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Hungary Chief Rabbi resigns as Jews consider reaction to Orbán victory

How Hungarian Jews are reacting to Victor Orban's election landslide

    Hungary’s chief rabbi, Robert Frölich
    Hungary’s chief rabbi, Robert Frölich

    Hungary’s chief rabbi, Robert Frölich, has resigned over disagreements within the Neolog movement (the dominant religious tendency among Hungarian Jews) and with Mazsihisz, the federation of Hungarian Jewish communities.

    The decision came just days after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz was returned to government with almost half the popular vote. Orbán ran a xenophobic campaign which played on voters’ fears of migrants and outsiders, including the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

    Rabbi Frölich’s resignation was a result of internal politics over the future direction of Neolog Judaism, which is positioned theologically between Masorti and Orthodoxy. He was in disagreement with András Heisler, the president of Mazsihisz, over the future direction of the movement.

    András Kovács, director of Jewish Studies at Central European University, explained that Neolog Judaism is divided into two tendencies: reform-minded and traditional. They are split over mixed marriages and the role of women in religious services.

    “The majority of Jewish people living in Hungary are secular,” Mr Kovács said.

    “So the chance of getting them involved in community life is perhaps larger if the [Neolog] community is not so conservative.”

    Rabbi Frölich — who holds traditional views — recently had his preferred candidate to lead Hungary’s National Rabbinical Training Institutey rejected in favour of scholar Károly Vajda.

    “He saw that the community’s leadership was against him,” according to Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti of Budapest’s Bét Sálom synagogue. “He felt he could not lead an organisation which was not at one in terms of its thinking.”

    Both Rabbi Frölich’s resignation and Mr Orbán’s election win raise questions about the community’s future. They show the bind Mazsihisz finds itself in, in terms of what it might like to do versus what it can do.

    The vast majority of Hungarian Jewish opinion is against Fidesz, with those who supported Mr Orbán statistically insignificant.

    Yet as an established Jewish community body, Mazsihisz is duty-bound as part of its function to continue working with the government on issues ranging from education to healthcare and Holocaust commemoration. And the rabbis of the Neolog movement receive their salaries from the state.

    Rabbi Radnóti, who also chairs Mazsihisz’s rabbinical council, stressed that Mazsihisz maintains good relations with the government. It does not believe it to be antisemitic. “Soros was not invented by the government but the Hungarian people,” Rabbi Radnóti said. He fits Hungarians’ fears—of outsiders, bankers, the rich and Jews—and Fidesz played off them.

    But Mazsihisz has also criticized the government openly over Holocaust commemoration and the rehabilitation of pro-Nazi wartime leader Miklós Horthy.

    “To work with somebody is not the same as supporting somebody,” Rabbi Radnóti said.

    CEU’s András Kovács said that under Mr Orbán’s leadership, Jews have noticed a perceptible rise in antisemitism in the press and on social media. But anti-migrant hostility has not resulted in more anti-Jewish violence.

    And organisations like the JDC, the Jewish Agency, and the Lauder Foundation continue to receive support and operate freely.

    But political institutions like Aurora, the Jewish community centre and NGO hub, have been victims of the transformation of Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” and the crackdown on civil society institutions including NGOs.

    Budapest police raided Aurora in June last year on spurious drug charges that shut down the institution temporarily.

    “The local municipality, the police and the media working with the government actually worked together to create a story where they were able to discredit our centre,” Adam Schönberger, director of Marom Budapest, said, as if to say that “the people working in NGOs are criminals.”

    Although Mazsihisz put out a statement in support of Aurora, it did not do anything more. Mazsihisz, Mr Schönberger said, is “dependant” on the government.

    Mr Schönberger sees state action against NGOs including Aurora, as well as the anti-Soros campaign and government rhetoric against migrants and the European Union, as part of a broader strategy to create “unity based on hate, which is a huge political crime.”

    Aurora’s future, like those of other NGOs in Hungary, is increasingly uncertain in light of the April 8 election and it is possible it may be forced to drop its political work in order to survive.

    “Hungary is facing a more autocratic system,” Schönberger concluded.

    “The goal is to narrow the open society and create a closed society.”

     

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