Viktor Orbán Is Exploiting Anti-Semitism

Hungary’s prime minister is the latest authoritarian leader to tap hatred for political gain.

Victor Orban
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Last week’s cover of the Hungarian business magazine Figyelő featured András Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities. The problem? Paper money—20,000 forint bills—floated around and over the picture of Heisler, with one appearing to protrude from his forehead.

The federation, Hungary’s largest Jewish group, condemned the cover, which it described as “incitement,” saying it “revives centuries-old stereotypes against our community.” Jews as money-grubbers: It’s an insidious trope that Nazis, among other anti-Semites, have employed. Disgusting in any environment, it’s especially dangerous at a time when Jews in Hungary and throughout Europe face increased discrimination and violence. A new EU poll found that nine in 10 European Jews say anti-Semitism is getting worse.

Figyelő is closely linked to the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who explicitly refused to criticize the cover. This is part of a pattern whereby Orbán—an aspiring autocrat who is slowly dismantling Hungary’s democracy—claims to maintain a “zero tolerance” policy on anti-Semitism while dog-whistling to anti-Semites.

From using anti-Semitic tropes to demonize George Soros to praising Miklós Horthy—the regent who presided over the murder of Jews during World War II—to seeking to honor the notorious World War II–era anti-Semite Bálint Hóman, Orbán, the self-styled defender of Christian Europe, has shown himself willing to tap into this hatred to score political points. The Figyelő cover, an attack on a prominent figure in the Hungarian Jewish community, appears to be a bold escalation by the leader whose Fidesz Party won a landslide victory earlier this year. Far from paying a political price for exploiting anti-Semitism, Orbán is thriving.

The demonization of minorities often precedes more tangible action by repressive governments. Jews who speak out against Orbán may find themselves in the crosshairs of a government that has already restricted the rights of migrants, activists, and Roma.

The cover controversy comes at a time when the Jewish community is at loggerheads with the government over the building of a new Holocaust Museum, known as the House of Fates. Its designer, Mária Schmidt, is both an associate of Orbán’s and a Holocaust distorter. Schmidt has been accused of defending current and historical Hungarian anti-Semites, minimizing the importance of the Holocaust, and vigorously asserting that the World War II–era government of Hungary had little or nothing to do with the mass murder of the majority of the country’s Jewish population. Until very recently, she owned Figyelő .

Figyelő’s cover image drew denunciations from the Israeli government; the American Jewish Committee; Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency; and Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who appealed directly to Orbán. In refusing to condemn it, Orbán used the laughable excuse that denouncing anti-Semitism would somehow restrict the freedom of the press.

First, condemnation of anti-Semitism from a political leader wouldn’t violate free speech; speaking out against hateful expression is different from censoring it. Second, Orbán has absolutely no standing to talk about a free press. His propaganda dominates the media as he issues directives not only to government outlets but also to his oligarchic allies who increasingly control private media companies. By starving opposition outlets of advertising dollars, Orbán and his cronies have forced many to close. As of 2017, the government or Orbán allies controlled 90 percent of all Hungarian media, and Magyar Nemzet, one of only two major opposition newspapers, was forced to shut down earlier this year.

Controlling the press is only one component of Orbán’s authoritarianism, which also includes his rampant corruption, undermining an independent judiciary, rigging electoral systems, attacks on human-rights organizations, and a crackdown on refugees and other migrants. Orbán calls it an “illiberal democracy.” Others call it “soft fascism.” By any name, Orbán has all but destroyed Hungary’s young democracy.

Ominously, Orbán is a pioneer. Across the west, from Poland to Brazil to, yes, the United States, democratically elected leaders are, to varying degrees, attacking fundamental democratic institutions and principles. There’s a long history, especially in Europe, of authoritarian leaders exploiting anti-Semitism. If he actually had zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, as he claims, he would immediately have denounced the cover of Figyelő.

Instead, as he has throughout his tenure, he has continued to stoke xenophobia and wink at anti-Semites. So it is up to defenders of democracy and freedom, both in Hungary and elsewhere, to ensure that his disgraceful behavior comes with a cost.