Navigate to News section

Ron Lauder’s Weird Dinner

WJC chief waffles after condemning Hungarian PM’s inaction

James Kirchick
May 09, 2013
Prime Minister Orbán (left) and Ronald Lauder (right).(Doron Ritter)
Prime Minister Orbán (left) and Ronald Lauder (right).(Doron Ritter)

Last Sunday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivered a highly anticipated speech at the World Jewish Congress’ Plenary Assembly in Budapest. What started out as an attempt to assure international observers about the state of democracy and the protection of minorities turned into a personal dispute of soap operatic proportions.

Over the past several years, Hungary has witnessed a shocking rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Roma incitement, most visibly in the form of the neo-fascist Jobbik party. Jobbik, which I profiled last year, welcomed the some 500 international delegates by holding an “anti-Zionist” demonstration in downtown Budapest the day before the assembly convened. “If all of Europe licks their feet,” party leader Gabor Vona boasted, “even then we will not.”

The WJC usually holds its quadrennial assemblies in Jerusalem, and was attempting to make a point by staging it in Budapest. “The fact that the WJC is holding its Plenary Assembly in Budapest is a symbol of solidarity with our Jewish community, which has been faced with growing anti-Semitism in recent years,” Péter Feldmájer, the president of the Hungarian Jewish community said.

It’s not just the virulent bigotry of Jobbik that is a cause for concern, however, but the passivity of Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz Party in the face of it. The background music to Jobbik’s rise has been the Orbán government’s gradual erosion of the country’s democracy, a depressing spectacle that has earned stern rebukes from the European Union, the United States and a raft of non-governmental organizations. And while Fidesz should not be confused with Jobbik, it has hardly done enough to speak out against the resurgence of fascism in Hungary. On the contrary, as was the case last year when the parliamentary speaker presided over the ceremonial reburial of a fascist writer, the ruling party has actively contributed to it.

Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and a descendant of Hungarian Jews, has known Orbán since the latter’s days as a young post-communist politician in independent Hungary. Which is why Lauder’s article last month in the Suddeutsche Zeitung must have come as such a shock to the Hungarian Prime Minister. Orbán, the headline proclaimed, had “lost his moral compass.” Lauder dug deeper. “Orbán the fighter for democracy and civil rights seems to have turned into an ideologue for Hungarian nationalism that uses his two-thirds parliamentary majority to dismantle some of his own achievements of two decades ago.”

Following such a salvo, that Orbán would honor the invitation (received in January) to speak at the Assembly might seem to indicate just how committed he is to combating anti-Semitism. And there was indeed a visible chill between the two men as Lauder welcomed Orbán up to the stage at the Intercontinental Hotel. But Orbán’s speech left much to be desired, as I explained in detail earlier this week, and the WJC initially agreed, releasing a statement just moments after Orbán stepped off the stage lamenting the fact that he never mentioned the Jobbik Party by name.

But then something even more awkward happened. On Tuesday, as the WJC was winding down to a close, the Hungarian government spokesman posted a note on his blog stating that Lauder had “apologize[d]” to Orbán for failing to note that the Hungarian Prime Minister had called out Jobbik — a week before in an interview with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth. As the Prime Minister said:

“We in Hungary must be especially careful to act as categorically as possible against this phenomenon. If we want to protect democracy, we must take a firm stand against Jobbik. Jobbik has developed a political ideology that quite obviously violates the human rights of Jews at both an individual and community level.”

Informed of this interview after Orbán delivered his speech, Lauder said, “I want to put it on the record that the prime minister really did make a strong statement against Jobbik.”

Indeed, this was a “strong statement against Jobbik.” The only question is why – presented with a neo-fascist party claiming nearly a fifth of his electorate – the Prime Minister waited so long in his tenure to deliver it, and only did so when prompted by an Israeli newspaper reporter. As the excellent Hungarian blogger Eva S. Balogh noted, “It was easy for Orbán to say something specific about Jobbik in a Hebrew-language paper published in Israel. He was reluctant, however, to say a word about Jobbik in Hungarian in Budapest.”

The Hungarian government has been trumpeting Lauder’s about-face as a sign that all is well and good between it and the worldwide Jewish community. And Lauder’s clumsiness – inviting Orban to speak at his conference, then condemning him in Germany’s most respected newspaper, then welcoming him onstage in Budapest, only to condemn him before he even finished eating dinner, then apologize two days later – does not exactly instill confidence in his judgment of the situation on the ground in Hungary.

But Orbán’s very conscious decision not to mention Jobbik in his speech was the least in a series of troubling omissions, ranging from his failure to address the reintroduction of fascist writers into the national school curriculum to his referencing “the Nazi and Arrow Cross destruction of an authentic Jewish community”—a sly denial of the role played by wartime leader Miklos Horthy and the Hungarian state itself in the deportation of over 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz. What a waste of effort if the kosher stamp of approval Orbán is so cynically trying to obtain is this easy to receive.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.