The World Jewish Congress’s upcoming quadrennial assembly, scheduled for May 5 in Budapest, Hungary, promises to be a complicated affair. It arrives just one month after WJC President Ronald Lauder’s public condemnation of his host country’s prime minister for presiding over “a xenophobic and increasingly anti-Semitic country.”
In fact, Lauder says proudly, this is precisely why he has decided to hold his group’s annual gathering in Hungary. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s acceptance of the WJC’s invitation to address its opening dinner will only add to the anticipated high drama.
WJC spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said Lauder’s condemnation of Orban was not meant as a “slap in the face” and that the WJC looks forward to hearing “what [Orban] has to say.”
But for all the stagecraft the WJC has devoted to delivering a message to Hungary’s government, many others involved, including key Jewish leaders, say that Lauder’s depiction of Orban’s government as pandering to anti-Semitism is simplistic. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward, “We’re encouraged that the Orban government is showing greater awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism in Hungary and has begun to improve its responsiveness.”
It was on April 4 that Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, former ambassador to Austria and longtime Jewish leader, published an opinion piece lashing out at Orban. In the jeremiad, which appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, Lauder accused the Hungarian leader of having “lost his political compass” and of transforming himself from a once “dynamic, but pragmatic conservative” into “an ideologue for Hungarian nationalism.”
“The number of anti-Semitic or anti-Roma [Gypsy] statements increased dramatically in recent years, and some of them have come from senior members of the prime minister’s party or his government,” Lauder wrote.
A Hungarian government official, who did not wish to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the matter, said that Lauder’s statement was a shock, particularly because it came shortly after Orban had accepted Lauder’s invitation to address his group’s dinner, which kicks off the two-day conference.
“This is how life treats you very well if you are an NGO,” the Hungarian official said, referring to the WJC’s status as a nongovernmental organization. “You can say what you want, and don’t have to bother with facts.”
The official said Lauder mischaracterized the situation in Hungary. He directed the Forward to testimony delivered before a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on anti-Semitism in February, in which a former Hungarian government minister rejected the idea that the Orban government was anti-Semitic.