Moment Debate | In Embracing Hungary’s Orbán, Are American Conservatives Romancing an Antisemite?

DEBATERS

Ira Forman was the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism from 2013 to 2017. 

Jonathan Tobin is editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate.

INTERVIEW WITH IRA FORMAN

In Embracing Hungary’s Orbán, Are American Conservatives Romancing an Antisemite? | Yes 

In embracing Hungary’s Orbán, are American conservatives romancing an antisemite?

Yes. Quite a few conservatives support Orbán. He’s not stupid; he plays to that audience. He spends a lot of money on lobbying, here and in Europe. And I think many of the folks who defend him have a limited understanding of him and buy into the talking points of the Hungarian government. Not all conservatives have drunk the Kool-Aid: Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review wrote that a speech Orbán gave in 2018 about George Soros “reads like a checklist drawn from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

You don’t have to hate Jews to be an antisemite. If you are doing things that harm Jewish communities or undermine their support, that’s antisemitic, and there Orbán fits the bill.

To be clear, the Orbán government in Budapest is not a classically antisemitic regime. It supports Israel, and it says it has zero tolerance for antisemitism, which is a lovely thing to say, and once in a while it acts on it. But often it does not, or does the opposite. If you have zero tolerance for antisemitism, you don’t tolerate it when someone in the parliament puts up a bust of Miklós Horthy, the regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, a self-professed antisemite under whose rule 400,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Another example: When the leader of the most significant Jewish community organization was accused of corruption by a magazine that’s close to the government, with a classically antisemitic cover illustration of him with money floating down around him, many Jewish leaders asked Orbán to denounce it, including Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. Orbán refused. Cynically, he said it would interfere with freedom of the press—which he otherwise ignores.

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He plays one faction of the Jewish community against another; that’s classic authoritarian stuff. He shovels extra money and other assets to his favored Jewish organizations, like the empty Holocaust museum he built but can’t open because everyone in the Jewish museum world says it distorts the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. His favored historian, Maria Schmidt, is a Holocaust distortionist. Elie Wiesel gave back one of the highest civilian awards Hungary gives out, in 2012, when the government honored some rabidly antisemitic figures, including the 1940s writer Joszef Nyiro.

If you are harming Jewish communities or undermining their support, that’s antisemitic, and Orbán fits the bill.

Then there’s the way he uses George Soros as a villain. If you want to criticize Soros for ideology, fine. The conservative pollster Norman Finkelstein was reported to have told Orbán that Soros was the perfect political target. But when you tie Soros to Nazi-related memes, like showing him as a puppetmaster, or label posters of a grinning Soros in ways that call to mind the “laughing Jew,” a favorite Hitler caricature of the Jew who laughs now but won’t have the last laugh—you are playing a very dangerous game.

Antisemitism coming from government is particularly heinous. It’s bad enough when it’s a feature of civil society, but worse when the government does it, because governments have a monopoly on legitimate violence.

What attracts conservatives about Orbán?

Orbán is slick—more so than other authoritarians or would-be authoritarians in Europe. His anti-immigration rhetoric is very popular with lots of conservatives. The Poles sometimes use the word “Jew” when they make criticisms; Orbán never does, though he doesn’t denounce associates who do. He poses as this great defender of Western civilization. He’s anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, uses demagoguery to fan fears of a disappearing white Christian continent—and he annoys liberals. He came to the United States and endorsed Donald Trump—what other foreign leaders endorse in American political campaigns?

How would Jews and other minorities fare if conservatives here could put the Orbán “illiberal democracy” model into practice?

Jews, and minorities generally, fare worse in authoritarian countries long-term than in democratic countries, even supposedly soft authoritarian countries like Hungary, if there are no strong institutions like courts or constitutions to constrain antisemitism. The classic example is Jews under Putin, who have had their best times in almost all of Russian history. But now that the regime is under pressure because of Ukraine, you’re seeing a surge of antisemitism.

Does the war in Ukraine make Orbán a less viable role model?

Some people thought that his closeness to Russia and Putin would hurt Orbán in the last election. But he made it a populist issue by saying that it was outsiders who wanted Hungary to go to war. It didn’t hurt him; it probably helped him.

INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN TOBIN 

In Embracing Hungary’s Orbán, Are American Conservatives Romancing an Antisemite? | No 

In embracing Hungary’s Orbán, are American conservatives romancing an antisemite?

No. Orbán is a Burkean conservative; he believes the state should be based on preserving traditions about identity and religion. These are debatable ideas, but I don’t think they’re fascist, and they’re certainly not antisemitic. American conservatives have glommed onto him as a sort of conservative intellectual role model. You can argue about whether it makes sense to adopt a leader of a small ethnic state in Eastern Europe as the avatar of what Americans should be looking for in leaders. I think it’s foolish. There are things about Orbán that are interesting and admirable and others that aren’t relevant to American politics. But the idea that because he takes these stands he has to be an antisemite, that’s just another way of saying, “Anyone I don’t like is Hitler.” In a continent full of antisemites, Viktor Orbán isn’t the Jews’ problem.

Is he antisemitic? Judging by how the Jews of Hungary are treated, I don’t think you can reasonably argue that. By all accounts, it’s safer to be a Jew walking around in Budapest than in Paris or Berlin or Stockholm. Based on history, I can see why people view any European religious conservative with suspicion that he might be another Miklós Horthy. But Orbán’s not. He’s a 21st-century figure dealing with 21st-century problems, like how much power the European Union should have over its members, and coping with the impact of uncontrolled immigration from North Africa and the Middle East.

By all accounts, it’s safer to be a Jew walking around in Budapest than in Paris or Berlin or Stockholm.

Is it antisemitic of Orbán to attack George Soros? Soros is an inherently controversial character, and it’s possible to say antisemitic things about him or any Jew, particularly an international financier who shorted currencies and caused financial crises in Malaysia and Indonesia and broke the Bank of England. Inevitably, that brings up classic antisemitic stereotypes. But also, people have a reasonable beef with him. He’s a prolific giver to Democrats and to liberal causes around the world. In Hungary, some attacks on him have gone over the line, but it’s entirely legitimate to attack him for the stands he’s taken and the causes he supports.

What attracts conservatives about Orbán?

He’s an unapologetic conservative and nationalist. He doesn’t dilute it or say, “Yes, but.” He takes conservative stands on social issues, which sets American liberals’ hair on fire. Seven years after Trump came down the escalator, people still can’t figure out that that’s exactly what most of the right loves about him. The whole dynamic in the Republican Party is that the grassroots are sick of Republicans who want to get along with the other side, who want to be part of the Washington uniparty instead of putting a stick in the left’s eye the way Trump and Ron DeSantis do. Orbán’s a sort of foreign version of that. A lot of people who like him couldn’t even find Hungary on a map.

How would Jews and other minorities fare if conservatives here could put the “illiberal democracy” model into practice?

To suggest that illiberal democracy could threaten minority rights in an American setting is a
red herring—actually, it’s a blue herring. Nobody’s advocating that America become Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale. There isn’t significant support for a state religion among American conservatives. They’re too divided. One of the proposed declarations in the Edmund Burke Foundation’s recent “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles” was that where a Christian majority exists, “public life should be rooted in Christianity.” I didn’t sign it. I understand the impulse, especially at a time of cultural ferment, when a lot of bad things are being legitimized, but I could never support an establishment of religion. No one should revert to the status of a tolerated minority just so religious values can play a larger role in society. I’m not alone in that view; it went over like a lead balloon.

It’s a bit unfair to call Orbán an authoritarian. Hungarian democracy is imperfect, it has flaws we wouldn’t tolerate, but he’s not Putin. He’s gone further than we would go in manipulating the media, and he’s created some built-in advantages for himself, but American conservatives would be quick to say, how is that different from how Facebook and Twitter operate and how the Hunter Biden laptop story was handled?

Does the war in Ukraine make Orbán a less viable role model?

The war has put all European politicians in a very difficult position. Hungary, like Israel, is trying to stay out of it. But the CPAC/National Conservative crowd that likes Orbán isn’t interested in any of this. And there’s a real debate on the right about how far down the road you go with this war. Tucker Carlson, who was against it from the beginning, speaks for a lot of people.

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