Ideas from Israel: A look at Finkelstein and Birthright Hungary

Hungary’s Fidesz government has long been an admirer of the Israeli right, and of the Likud party in specific. This is an open secret in Hungarian right-wing circles. Despite the Fidesz party’s occasional antisemitism — aimed to placate the more extreme elements of the Hungarian right –Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his inner circle is quite fond of the language, motifs and themes of Israeli patriotism, and sees it as a model for Hungary. The formal rapprochement between Fidesz and Likud began in 2005, when Mr. Orbán was in opposition. The Israeli foreign minister, the chair of the Knesset’s defence and foreign affairs committee and the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivilin, all traveled to Budapest and visited with Fidesz officials. A couple of months later, Mr. Orbán was invited to Israel by the Jewish state’s foreign minister, where the leader of the Hungarian opposition had this to say: “Likud is our natural ideological partner.”

Fidesz and Likud also share the same campaign strategist. In 1996, Arthur J. Finkelstein was credited with demolishing Shimon Peres’s 20 point Labor Party lead over Benjamin Netanyahu in a matter of a few weeks. Ever since, he has been Likud’s éminence grise…and now he is working for the Fidesz government as well. Mr. Finkelstein is certainly no push-over, and works remarkably effectively from the background, and is rarely seen making public statements. He instead feeds messages and campaign slogans to the politicians, who he pushes to the forefront.

Mr. Finkelstein is the son of working class Jews from Brooklyn. His father was a cab driver. Despite the fact that he is openly gay, Mr. Finkelstein had absolutely no qualms working for the most rabidly right-wing and anti-liberal Republicans in the US. In 1996, he worked on the election of campaign of Senator Jesse Helms of South Carolina, and Mr. Finkelstein went along with a fear campaign about how the Democratic opponent had “connections” to the LGBT community.

Bill Clinton had this to say about Mr. Finkelstein, after he attached his wife’s liberalism:

“He went to Massachusetts and married is long-time male partner…Either this guy believes his party is not serious, and is totally Machiavellian in his position, or there is some sort of self-loathing there.”

I would place my bets on Mr. Finkelstein being totally Machiavellian, much like his new political partner in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Arthur Finkelstein...one of the few photos of him on the internet. He is very  much a backroom power broker and is rarely seen.

Arthur Finkelstein…one of the few photos of him on the internet. He is very much a backroom power broker and is rarely seen.

The other import to Hungary from Israel and the US is the Birthright movement. Established in 1999, Birthright Israel offers primarily American and Canadian youth of Jewish descent the opportunity to travel to Israel–with almost all expenses paid by sponsors and donors–to discover or strengthen their Jewish roots. In the last 16 years, over 400,000 young adults have participated in this program, which involves visiting key religious and cultural sites in Israel, such as the Dead Sea and the Western Wall, and meetings with young soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This meeting is called a “mifgash” in Hebrew, and it looks at the different forms of Jewish identity in Israel and in the diaspora, as well as the impact of military service on Israeli youth.

Jewish youth from around the world can apply to the program, so long as they have at least one parent of Jewish origin. Airfare, accommodation and meals are all covered. There is merely a refundable $250 deposit that must be paid.

In 2012, benefactors and conservative Hungarian diaspora organizations teamed up with the Orbán government and began an almost wholesale adoption of the Birthright Israel program, in order to reaffirm the Hungarian identities of American and Canadian youth, who may only have one grandparent originating from Hungary. In the Hungarian diaspora, this is formally referred to as the Reconnect Hungary – Hungarian Birthright Program.

The organization’s slogan is “rediscover your Hungarian self” and has this to say about itself:

“ReConnect Hungary – Hungarian Birthright Program is a public-private partnership supported by Hungarian American and Canadian organizations and the Government of Hungary. The list of our partners in Hungarian-American and Hungarian-Canadian communities is continually expanding and includes both large and small organizations, namely, the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, the Kossuth Foundation, the Hungarian Communion of Friends, and the Hungarian American Coalition.” 

High profile promoters and sponsors include former Governor George Pataki, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, also a Hungarian American group that is highly supportive of the Orbán government.

Birthright Hungary participants meets with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz officials during their stay in Budapest. Photo: Birthright Hungary.

Birthright Hungary participants meets with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other Fidesz officials during their stay in Budapest. Photo: Birthright Hungary.

The highlight of the Birthright Hungary trip is a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as well as encounters in Parliament with other Fidesz party officials, such as State Secretary Árpád Potápi. There is absolutely no evidence on Birthright’s Facebook page or on its website of any meetings with political leaders from other parties.

Birthright participants meet with Fidesz State Secretary Árpád Potápi. Photo: Birthright.

Birthright participants meet with Fidesz State Secretary Árpád Potápi. Photo: Birthright.

On Birthright Hungary’s Facebook page, there is photo where young American and Canadian Hungarians are listening to Mr. Orbán talk about his office and daily responsibilities….and about the importance of having a guardian angel.

Everyone needs a guardian angel, so I have one in my room too,” said Hungary’s prime minister.

Mr. Orbán with his guardian angel in the Hungarian parliament. Photo: ReConnect / Birthright Hungary.

Mr. Orbán with his guardian angel in the Hungarian parliament. Photo: ReConnect / Birthright Hungary.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a program where young Americans and Canadians of Hungarian origin can discover Hungary for the first time, and learn more about where their parents and grandparents came from. The fact that Hungarian Canadians and Hungarian Americans of more modest means can participate too (all costs, except airfare, are covered by the organizers) is important and welcome.

It is, however, a concern that this program seems only interested in showcasing Fidesz political leaders and does not introduce the young participants to the diversity of political life and thought in Hungary. And that diversity does, indeed, exist…even in the shadow of the de facto two thirds Fidesz majority. Showcasing it would only enrichen these visits and would give young Hungarian Canadians and Hungarian Americans a more thorough understanding of Hungary today.

4 Comments

  1. well, that’s the thing: the whole program is not about politics or fidesz at all, nor is meeting the prime minister the highlight of the whole program. They would meet whoever is prime minister. It’s about a whole lot more than that.

  2. Another Canadian says:

    This article is yet another terrible failed attempt at trying trying to somehow discredit Fidesz. Once again all it shows is that the left is morally and politically inept, out of ideas, and bankrupt.

  3. Miklos Banfi says:

    Failed attempt trying trying.. aren’t you too eager Mr. Troll?
    Yes Canadian, probably the program has nothing to do with fidesz and politics, just because orban involved:) Next joke?

  4. Another Canadian says:

    Lol. Oh Miki. The left can really handle criticism cant they (you) ? Anything but tacit agreement is met not with facts but with name calling or aggressive hyperbole. You guys must really miss communism and living under GyurcsiSSR. Thank heaven your a minority andca dyeing breed.

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