Netanyahu visited a Budapest synagogue. Here’s what happened.


BUDAPEST (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to a Budapest synagogue praised his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, for speaking out against anti-Semitism and standing up for Israel in international forums.

“I think it’s very important that countries stand against this delegitimization of Israel, which is the delegitimization of the Jewish people, and I thank you, Prime Minister Orbán, for standing up for Israel in these forums against this new form of anti-Jewish agitation,” Netanyahu said Wednesday night at the Dohany Synagogue.

He also said he appreciated Orban’s words the previous day in which he spoke out against the Hungarian government’s involvement with the Nazi regime.

“You spoke yesterday very strongly against anti-Semitism in Hungary. You spoke about it in its current forms, and you spoke about it also in its previous forms – the sins, as you say, performed by previous governments. You were very open it, including in our conversation,” Netanyahu said.

“I think this is important. I think this is something that the world has heard. And it’s very clear to me that this something that the world should hear continuously.”

Under unprecedented security, Netanyahu arrived at the downtown synagogue, the headquarters of the Hungarian Jewish community. In addition to Hungarian police officers visible throughout the area, surrounding streets and squares were closed to the public, preventing tourists from visiting the city’s old Jewish Quarter.

Orban and Andras Heisler, president of Mazsihisz/the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities, greeted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in the back courtyard of the synagogue. Robert Frolich, the chief rabbi of the Dohany Synagogue, led the guests inside the building and showed them around. The group paid tribute to Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust at the Emmanuel Memorial Tree, which was named for the father of the late American actor Tony Curtis, whose Jewish family once lived in Hungary.

In his speech, Heisler emphasized that “the relationship between the Jews and the Hungarian government is good, but there are always disturbing things, like the issue of the unpaid Jewish compensation, or restitution, and also the recent propaganda-campaign provoking anti-Semitism.”

Some Jewish leaders said the recent government-led billboard campaign against American billionaire Hungarian citizen George Soros over his support for welcoming immigrants fomented new anti-Semitism and created fear among Hungarian Jews. Israel rejected the campaign, then issued a clarification saying the statement was not meant to delegitimize criticism of Soros, “who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Heisler praised Orban for telling reporters on Tuesday that he would see to it that the country’s Jews are protected.

“It is OK what Prime Minister Orban said, that they will defend us, Hungarian Jews, but it would be even better if there were no hatred in the Hungarian society towards us,” he said, adding: “We want to be proud Hungarian Jews, whose majority want to live and stay here.”

Heisler said the country’s Jews “felt as if a cold shower was poured on us when Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the withdrawal of the Israeli ambassador’s condemnation of the [anti-Soros] poster campaign.” He called on Netanyahu “to help to protect the Diaspora. We want to support Israel, being proud Jews at the same time.”

Orban emphasized the importance of the meeting earlier Tuesday with three other Central European prime ministers, known as the V4 group, and Netanyahu.

“Jews who live in Hungary, they are part of the Hungarian nation,” he said, noting that the Hungarian Jewish community, the sixth largest  in Europe, was the birthplace of  Theodor Herzl, the spiritual father of Zionism, “very near to the place where we are now.”

Orban praised Netanyahu’s idea presented at the V4 meeting to set up a regional anti-terrorist training center with the help and training of Israel.

In attendance at the meeting were Jewish leaders from throughout the country, as well as Dr. János Vilmos Fonagy, the only Jewish Hungarian government minister and the mayor of Budapest.

Netanyahu in his address also invoked Herzl as the “modern Moses of Israel.” He praised Orban for organizing the Visegrad meeting. There was no mention of Orban’s recent praise for Miklos Horthy, a wartime ally of Adolf Hitler.

Some in the Jewish audience rejected Netanyahu’s praise of Orban.

“I liked Heisler’s speech, but I was not impressed by the speeches of Orban and Netanyahu,” one Jewish leader told JTA. “Unfortunately both prime ministers did not pay attention and did not reflect on any of the suggestions of President Heisler.”

Netanyahu also met Wednesday afternoon with the Hapoel Beersheba soccer team visiting  from Israel, which played the same day in Budapest against a Hungarian club. Netanyahu played with the Israeli team during their training in Budapest just before their game started.

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