti-Semitism the campaign triggered.