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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.

With an average of about 14 live births for every 10 women, Hungary may see its population of 9 million shrink by half during the present century. Orban and his intellectual circle live with this existential threat: they know that nothing they do will matter without a revival of their country’s will to exist. Speaking at a conference on the Future of Europe in Budapest May 22, I said:

The restoration of the actual, physical Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, should be a sign of hope for all the nations. Israel’s mission is to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6), an “ exemplar and paragon” (Rosenzweig) that incorporates the sacred—the eternal—into the quotidian life of a people. The nations of Europe will rise up from the valley of dry bones when they are able to grasp what is sacred in their own character, and encourage the efforts of their neighbors to do the same.

Through Christianity, Israel came to embody the desire of the nations. It should be a beacon for nations that are struggling to maintain their identity and cohesion against a demographic ebb-tide and against the pressures of globalization.

I thought that would provoke the Hungarians as well as their Polish, Czech and Slovene partners attending the conference. Instead, I got a heartfelt ovation. Nothing succeeds like success, and the success of the Jewish State has become an inspiration to countries where anti-Semitism has a dreadful history. Hungary was home to a Jewish community that boasted the greatest concentration of talent since Renaissance Florence. Hungary's wartime government allied with Hitler but refused to hand over the country's Jews to the Nazis; not until Germany invaded Hungary in 1944 were Hungarian Jews deported to the death camps.

Hungarian politics have a unique problem. Imagine that an expatriate American-born trillionaire had spent $60 billion to influence politics in the United States. That’s 0.3% of GDP, thirty times Hillary Clinton’s record 2016 campaign budget, and almost twenty times the total lobbying budget of all U.S. corporations. You would this expatriate trillionaire to feature prominently in political debates.

Gauged against Hungary’s $125 billion GDP, that’s the weight of George Soros’ $400 million in political spending in his native Hungary through the Open Society Foundations during the past three decades. It’s helpful to keep that number in mind. Some Western pundits accuse Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban of anti-Semitism because he made Soros the bogeyman of his last political campaign. Soros wants open borders and mass Middle Eastern immigration. Orban took a Trump-like stance against mass immigration.

On April 8, Hungarians re-returned Orban to office with a two-thirds majority. He had served as prime minister for the past eight years, and has a lot to show for his efforts. Hungary’s economy is booming, with growth at 4%, unemployment at 3.9%, and a pronounced labor shortage. Budapest is a different city than the dowdy capital I last visited six years ago. New high-rises are sprouting, the streets are clogged with expensive cars, a new upscale restaurant opens every day and visible signs of prosperity are ubiquitous. Orban’s enemies do not allege that the vote was rigged, but they complain that his government put its thumb on the scales of state media to influence public opinion. It would seem that Orban’s previous eight years in office would have given the voters sufficient information.

Orban is also popular because he bucked the explicit directives of the European Commission in Brussels and refused to accept an Hungarian quota of Middle Eastern migrants (not refugees—three-fifths of the millions of Middle Easterners who surged into Europe in 2016 are economic migrants, by the Commission’s own reckoning). Along with the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary formed the Visegrad Group and remains intransigent. Hungarians supported Orban, just as an absolute majority of Americans supported then-candidate Donald Trump’s promise to ban immigration from Middle Eastern terror states. The Soros foundations campaigned for free migration, with a budget of a size unimaginable in American terms.

Soros, to be sure, is Jewish by descent but not by practice or affiliation; he is a left-wing utopian who thinks that dissolving national differences is the precondition for world harmony. During the campaign the Times of Israel quoted Orban’s denunciation of Soros with alleged “anti-Semitic overtones.” Perhaps some Hungarian voters voted for Orban simply because he was attacking someone of Jewish descent. But there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about campaigning against a plutocrat who is trying to buy your country.

There are widespread allegations that Orban uses state-owned media to advance his political position.  I can’t judge the merit of these reports, but anyone who wants to can denounce the government on opposition websites or demonstration against the government, as tens of thousands did after the Hungarian elections last month. There are no Hungarian journalists in jail, let alone falling out of windows as in Russia.

Hungarian political debate is open and bumptious, and Hungarians have ample opportunity to hear the opposition’s point of view. Claims that the April election was unfair (no-one claims that it was rigged) smack of the same refusal to accept a popular mandate that bedevils the Democratic Party in the United States.

Hungary’s liberal Jewish community opposes Orban and supports the admission of Muslim migrants, who elsewhere in Europe are the sole source of violent attacks on Jews. The split in Hungary’s Jewish community in some ways mirrors the U.S., where liberal Jews vote Democratic while most observant Jews back Donald Trump. But as matters stand, Hungary is the safest European country for Jews, with no anti-Semitic violence of any kind in recent years. Róbert Frölich, rabbi of the Dohány Street Synagogue, said in a 2016 television broadcast,  “Here in Hungary, we [...] do not feel as threatened as French Jews feel in France, Hungary is for some reason a more protected area, we do not palpably sense any form of threat to us, while of course we do worry for the rest.” Leaders of Hungary's Orthodox Jewish community told me that they are in personal contact with the prime minister and that the relationship is highly satisfactory. Hungary is the safest country in Europe for Jews (the Czech Republic is friendly to Jews, but fewer than 4,000 live there, vs. 100,000 in Hungary).

In Western Europe, the political class hates Donald Trump viscerally. To the beleaguered nationalists of Eastern Europe, Trump is an inspiration. Americans in general and Jews in particular should remember who their friends are.

Like the Czechs and Poles, Hungary’s government worries that the United States may grow weary of its commitment to NATO. “You have to show strength to the Russians or they put their foot on your neck,” a senior official told me. Hungary also worries that the Merkel government in Germany is rolling over to Russia, giving lip-service to sanctions while increasing its dependence on Russian gas exports through the Nordstream II pipeline. Hungary does business with Russia, which invaded and occupied the country after World War II. The West shouldn’t provoke Russia, Budapest believes, but it should deal with Putin from a position of strength.