(JTA) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s most prominent nationalist and anti-immigrant leaders, has often faced accusations that he is too soft on far-right anti-Semitism.
But now, in an unusual reversal, Orban is trying to level that same accusation at the country’s largest Jewish group, Mazsihisz.
Orban recently criticized Mazsihisz, a nonpartisan federation of Jewish communities and groups, for not speaking out loudly enough against the candidacy of Laszlo Biro, a member of the far-right Jobbik party who narrowly lost a bid for a parliamentary seat on Sunday and has a history of making anti-Semitic statements.
Orban called the Mazsihisz reaction to Biro’s campaign “indecisive and weak,” the news site Mandiner reported Wednesday. Mazsihisz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the allegation was false, and that they had called out Biro’s remarks on Jews months ago.
Biro has written on social media that Orthodox Jewish tourists may be giving his dog fleas. In another post, he called for “disconnecting Jewish usury bank capital from the economy,” and in another he called Budapest “Judapest.”
Mazsihisz “did and does condemn Laszlo Biro’s remarks,” the group reiterated to JTA in a statement this week.
The unprecedented exchange reflects Orban’s growing willingness to make partisan use of Hungarian Jewry as an unexpected alliance threatens his Fidesz party’s grip on power.
Last year, liberal parties, including the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Democratic Coalition, agreed to form a bloc with Jobbik — a party accused of abetting racism and anti-Semitism in its past, and whose vice president in 2013 called for making a list of all Hungarian Jews — to mount a serious challenge to Orban and Fidesz. Since then, the left-wing parties have urged their supporters to vote for Jobbik candidates where they were likeliest to win, and vice versa.
Although Biro is a well-known member of Jobbik, a party that the World Jewish Congress has called neo-Nazi, he was the agreed-upon candidate in a special election this week of all the opposition parties, including the center-left Hungarian Socialist Party, which has many Jewish voters and members.
The alliance strategy has helped the opposition narrowly unseat Fidesz from the office of the mayor of Budapest and wrestle from its hands 10 additional mayoral posts in large cities. But so far it has been more of a symbolic blow and has done little to shake the constitutional supermajority that Fidesz, which has been in power under Orban since 2010, has in parliament.
However, this week’s election results show that the alliance could be closer to having a bigger impact.
The vote Sunday was held for a seat in the national parliament representing the northeastern city of Szerencs. The city’s previous representative in parliament, Ferenc Koncz of Orban’s Fidesz party, died in a vehicular accident in July.
His daughter, Zsófia Koncz, defeated Biro to keep the seat with Fidesz, but very narrowly, with 51% of the vote. If Koncz had lost, Fidesz’s coalition would have lost its two-thirds supermajority in parliament, which gives the party wide powers, including the ability to make constitutional changes.
During the decade that Orban has been in power, critics have alleged that he has pursued increasingly authoritarian, xenophobic and nationalist policies — among them a public campaign targeting George Soros, the Hungary-born Jewish billionaire and Holocaust survivor who funds left-leaning causes in his native country and features in many international anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
The Soros campaign, as well as Orban’s insistence on erecting a statue that critics say whitewashes Hungary’s collaboration in the Holocaust, has caused Mazsihisz to warn that Orban risks fomenting anti-Semitic hatred and Holocaust revisionism.
But not all of Hungary’s Jewish groups share that criticism. EMIH, a Chabad-affiliated federation of Jewish communities, has rejected much of Mazsihisz’s criticism, defending the government’s anti-immigration policy and dismissing allegations that its anti-Soros campaign is anti-Semitic.
Mazsihisz has hit back at EMIH, claiming that it is beholden to the government and biased toward Fidesz because it receives funds and buildings from it. (Mazsihisz also receives millions of dollars in state subsidies from Orban’s government.)
The two Jewish federations are also split on the Biro controversy.
Mazsihisz’s response “has been weak,” Shlomo Koves, the head of EMIH, told JTA.
“They have not only not spoken out against Jobbik and Biro in strong terms, but some of their representatives have personally participated in Jobbik election campaign events in the past. Unfortunately a group of lay leaders have seized this respectful community [and] hold their own political benefit before the Jewish interest,” he said.
Debate over the left-Jobbik alliance erupted in 2018 when a local Jewish leader affiliated with Mazsihisz, Miklós Erdélyi, publicly endorsed a Jobbik candidate, Attila Kiss, running for election in the southern municipality of Hódmezővásárhely. Mazsihisz distanced itself from Erdélyi’s endorsement.
In response to criticism it has received over the Biro affair, Mazsihisz emphasized it is a nonpartisan religious organization. It also cited news reports from August that it says proves it has been vocal about Biro’s anti-Semitism.
Mazsihsz President Andras Heisler ”does not intend to get involved with party politics,” the group said. It also thanked the Orban government for its financial support of Jewish institutions throughout Hungary.
Hungarian Jews’ relative “physical and religious safety is definitely thanks to the Hungarian government, which univocally condemns anti-Semitic phenomena and consequently stands by the State of Israel,” Mazsihisz said.