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Orban dismisses Jewish leader's request to 'limit freedom of speech'

Ownership of ten Hungarian publishers comprising an estimated 500 media outlets was transferred to a holding company headed by a loyal ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban (pictured November 8, 2018)
Markku Ulander (Lehtikuva/AFP/File)

Hungary’s President Viktor Orban on Friday replied to a letter from the leader of World Jewish Congress (WJC), Ronald Lauder, who urged him to condemn an image in a pro-government magazine which he argued was anti-Semitic.

“I am surprised however that you are asking me to limit the freedom of speech and the freedom of press. Despite all my respect for you, I cannot fulfill such a request,” Orban wrote to Lauder.

Orban went on to accuse the WJC leader of only speaking out “when a left-wing public figure of Jewish descent is at the center of a debate.”

Last month, the image of Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), appeared on the front cover of the pro-government magazine surrounded by money.

The Figyelo magazine accused Heisler and Mazsihisz of accounting irregularities in connection with a state-funded synagogue renovation project in Budapest, allegations that Mazsihisz denies.

“It is hard to comprehend the clear left-wing and liberal bias that you demonstrate in Hungarian public affairs. I am uncertain as to whether we should (view) your letter a political document, or a stand taken for the Hungarian Jewish community. In case it’s the latter, thank you for it. Even if it is unnecessary,” Orban’s letter to Lauder concluded.

WJC

Lauder’s letter to the Hungarian President last week described the image of Heisler as “one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people and it places not just the magazine, but all of Hungary in a very bad light. The timing of this is especially critical because people in the US, and elsewhere, are paying greater attention to the upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout Europe and, especially, in Hungary.”

“While I understand and respect the boundaries of a free press, I believe your strong, public condemnation of this very clear attack on all Jewish people, would not just distance you, personally, from this most disgusting hatred, worthy of the Nazi era, but it would also place your government and all of Hungary in a better light,” Lauder’s letter continued.

The row over the image of Heisler comes as Orban’s government has faced accusations of using anti-Semitic tropes and imagery in its virulent campaigns against liberal US billionaire George Soros -- claims it denies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's diplomatic adviser discussed the magazine publication with the Hungarian ambassador to Israel, decrying it and calling on the Hungarian government to condemn every anti-Semitic slant during internal disputes, the prime minister's office said in a statement Saturday.

Kobi GIdeon (GPO)

Last week, Hungary pledged to spend 1,5 million euros ($1.7 million) every year on various projects to combat anti-Semitism in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.

In July, Orban visited Israel for the first time where he was warmly welcomed by Netanyahu.

During a joint press conference in Jerusalem, Orban stressed that Hungary has "zero tolerance for anti-Semitism", which in modern times could come in the form of anti-Israel behavior.

"I can assure the prime minister that Hungary has a policy of zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism," Orban said during remarks alongside Netanyahu ahead of their talks.

Speaking in Hungarian, Orban said he was proud Jews in Hungary could freely identify themselves comfortably and he vowed to cooperate with Israel on the war on anti-Semitism, purportedly declining in Eastern Europe while rising in Western Europe.

Critics have panned Netanyahu’s overtures to Orban, who has often expressed admiration for Hungary’s wartime fascist leader, Miklos Horthy, who collaborated with Adolf Hitler during World War II and passed various anti-Semitic laws and policies against Hungarian Jews, over half a million of whom were eventually deported to Nazi death camps.

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