Michael Ignatieff’s latest crusade may be a hopeless cause, but it may also end up being his finest hour.
For the past three years, since he became president of the Central European University in Budapest, the Canadian-born academic, journalist and erstwhile politician has been fighting to keep the school’s doors open.
Opposing him is the regime of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was himself educated at CEU but is now determined to eliminate the threat that he apparently believes this model of Western-style liberal education poses to his “illiberal democracy.”
It’s easy to admire Ignatieff — much of whose career has been focused on issues of human rights — both for his readiness to take risks for a worthwhile goal, and his willingness to examine his missteps when things don’t work out and then share his conclusions with the world.
A dozen years ago, for example, when he came to the conclusion that the U.S-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 — to which he had provided outspoken support — was a mistake, he wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine owning up to his error. And in the case of his abortive foray into Canadian national politics during the years 2006 to 2011, which resulted in his leading the Liberal Party to its worst ever defeat, he wrote an entire book about the experience (the 2013 memoir “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics”).
Ignatieff was in Israel last week to receive the Dan David Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Humanity for his and CEU’s efforts to “defend democracy” (a prize shared with the organization Reporters Without Borders, which advocates on behalf of both journalists and press freedom).
In a conversation with Haaretz, he acknowledges that the battle to keep CEU in Budapest is probably lost, and that the university will be moving its degree program to Vienna this September. Although the Orbán regime has not yet withdrawn the school’s accreditation, “they say they have the power to pull our license at any moment,” Ignatieff explains. Even a risk-taker like he would be foolish to open the academic year under such a threat.
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In retrospect, Ignatieff should not have been especially surprised when the university came under attack. After all, the school was established in 1991 by George Soros, the 88-year-old Hungarian-born businessman and philanthropist, a Holocaust survivor whom Orbán has attempted, with great success, to brand as an enemy of the state who, among other things, wants to flood Hungary with alien migrants.
A bill passed in 2018 criminalizing the giving of assistance to any nonlegal migrants in Hungary — Hungary has taken in almost none legally — was dubbed the “Stop Soros Law” by the government. And in the lead-up to the national parliamentary election a year ago, commuters in Budapest entering tram carriages found plastered to the floor an image of Soros’ face, which they were encouraged to trample over.
Ignatieff, 72, was invited to become the president and rector of CEU by Soros three years ago and was happy to move to Budapest, to which he had been a frequent visitor since his marriage to Zsuzsanna Zsohar two decades ago. (Zsohar was born in Hungary, although she and Ignatieff met in London when she worked as a publicist on several of his books.)
He, understandably, sees his benefactor differently. To him, Soros is the “Hungarian who has probably invested more time and effort in working to help Hungary make a democratic transition than any other living soul.”
CEU, which is accredited in both the United States and Hungary, may well have been the centerpiece of Soros’ efforts there — a place where graduate students from around the world could come to study the humanities and social sciences in English.
In 2016, the university placed higher than any other Hungarian school in the Times Higher Education University Rankings. So perhaps it was inevitable that Orbán, in his steady march toward shutting down the “open society” in his country, would set his sights on CEU.
The Hungarian leader’s campaign against the billionaire businessman has another insidious element to it. Orbán has described Soros and his “empire” as “an opponent who is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view. They do not fight directly, but by stealth. They are not honorable, but unprincipled. They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.” If that sounds like a time-honored description of the “international Jew,” it is no coincidence.
Ignatieff isn’t especially interested in whether Orbán, who himself once studied at CEU and used to defend Soros against the same kind of attacks he now perpetrates against him, is personally anti-Semitic.
“The question is political. Why do you use this kind of language in European politics? In my view, it’s a tactic of total domination. He doesn’t simply want to win elections: He wants to utterly dominate the political scene in Hungary and create a single-party state that is enduring and long-term.”
Within weeks of Ignatieff’s arrival in Budapest, he was informed that the government was about to adopt new regulations for the country’s institutions of higher learning that would threaten the continued independence, if not very existence, of CEU. Like his fellow demagogue in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu, Viktor Orbán is proficient in introducing laws that are general in their language but, like a newfangled biological cancer drug, are designed to zero in on a specific target.
In this case, CEU is the only school affected by the new regulations, which include the demand that it have a campus in the United States. And even as the school has scrambled to comply with the new requirements — for example, by setting up a program at Bard College in New York — Orbán keeps moving the goalposts. (He has pointedly refused to sign any kind of agreement with the university that would allow it to plan to operate without interference for another year in the Hungarian capital.)
