BUDAPEST – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attempted to reassure the World Jewish Congress Sunday night that his government was determined to stamp out the rising anti-Semitism.
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“We Hungarians are not and shall not be inactive. I ask that you take this message to the Jewish people of the world,” Orban told over 500 attendants from 100 countries participating in the opening of the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress.
He said that while rising anti-Semitism on the European continent could be explained by “the economic crisis shaking Europe to the core and consuming hope” it does not excuse it, adding that “anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable.”
In Hungary’s defense, Orban noted that Jews in other European countries, particularly France, were under greater threat these days. “There are places where anti-Semitism claims the lives of schoolchildren and where there’s not even any consensus in these place on holding a minute of silence to honor the victims, and there are places where bomb attacks against synagogues claim lives,” he said. “Nothing of this nature has occurred in Hungary.”
“We know there’s no freedom without human dignity, and we won’t tolerate wounding of human dignity in our country,” he vowed. Adding that Hungary had recently adopted a series of measures to raise awareness of the Holocaust.
Orban was the keynote speaker at the opening event of the WJC Plenary Assembly, the top decision-making body, which meets every four years to elect its officers. He was greeted with muffled applause when stepping up to the podium.
The three-day conference is devoted to the rise of extreme right-wing parties and anti-Semitic incidents in several European countries, including Hungary, as well as the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
WJC President Ronald Lauder, who introduced the Hungarian prime minister, expressed deep concern about the rise of extremist forces in the country, and urged Orban to crack down more forcefully on perpetrating hate crimes.
“Hungarian Jews, Mr. Prime Minister, need you to take a firm and decisive lead,” said Lauder. “They need you to take on these dark forces. They need you to be proactive. They need your leadership in this fight. They need you to send the message to the entire population that intolerance will not be tolerated.”
Lauder expressed particular concern about the virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik Party, which captured 17 percent of the vote in the last election. “Through its anti-Semitism, its hostility to the Roma, and its paranoid rantings at the outside world, Jobbik is dragging the good name of Hungary through the mud,” he warned. Lauder noted that a small group of supporters of the extreme right-wing party had held a demonstration the previous day against the Jewish gathering. “Granted there were only a few people, but it was symbolic because they were told they should not protest,” he said.
Aside from the ascent of the Jobbik Party, Lauder noted in his address other recent signs of rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, among them calls by various parliamentarians to draw up “lists of Jews” who hold public office, an award – later rescinded – to a blatantly anti-Semitic television presenter, and the recent erection of statues honoring Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy.
Péter Feldmájer, the head of the Hungarian Jewish community, noted that although its 100,000 members are “again under threat by horrific ideologies and acts, which are the remnants of the Middle Ages and the Holocaust,” he remained optimistic.
“We are still convinced today that not only is the present of Hungarian Jews great, but so is their future despite the raving of the anti-Semite rabble,” he said in his opening remarks. The Jewish community of Hungary urged the WJC to hold its plenary assembly in the country’s capital as a sign of solidarity.
In a statement issued immediately after Orban's address, the WJC expressed disappointment. "We welcome that the Prime Minister made it clear that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable," an organization spokesman said. "However, the prime minister did not confront the true nature of the problem: the threat posed by the anti-Semites in general and by the extreme-right Jobbik party in particular. We regret that Mr. Orbán did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe."