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The Safest Country for European Jews? Try Hungary

Last Friday evening I put on a kippah and walked half an hour across Budapest to the Keren Or synagogue maintained by the Budapest Chabad. After violent attacks on Jews in German streets,  the leaders of Germany’s Jewish community warned Jews last month  not to wear a kippah or any other visible sign of Jewish identification in public. The French community issued such warnings years ago. Belgian TV could not find a single Jew in Brussels willing to wear a kippah in public.  I walked across Budapest four times (for Friday evening and Saturday daytime services), and no-one looked at my kippah twice.  At services I met Hasidim who had walked to synagogue with kaftan and shtreimel, the traditional round fur hat. Whatever residual anti-Semitism remains among Hungarians, it doesn’t interfere with the open embrace of Jewish life. There are no risks to Jews because there are very few Muslim migrants.

On any given Friday evening, the Keren Or synagogue—one of several Chabad houses in Budapest—hosts two hundred people for dinner. Jewish life isn’t just flourishing in Budapest. It’s roaring with ruach, and livened by a growing Israeli presence. About 100,000 Israelis have dual Hungarian citizenship; many own property in the country and vote in Hungarian elections.

Prime Minister Orban has been a close friend of Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu for twenty years. When Orban first was elected prime minister in 1998 in the thick of an economic crisis, he asked then-Finance Minister Netanyahu for help, and Netanyahu lent him some of his staff to shape Hungary’s economic program.  I asked everyone at Keren Or who spoke English what they thought of Orban. In that gathering the prime minister would have polled 100%.

Orban, in turn, is one of Israel’s few staunch supporters overseas. Earlier this month Hungary, along with Rumania and the Czech Republic, vetoed a European Community resolution condemning the U.S. for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Cynics dismiss this as an instance of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That isn't the case. Hungary is in the middle of a nasty fight with the European Community over migration, and stands to lose up to $4 billion in EC subsidies—roughly 3% of the country’s GDP. It doesn’t help Hungary to provoke Brussels by sabotaging its diplomatic efforts, as in the case of the Jerusalem embassy vote. On the contrary, Hungary is spending precious political capital in defense of the Jewish state, to its own possible disadvantage.

What motivates Orban’s backing for Israel? I spent an hour with the prime minister and a week speaking with his advisers. Their alignment with Israel is not instrumental  but rather existential.  Hungary is a small nation at risk of demographic extinction during the next century, and the Hungarian nationalists view Israel as the paragon of a small nation that has revived itself by force of will and the grace of God. In that regard the Hungarian nationalists bring to mind the American evangelicals, whose grandfathers for the most part were anti-Semites, but who concluded after the 1967 War that a miracle had happened before their eyes, and that they were well advised to get on the right side of it.