Hungary is “an especially welcoming country,” according to Vancouver Jewish community leaders

Csaba Latorcai, the Orbán government’s deputy state secretary in charge of religious groups, minorities and affairs relating to the Jewish community, just wrapped up what was likely a very successful trip to Canada. Hungary’s state news agency (MTI) published quite a gushing report of the unbridled successes of the week-long Canada-wide tour, where Mr. Latorcai was accompanied, for most of the trip, by András Heisler, President of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz). Normally, I take anything and everything published by MTI with a very sizable grain of salt. And in today’s report on the Canadian tour, there is at least one eyebrow-raising piece of misinformation. (Mr. Latorcai told MTI that Hungary is very pleased to commit 25 million forints to the Victims of Communism Memorial in Ottawa, which “is also supported by the new Canadian government.” That is not quite accurate, considering that the Liberals and Ottawa’s mayor are quite strongly critical of the proposed location of the monument in front of the Supreme Court and have had harsh words about the way that consultations and critiques were handled.)

The other eyebrow-raising element of the MTI report has to do with a discussion between Gina Csanyi-Robah, a Roma community leader in Canada, who has been strongly critical of the treatment of minorities in Hungary by the Orbán government and of rampant racism in general. Mr. Latorcai met with Ms. Csanyi-Robah in Vancouver, and the deputy state secretary summed up the Roma community activist’s comments like this:

“Gina Csanyi-Robah, among other points, emphasized that Roma who migrate to Canada often fall victim to organized criminal activity — noted the deputy state secretary. She added that most of them are disappointed by  the end of their trip, but upon their return home, a difficult situation awaits, due to economic reasons and because their children have fallen out of the Hungarian educational system.”  I would be quite surprised if Ms. Csanyi-Robah only emphasized the economic difficulties and reintegration into the school system for Roma returning home, and nothing about the reality of often systemic discrimination. The Hungarian government regularly argues that Hungarians who migrate (or seek refugee status) do so exclusively for economic reasons, rather than as a result of politics or prejudice.

All that having been said and in spite of my misgivings around MTI and public broadcasting in Hungary,  I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Latorcai’s  trip to Canada was anything but a major success for a government that has skillfully used its chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the refugee crisis and the fears surrounding terrorism and extremist Islam to repair its tarnished image after over five years in power and five years butting heads with the European Union, the United States and civil liberties groups in Hungary and abroad.

Jewish community leaders from Vancouver visited Hungary recently and, in Mr. Latorcai’s words, “commended the Hungarian government for taking steps against antisemitism and hate speech, emphasizing that from the perspective of the Jewish community, Hungary is an especially welcoming country, particularly within the context of the current European situation.” I should note that the MTI report does not name the Jewish community leaders who made these statements.

Mr. Latorcai’s meeting with Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, appointed in 2013 by the previous Harper government,  also resulted in congratulatory statements about the activities of the Orbán cabinet.

“He expressed his extraordinary recognition about the Hungarian chairmanship of the IHRA,” according to Mr. Latorcai’s account of the meeting, in which he also spoke with Mr. Bennett about the restoration of abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Hungary, supported by the government, which “serves both the struggle against antisemitism and the preservation of cultural heritage.”

Andrew Bennett, in the middle, with Ambassador Bálint Ódor and Csaba Latorcai to the left.

Andrew Bennett, in the middle, with Ambassador Bálint Ódor and Csaba Latorcai to the left. András Heisler is on the right.

Mr. Latorcai then compared the heated debate around the way in which the Orbán government wanted to present the public history of the Holocaust with debates surrounding the exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. The comparison is badly skewed and, frankly, it is outrageous. The Orbán government managed to alienate almost every stakeholder, including Mazsihisz, through the way in which it handled public memory during the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. Mazsihisz went as far as to boycott the state-run commemorations and Mr. Orbán’s government had to erect a hugely controversial and revisionist statue to the memory of the German occupation of Hungary in downtown Budapest, during the middle of the night, in order to avoid attention. The statue was never even inaugurated. There is no way to compare this to debates around the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which never resulted in boycotts by key stakeholders, nor did Canadian authorities erect the museum under the veil of darkness, in order to avoid public attention.

Fidesz’s communications are, in many way, second to none. They have been quite successful in feeling the pulse of the nation, capitalizing on fear and the worst possible instincts, and they have often radically altered the course of their political communication in the process. The primary enemies in Hungary at the moment are no longer “treasonous” Jews or the “criminal” Roma. They are, instead, foreign “invaders,” Islamists and terrorists, who threaten the security of Hungary’s Jewish communities and who threaten the livelihoods and economic well-being of the Roma. The Orbán government is here to defend both the Jewish communities and also the Roma.

Non-profit, online publications like the HFP or like Éva Balogh’s excellent Hungarian Spectrum simply do not have the resources to effectively and before a large audience shine light on the hair-raising cynicism of the Orbán government. There is simply no way for the HFP, the HS or the tiny handful of people active in the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter to compete with a government that has seemingly infinite resources at its disposal, when it comes to public relations and political communication campaigns, including here in Canada.

If we still have the ability and the energy, we can continue to write blog posts, articles and press releases, in what is ultimately a David and Goliath-type battle, which almost certainly will not end in David’s favour. Eventually, all of us will disappear, and when we do, communities that were once vulnerable and still are, but choose not to see it, will have to hope that Fidesz does not once again, based on cold, hard political calculation and expediency, turn its guns on them, especially when the fears around the current boogeyman subside. Because by that point, I don’t think that many of us will still be here to speak up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *