Hungarian Legislator’s Apparent Anti-Jewish Remarks Spark Official Outcry

 

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Koves of Budapest, second from left, discusses Jewish affairs with then-opposition leader Viktor Orban of Hungary at a 2008 event attended by Israel Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, center.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Koves of Budapest, second from left, discusses Jewish affairs with then-opposition leader Viktor Orban of Hungary at a 2008 event attended by Israel Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, center.

A right wing Hungarian legislator’s comments apparently in support of a 130-year-old anti-Semitic blood libel has earned the rebuke of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and calls for an official investigation on charges of incitement.

During an April 3 session of parliament, Jobbik Party MP Zsolt Barath invoked the anniversary of the 1882 Tiszaeszlar case – in which 15 Jews of the Hungarian town were accused of killing a Christian girl – and claimed that its defendants were acquitted only after the court succumbed to external pressures. That sparked a public demand from the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation and its director, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Koves, that political parties throughout the country back a parliamentary ethics investigation and condemn Barath’s comments.

Jobbik, which describes itself as a movement as opposed to a political party, controls the third-largest bloc in the Hungarian Parliament.

“All democratic forces and society as a whole should clearly state that they do not tolerate [such] remarks,” Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor told the MTI Hungarian News Agency soon after the incident. “Jobbik is a party that stands against Israel, Jews, the Roma, Europe and democracy, and it is regrettable that such forces operate in a democratic country such as Hungary.”

Socialist MP Pal Steiner and the prime minister added their voices to the growing calls for an investigation.

On April 12, Orban summoned Koves to his office in order to reiterate his commitment to protect and guarantee the well-being of the Jewish community. The rabbi requested that the prime minister “clarify, on behalf of himself, his party and his government, the boundaries of a civilized public dialogue that must not be crossed under any circumstances.”

Koves, who two years ago took up the pulpit of an historic synagogue that the government rededicated in the Obuda section of Budapest, noted that such “egregious” words as Barath’s had not been heard in the Hungarian Parliament for 70 years. He emphasized the importance of Orban’s clear stance on the issue and called for all democratic parties to towards a consensus on the matter.

Before the meeting, Koves’ organization filed a criminal complaint against Barath for incitement against a minority; the central prosecutor’s office launched its own formal investigation into the matter.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who once said that he would never return to Hungary, addressed its parliament in 2009 as Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Koves of Budapest, right, listened to the proceedings.

For his part, Orban again strongly condemned Barath’s statement as extreme, and stressed the government’s support of all minorities. The prime minister also welcomed the fact that Judaism and Jewish public life in Hungary is diverse, and wished the Jewish community a happy Passover.

All of the meeting’s participants, which included Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, voiced their view that the fight against anti-Semitism should be an apolitical affair.

Koves told the Associated Press that anti-Semitism appears to be rising in Hungary. He called Barath’s statements just “the tip of an iceberg.”

“Unfortunately, a series of recent racist and xenophobic remarks on the House floor has not previously met any consequence,” he said. “It is our daily experience that increasingly coarse, racist and anti-Semitic speech is becoming permissible in Hungarian public discourse and in the Hungarian Parliament.

“In our judgment, the gravity of the situation is unprecedented in the past two decades of Hungarian democracy,” continued the rabbi. “Although the safety and wellbeing of Hungarian Jews in their daily life is not physically in danger – or no worse than in any other European country – anti-Semitic public speech has escalated to a point which cannot be ignored by a single decent person.”