Analysis

The 'Laughing Jew': The Nazi Backstory of Hungary's anti-Soros Poster Campaign

PM Netanyahu endorsed a campaign whose intent was clear: Soros, the Jew, and Orban's hate-figure, is Hungary's Enemy Number One. Hitler would have been gratified

Employees of auction house 'Zisska and Lacher' show an antisemitic Nazi script in Munich, Germany, Monday, April 24, 2017.
Adolf Hitler often referred to the 'Laughing Jew' trope, the anti-Semitic backstory to Hungary's anti-Soros campaign: German People's Party poster on sale in a Munich auction. April 24, 2017. Matthias Schrader/AP

Adolf Hitler, November 8, 1942: 

"Today, countless [Jews] who laughed at that time, laugh no longer. Those who are still laughing now, also will perhaps laugh no longer soon... International Jewry will be recognized in all its demoniac peril." 

Hitler repeated this 'prophecy' many times from January 1939 onwards: that the 'laughing Jew' would be exterminated. By November 1942, the Holocaust was already no laughing matter. Nearly four million Jews had already been murdered.

Every literate person acquainted with the history of the Shoah is familiar with Hitler's repeated outbursts concerning the "laughing Jew." All the more, we should assume, must an Israeli, educated to remember the Shoah, be sensitive and alert when it comes to the anti-Semitic archetype of the laughing Jew.

With that historical context  and moral commitment in mind, Israel's Ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani, in coordination with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, reacted immediately to the posters blanketing the country in a campaign instigated by the ruling  Fidesz party, calling on the Hungarian people not to let George Soros "be the one who laughs last". Amrani stated: "The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear."

The intent behind the posters is clear: Soros, the Jew, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban's hate-figure, is Hungary's Enemy Number One. The allusion to Hitler's speech, conscious or not, is unambiguous and Amrani's protest against the men behind this poster was only natural. The Jewish community of Hungary is appalled and the ambassador of the country that claims to be the representative of the Jewish people reacted accordingly. 

How do we therefore explain the response of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, usually extremely sensitive to supposedly anti-Semitic expressions, who openly criticized his ambassador's justified protest?

He did it by "reinterpreting" Amrani's statement: First of all: Amrani's intent was not to delegitimize those who criticize Soros, i.e. Orban and the Fidesz party. Moreover: Soros is a person "who continuously undermines Israel's democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state", and for that, he deserves this reprimand.

The anti-Soros posters blanketing Budapest metro stations. The government-led ad campaign included billboards, posters and TV ads
Pablo Gorondi/AP

Here we are: The Israeli government exculpates the Hungarian government, and turns the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, Soros, into the perpetrator, the common enemy.

In pursuing its national interest, Israel has struck a balance between realpolitik and moral politics, that is to say, a value-based policy. Not always an easy task, but an essential one, especially for the state that has taken upon itself to speak and fight for the Jewish people when it comes to combating anti-Semitism.

And so in the case of Hungary, while preserving Israeli national interests, there is absolutely no need to embrace politicians (and parties) who are nationalists, racists or anti-Semites, who disguise themselves as supporters of Israel, just because both parties fight against a "common enemy" – the Left (in this case, Soros). This explains the absurd alliance between Orban's Hungary and Netanyahu's Israel and the slap in the face of Hungarian Jewry, or better – in face of diaspora Jews wherever they live.

Only a year ago Netanyahu went so far as to put the blame on the Mufti of Jerusalem for generating the Final Solution. The same Netanyahu  is not going to cancel  his upcoming visit to "friendly" Hungary in spite of the fact that Prime Minister Orban recently praised another of  Hitler's collaborators, Admiral Miklos Horthy, who made a far more decisive contribution to Hitler's Final Solution than the Mufti.

Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against George Soros, in Budapest, Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Pablo Gorondi/AP

When the Hungarian government, under pressure, announced Wednesday that it would remove the posters from the public sphere, it did not apologize for their anti-Semitic character, but declared that their aim had already been achieved.  

Israel, usually quick at suggesting anti-Semitic motives from people who dare criticize its policies, be it the foreign ministers of Sweden or Germany, or even Israeli human rights NGOs, seems to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism stemming from dubious "friends".

Fighting anti-Semitism is a fundamental plank of Israeli politics, but anti-Semitism should not be confused with legitimate criticism against Israeli policies; the fears of diaspora Jewry must be taken seriously; and last but not least, any Israeli  legitimization for populist right-wing parties in Europe, not least when they undermine the historical record of the Holocaust and the fight against contemporary anti-Semitism, must be avoided at all price.

Shimon Stein served as Israel's Ambassador to Germany 2000-7 and is research fellow at the INSS, Tel Aviv University

Moshe Zimmermann is a historian and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem