Opinion |

Orban Proudly Protects Hungary’s National Identity and Culture. That's Not Xenophobia

Hungary’s State Secretary for International Communication: A recent Haaretz op-ed condemning Hungarians as xenophobes and anti-Semites, and Orban as a ‘nationalist hatemonger,’ excelled in condescension, inaccuracy and prejudice. Here’s why Hungarians really love their prime minister

Zoltán Kovács
Zoltán Kovács
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'We won’t apologize for doing everything we can to preserve and strengthen our culture and traditions, and I suspect that is why so many Hungarians love Viktor Orban'
'We won’t apologize for doing everything we can to preserve and strengthen our culture and traditions, and I suspect that is why so many Hungarians love Viktor Orban'Credit: Bloomberg
Zoltán Kovács
Zoltán Kovács

Trapped in our linguistic and cultural bubble, we Hungarians live cut off from the real, enlightened world, and that’s why we’re so xenophobic and antisemitic, and why we love our prime minister, who is, by the way, a "nationalist hatemonger."

That’s what I learned reading Yehuda Lukacs’s opinion, "Why Hungary Loves Soros-baiting, Nationalist Hatemonger Orban So Much." 

Mr. Lukacs informs us that Hungary is "one of the most inward-looking societies in Europe," creating an environment that breeds intolerance, and the main reason for all of this is our peculiar language. That, he writes, and a history of conquests by the Ottomans, Austrians and Soviets "have all left their deep scars on the Hungarian psyche and society."

Over the last ten years, Hungary has seen its share of negative, international press coverage and commentary. It’s astonishing and downright odd at times how our central European country of ten million people garners so much international attention. Our hard-won democratic freedoms have been pronounced dead so many times, I’ve lost count.

But Mr. Lukacs’s opinion stands in a different league. Rarely have I encountered an editorial so condescending and exhibiting such prejudice, condemning an entire nation as xenophobes and antisemites.

It’s not simply that a certain percentage of Hungarians harbor negative feelings for other groups – Jews, Muslims, Roma – but, according to this writer, Hungarians are hard-wired for it because our language isolates us in our self-absorbed bubble with our deeply scarred psyche. And Prime Minister Orbán, of course, makes matters worse.

It’s an outlandish argument on the whole and could be dismissed, but a few of his specific claims cannot go unanswered.

The Orbán governments have done more than any other Hungarian government to address antisemitism and support our Jewish community.

We established, in 2001, the Memorial Day for the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust and the Holocaust Museum. During the second Orbán Government, in 2012, the Fundamental Law entered into force, recognizing Hungarian Jewry as an integral part of the Hungarian nation. Also, during that period, the parliament passed cardinal laws that increased the punishment for hate speech and displaying hate symbols.

The Orbán government established a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism and effectively banned paramilitary groups intimidating Jewish and Roma citizens. Viktor Orbán was the first prime minister to apologize for the sin that Hungary committed in failing to protect Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

The Orbán government reached an agreement with the Claims Conference and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, and Hungary began to pay what’s due. It was also the Orbán government that devoted resources to the reconstruction of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and built the first new synagogue in 80 years. It was our government that raised the pensions of Holocaust survivors. Jews living in Budapest have talked of a "Jewish renaissance" now under way. 

A Star of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest, Hungary, October 15, 2018
A Star of David is seen at the new Holocaust museum called the House of Fates in Budapest, Hungary, October 15, 2018Credit: BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS

The Orbán government has provoked anti-Muslim sentiment by a massive anti-migrant campaign, claims Lukacs, citing a poll from 2016 just months after the peak of the migrant crisis. In 2015, nearly half a million migrants crossed illegally into Hungary, the vast majority of them from predominantly Muslim countries.

Prime Minister Orbán called it an invasion, and that’s what it felt like. If anti-Muslim sentiment exists, one cannot ignore the impact that the migrant crisis has had, especially, let us not forget, considering the "deep scars" on our psyche and society.

Poor Hungarians are at the mercy of pro-government media, the author claims, unable "to verify its accuracy or to access alternative information disseminated in other languages." Hungary’s press is a lively one, and government-critical media enjoy greater audience share, including the largest television news outlet, the largest weekly, and the largest online news website. The notion that these xenophobic Hungarians dwell in information darkness just doesn’t square with reality.

Hungary is not "experiencing a serious negative migration” among “mostly young people." While many central and eastern European countries saw brain drain in the years following the financial crisis, when many went west in search of jobs and better wages, that has now reversed in Hungary.

In 2018, only 18,150 Hungarians left the country, while nearly 20,000 returned. That’s because, the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, there were more jobs and increasing wages here at home. Having spent time outside the Hungarian bubble, hopefully they are returning less xenophobic, but who knows?

Strangely, Lukacs also finds fault with the Orbán government offering citizenship to Hungarians living outside of Hungary, knocking it as some kind of cheap election ploy. Hungary offers citizenship to ethnic Hungarians regardless of where they live because they are members of the nation. That includes tens of thousands of Israelis who have taken Hungarian citizenship.

I’ll grant that the Hungarian language is indeed peculiar, beautifully so, and add that it’s attached to a thousand years of Hungarian history in central Europe. It has helped us preserve our culture and national identity and that’s something that the Orbán governments have made a priority – from supporting Hungarian Jewish culture to giving more assistance to Hungarian families.

There’s a difference between xenophobia and taking pride in one’s own culture and traditions. We won’t apologize for doing everything we can to preserve and strengthen ours, and I suspect that is why so many Hungarians love our prime minister. 

Zoltán Kovács is Hungary’s State Secretary for International Communication. Twitter: @zoltanspox

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