Hence the decision to move its center of operations to Vienna, for which nearly 200 million euros (about $225 million) has reportedly been budgeted, most of it coming from Soros.
Ignatieff says he has been devoting most of his time to the crisis, and has been gratified by the outpouring of support for CEU from the Hungarian public: In 2017, 80,000 people attended a demonstration to protest the government’s moves against the school. Ignatieff, however, placed his real hopes on quiet diplomacy, based on American support. And indeed, initially President Donald Trump signaled his support for the school.
Similarly, Ignatieff says, Trump’s appointment to the ambassadorship, David Cornstein, initially “pledged that he was going to keep CEU in Budapest.” However, the former jeweler “sold us out at the first opportunity” and has become an Orbán apologist, says Ignatieff. The Hungarian premier was also welcomed to the White House earlier this month — his first visit there since 1998, when he still was a democratic centrist.
Nevertheless, Ignatieff feels the battle had to be fought and has not been in vain. “What have we achieved?” he asks rhetorically. “We’ve raised the price for him. It has increased the isolation of the regime.” Still, he concludes, “At the end of the day, we are a little university and they have the power of the state. You can’t win that battle.”
Ignatieff was to the manor born, and inherited a sense of noblesse oblige from both his paternal and maternal lines. Several generations of his father’s family served the Russian czar: These included his paternal great-grandfather, Count Nikolay Ignatyev, who is said to have written the anti-Jewish May Laws when he was Alexander III’s interior minister.
After fleeing revolutionary Russia, Michael’s father, George Ignatieff, had a distinguished career as a Canadian diplomat, which allowed his son to grow up in a number of foreign capitals. Both the Ignatieffs and the Grants — his mother’s family, who hailed from Canada and also boasted a number of public servants as well as educators — were the subjects of separate memoirs by Michael.
After studies in Canada and the United Kingdom, Ignatieff earned a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1976. Thereafter, he taught and worked as a journalist, notably for the BBC. In 1998, he published “Isaiah Berlin: A Life,” based on a decade’s worth of interviews with the Oxonian philosopher-historian.
Not only does the biography capture the essence of the Russian-born, Jewish Berlin — his wit, his self-deprecation, the great affection British society held for him — it also explicated his unusual intellectual evolution and his importance as a political thinker. Understanding Isaiah Berlin is an essential part of understanding Michael Ignatieff.
Sitting with Ignatieff in a lounge atop the Tel Aviv Hilton, with a panoramic view of the city and the Mediterranean stretching out before us, I ask for his bird’s-eye perspective on the populist, antidemocratic wave that has gripped so much of the world, sparing neither Hungary or Israel, in recent years.
He points to three years — 2001, 2008 and 2015 — each of which, he says, left ordinary people worldwide asking their leaders: Why didn’t you protect us? Why didn’t you protect us from mass-casualty terrorism? Why didn’t you protect us from the financial crisis? And why aren’t you protecting us from mass migration?
This disillusionment with politicians served, Ignatieff says, “to empower those who were saying, ‘We need strong rulers, and we need a majoritarian democracy that gets rid of all these troublesome counter-majoritarian folks like journalists, academics, experts, regulators.”
This led to what Ignatieff calls a “populist, conservative counterrevolution,” through which antidemocratic figures rose to power via the ballot box.
There’s no argument that Orbán was reelected democratically in 2018, says Ignatieff. “The issue is whether Viktor Orbán will allow himself to lose. That’s where democracy could be in danger in Hungary.”
Inevitably, he believes, the Hungarian people “will get tired of the thieving, they’ll get tired of the state of the health service, they’ll get tired of the education system. And they’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you spend money on the things that matter to us instead of stealing?’ There are some stubborn facts about social life that can’t be mediated or obscured forever,” he says, even when, as in the case of Hungary, the regime controls most of the media.
“Eventually,” Ignatieff adds, “if democracy continues to work at all in these societies, people will say, ‘I’m fed up. I’ve had enough.”
That last “if,” of course, is a significant one.
Ignatieff fears Orbán has created a political system in Hungary “that could be a model for the 21st century.” He stresses that it is wrong to call it fascism: “It’s not. There are no political prisoners,” for example, he notes. “If you go to a demonstration, they don’t take out the nightsticks. [Orbán] has managed to avoid overt oppression because he has total control of the media.”
Instead, what Hungary now boasts is “a consolidated single-party state, which uses a kind of plebiscitary democracy as its tool of legitimation, has total political control of the economy to reproduce its middle class, and then uses the media for a 24/7 control of public opinion.”
Finally, says Ignatieff, a populist, majoritarian democracy like Orbán’s — by which he means one that respects only majority rule, with no guarantees for the rights of minorities — needs enemies to fuel it. “Somebody must be to blame. And those to blame are traitors, those to blame are the enemy, the enemy within.”
What populist regimes around the world disregard, he believes, is that “in the democratic house there are no enemies, there are only adversaries. If you lose that, you’re into really bad stuff."
I ask Ignatieff how he imagines Isaiah Berlin responding to the current global political malaise. Like his biographer’s forebears, Berlin himself left czarist Russia for England at the time of the revolution and witnessed both the depredations of Soviet totalitarianism and the effects of Nazi Germany (both his maternal and paternal grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust). Berlin believed in democracy, but was neither romantic nor deterministic about it.
I expected Ignatieff to respond that Berlin, as a historian and witness to history, would have warned against the parallels he saw between 1930s Europe and our current era. In fact, he suggests that “Isaiah would have understood that this was something new under the sun, that it isn’t a return to the ’30s, that this is 21st-century stuff.
“I think what he would be very interested in is what I would call the ‘epistemological crisis’ of humanity. By which I mean, the fact that in your profession, and in mine, when someone doesn’t like a Haaretz story they say it’s fake news. When they don’t like an academic report that contradicts what the majority opinion is, people say, ‘We’re tired of experts.’
“The premise of democracy is that facts are stubborn. You always argue about facts in a democracy: You have your facts and I have mine. But at the end of the day, we have democratic discussions based on some minimal acceptance of what the facts are, and then we make decisions together. We may not like the decisions much if they go against what we want, but we sign up for them because, if we didn’t win the argument this time, we’ll win next time.
“I’m channeling Isaiah. He was not romantic about democracy, because he lived through its collapse. But he was a democrat. And he thought that eventually, when the experience of enough people contradicts the lies, the lies collapse.”
The first meeting
I first met Michael Ignatieff in 2001. I was on a journalism fellowship at Harvard University and, after hearing many recommendations, signed up to sit in on his International Politics and Human Rights course at the Kennedy School of Government.
On the morning of our first class, I entered the Kennedy School to find its central atrium filled with people staring at two giant screens broadcasting the destruction of the World Trade Center. I joined those who, in real time, stood in gaping silence and watched as, one after the other, the two towers collapsed as if made of sand.
A few minutes later, at 10 A.M., I wandered into an adjacent lecture hall where Prof. Ignatieff, clearly as shocked as the rest of us, announced that we would postpone our first class till later in the week. In the meantime, he suggested we all stand for a minute of silent tribute to the victims of a disastrous attack that, for all we knew, could still be unfolding.
Over the course of the next three months, in ISP-224, we learned the language of the human rights movement and parsed over the major issues it was then occupied with: Freedom of speech versus freedom from incitement; women’s rights in traditional cultures; the argument for torture at a time of national emergency; the legitimacy of outside interference in a state’s internal affairs (the catastrophic failure of the United States and the United Nations to act decisively in Rwanda seven years earlier was much on people’s minds that year); the persistence of slavery, and more.
Some of the questions we examined were no-brainers; others were more complex and did not lend themselves to straightforward answers. Not all human rights, I learned that fall, were compatible with each other and politics was the art of the possible, not the ideal. Indeed, that may be one of the threads that runs through all of Ignatieff’s writing: That in the real world, even when all choices are bad, that doesn’t relieve us from the obligation to act.
In a brief address he made while receiving the Dan David Prize on Sunday (when he also accepted the honor on behalf of Reporters Without Borders), Ignatieff drew a parallel between universities and the free press. Both, he said, are “counter-majoritarian institutions,” which is to say their mission is “defending the rights of those who disagree with us, even when we can’t stand what they have to say. Standing up for our own beliefs when no one is standing with us. Supporting the unpopular causes of others, precisely because they are unpopular.”
Considering the vicissitudes of the media industry in recent years, I felt the need to ask Ignatieff if he would encourage young people to consider journalism as a career today. There was no hesitation in his response.
“There’s nothing more important than being a narrator of our world. People are so confused and uncertain about where the world is going. It needs narratives, storytellers,” he says.
“I’m angry about pessimism — easy facile pessimism. So, tell bright young Israelis to go into journalism. You’re not going to make a fortune, [but] interesting is sometimes more important than getting rich.”