Populism is on the rise in the West, and with it a rise in older forms of anti-Semitism—Holocaust revisionism, charges of Jewish conspiracies, dual-loyalty accusations. Leading this right-wing populist charge in Europe is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a skilled exploiter of subtle anti-Semitic messaging. Although President Donald Trump recently called the prime minister to congratulate him on his reelection, what’s needed is pressure on the Orbáns of Europe to counter this revived form of anti-Semitism.
To be sure, anti-Semitic messaging is not Orbán’s only sin. Since his Fidesz party came back to power in 2010, the government has eliminated opposition media, rigged the electoral system, stacked the judiciary, attacked independent civil society groups and practiced a form of crony corruption. In speeches, he has condemned liberal democracy and advanced what he refers to as “illiberal democracy”—Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey being prime examples.
Since the Holocaust, it’s been difficult for elected officials to use openly anti-Semitic rhetoric. Today’s European xenophobes focus more on scapegoating migrants. But Orbán and others have used subtle anti-Semitic appeals. One strategy is rewriting Holocaust history to downplay Hungarian responsibility. In 2014, for instance, to commemorate the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz, the government proposed a museum memorializing the Holocaust but appointed a director who is an anti-Semite. At the same time, the government tried to close the historically accurate, government-funded Pava Street Holocaust Museum in Budapest.
In 2016, Orbán’s government awarded its third-highest award for individuals, the “Hungarian Middle Cross,” to Zsolt Bayer, a founder of the Fidesz party. Bayer is known for vicious rhetorical attacks against Hungarian Jews and for comparing Roma to animals.
It’s not just living anti-Semites that are honored. Orbán’s regime has promoted early 20th-century literary anti-Semites, created a monument that minimizes Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and funded an attempt to erect a statue dedicated to one of the leading proponents of the deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
In the run-up to the May 2018 parliamentary election, the Fidesz government used anti-Semitic dog-whistles to appeal to the xenophobic portion of the electorate in a campaign whose central issue was the call to bar Muslim and African refugees from Hungary. The bogeyman in this campaign was Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society programs have supported civil and political rights for migrants and refugees.
Last year, the government launched a billboard campaign demonizing Soros and urging resistance to a mythical “Soros plan”: One image featured Soros as a puppeteer who manipulates the opposition, the other a picture of a smiling Soros that was captioned, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh.” Both puppeteers and so-called laughing Jews are themes that Nazis used to great effect. That many of these billboards were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti indicated that the target audience understood the message.
In a campaign speech this spring, Orbán demonized his opponents by employing a collection of classic Nazi/anti-Semitic code phrases: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us…not straightforward but crafty…they are not national but international…they do not believe in work but speculate in money…they have no homeland, but feel the whole world is theirs.” Just weeks ago, Orbán declared that Soros himself was responsible for growing anti-Semitism, apparently on the logic that if Soros stopped supporting refugee resettlement in Europe, his government and others would stop anti-Semitic dog-whistles.
To be fair, on numerous occasions the prime minister has said that his government has a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism. He has also admitted Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust on some occasions while seeming to deny it at other times. His government funds a number of Jewish institutions, and there is little violence against Jews in Hungary. Still, polls show a troubling rise of anti-Semitic attitudes since 2010, and there is evidence that Hungarian Jews are considering emigration.
Hungarian diplomats argue that criticism of the regime is counterproductive. Yet past coalitions of Jewish organizations, human rights NGOs and western governments have caused the Hungarians to back down from appeals to xenophobes and Jew-haters. Such pressure sends a clear signal to other governments, such as Poland’s, that there is a high price to pay for playing the bigotry card.
Unfortunately, Orbán has recently made progress in courting both Washington and Jerusalem. Past State Departments have denied Hungarian officials access to the most senior U.S. offices as a signal that the United States was not happy with developments in Hungary. Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reversed that policy, despite objections from career diplomats. Though Israeli diplomats in the past have called out anti-Semitism in Orbán’s Hungary, in the past year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer have signaled a warming in relations.
What is to be done? Fortunately, in the United States and Israel, leaders respond to public opinion, and anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish issue. All citizens have a self-interest in combating bigotry. Congress has shown bipartisan support for confronting anti-Semitism—even in Hungary. Human rights groups, Christians, Muslims and secular citizens are willing to speak out. However, how do others protest if the Jewish community does not take the lead?
In 2018, multiple forms of anti-Semitism need to be confronted. The willingness of xenophobic European governments to dip their toes into the cesspool of anti-Semitism is the form most susceptible to activism. The type of citizen action that freed Soviet Jewry in the 20th century can today stop the dog-whistle anti-Semitism of the 21st century. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is a good place to start.
Ira N. Forman is a senior fellow at the Moment Institute and teaches courses on contemporary anti-Semitism at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.