Washington — Armed with a powerful New York public relations outfit and a pledge to commemorate the mass deportation of Hungarian Jewry, the Hungarian government is preparing to challenge what it says is an inaccurate image of a country lax in confronting home-grown extremism.
Ferenc Kumin, an adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who handles international communications, reached out to JTA last week to counter what he says are unfair perceptions of his government’s treatment of Jews and other minorities.
“In the American public discourse, there is a lot of talking of anti-Semitism and racism in Hungary and the connected concerns,” Kumin said in an interview. “We try to bring a realistic picture. We don’t want to say it’s not there. But in certain accounts this issue is exaggerated.”
Kumin’s outreach is part of an intense effort over the last month to push back against perceptions that Hungary has failed to address the rise of anti-Semitism — particularly the emergence of the extremist Jobbik party, which controls 47 of 486 seats in the parliament.
Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics told a conference on Jewish life and anti-Semitism in Budapest this month that it was time for Hungarians to accept their responsibility for their role in the Holocaust.
“We know that we were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary,” he said. “We know that Hungarian state interests were responsible.”
Hungary also announced that 2014 would mark Holocaust Remembrance Year, 70 years after the deportation of at least 450,000 Hungarian Jews to the Nazi death camps. And on Monday, the government announced that it had hired Burston-Marsteller, a PR heavyweight based in New York, in part to reach out to the Jewish community.
But U.S. Jewish officials and Hungarian critics say the country’s issues with extremism run deeper and broader than its treatment of the Jews. Navracsic’s speech was a major step forward, they say, but it was just that — a step.
“The fact that he said clearly that we are responsible for the Holocaust here in Hungary was a powerful statement, but why was that dramatic?” wondered Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs. “Most countries have come to recognize their responsibility.
“We need to keep those words in mind. But the question is will they rest as mere words, or do they become operational?”
Unlike Jobbik, Orban’s Fidesz party is not openly anti-Semitic. But in competing for voters, Baker said Fidesz flirts with themes that unsettle Hungary’s 100,000 Jews — for instance, reviving and honoring anti-Semitic figures associated with Miklos Horthy, the nationalist regent who ruled Hungary until 1944 and was allied for a time with the Nazis.
Michael Salberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate director of international affairs, praised Navracsic’s speech as “unambiguous” in its commitment to fight anti-Semitism, but added that the problem of extremism would not be excised simply by dealing with the Jewish issue.
“The real hard work is weaving this commitment into the social fabric, making it part of civil society’s commitment to improving democracy,” he said, noting that Hungary’s Roma minority continue to suffer discrimination and violent attacks. “What we see is a problem that goes beyond the Jewish community that needs to be addressed.”
Kumin said Jobbik and its anti-Semitism was marginal; Orban leads a coalition that controls 263 seats in parliament compared to Jobbik’s 47. And Kumin noted that Orban and his party have condemned every manifestation of anti-Semitism.
He acknowledged, however, that the image of Hungary as extremist was among the greatest obstacles to deepening ties with its most important ally, the United States, particularly as the country seeks new investment in its emergence from an economic crisis.
“We have to clarify these image problems,” Kumin said. “If we are able to do that, it can remain a well-functioning relationship.”
Judit Csaki, a Jewish critic of the Hungarian government, said its condemnations of anti-Semitism were mere theater designed to distract the world from laws being championed by Orban that weaken the constitutional courts and limit speech that threatens the “dignity” of the Hungarian nation.
The European Parliament has condemned the measures as anti-democratic, and the European Commission is considering legal action against the new laws.
“Their tactic is, as long as we are upset by the anti-Semitic comments made by Jobbik, at least we are not complaining about these attempts to criminalize the opposition,” Csaki said.
Andras Kovacs, who heads the Jewish Studies and Nationalism programs at Central European University in Budapest, said the government deserves credit for at least addressing the issue of anti-Semitism.
“The proportion of anti-Semitism in Hungary is higher than in other countries” in Europe, he said. “The declarations are there. Now let’s see what happens.”