Hungary and the Jews

The Orbán-Pegasus Problem

“We work closely with Israeli media. If there’s anything you need from Hungary, don’t be afraid to ask,” the young woman informed me.

Viktor Orbán and Benjamin Netanyahu. Jersualem, July 2018.

Surprised to hear that The Battleground is a foreign publication, I smiled as convincingly as I could and thanked her for the offer. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

I’ve never made that call. The last person I wanted to talk to was someone from the Hungarian government, let alone a state press officer.

But, this was Europe’s capital, and she was one of many liaisons sent from local missions and embassies to our 2019 launch, at Press Club Brussels.

Because there aren’t that many local news media, and, since we’d all worked in the EU press before our startup, we’d gotten a good turnout.

However, working outside the city for most of the previous year, I had forgotten how much intelligence gathering the Hungarian government always does on the press.

One of the most visible Israeli journalists employed by Brussels media for several years, working as an editor at Euractiv, I had always gotten outreach like that. It shouldn’t have surprised me.

It’s just that there are few member state governments I dislike more than Hungary. Of course, they would assume I was an ally. In recent years, Israel had become one of its best friends.

Reading Monday’s scoop that the Hungarians had purchased Pegasus software from Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO, for spying purposes, I was reminded of this encounter.

Few EU news communities are as persecuted as that of Hungary. Ranked 87 in that year’s Reporters Without Borders Freedom index, I knew very well that it wasn’t help that I was being offered.

As an Israeli journalist, I was expected to reiterate the Hungarian government’s point of view. Not that I know many who would, but you get the idea. This was a polite reminder. 

There was something distinctly clichéd about it, as though it were a scene out of a Cold War espionage drama, where a KGB official delivers the first warning to a journalist not to overdo it.

Working as an editor at Euractiv, I’d published many critical pieces on Hungarian politics. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had been repeatedly criticised in features and op-eds that we ran. 

So, meeting with an officer of a European Jewish organisation later that day, I was offered the same advice. “Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with on Hungary,” I was told.

Though I found it easy to write off the first offer, the second one wasn’t. Not only was I surprised that a fellow Jew was reinforcing the message. I was frustrated by how ignorant it assumed I am.

Part of it, I imagine, is that Israeli Europe coverage can be very inexpert, high on polemics, low on reporting. But in my case, I’d been local for a decade already, working for UK and French media.

In 2014, for example, I spent a week in Budapest courtesy of  Gawker Media, the pioneering collective of American politics and culture blogs.

My first visit to a former Communist country, I spoke about far-right trolling of left media, at an event hosted by the publisher, and met with local journalists, who told me of Hungary’s declining press freedoms.

One Budapest publication, whose name I will withhold, showed me data documenting digital attacks on their infrastructure, explaining Orbán’s growing hostility to news media and his government’s attempts to shut their platform down.

If I remember correctly, the journalist was Jewish and was deeply concerned about a return to pre-war Antisemitism in the country. It was clear he saw it intertwined with the attacks on his site.

The journalist’s concerns were not without foundation. Over the last decade, Viktor Orbán has grown increasingly candid about his Antisemitism, through his attacks on George Soros, and blaming of Jews for the refugee crisis.

That’s what made this Jewish outreach, on behalf of Hungary, different. It was made despite this context. The only thing that made sense was its dovetailing with Israeli diplomatic initiatives.

Israel’s then-Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a point of tying up with far-right populists in Europe, particularly the Hungarians.

Everyone in organised Jewish life was expected to follow suit. They may not personally agree, but they have no say in the matter abroad. When it comes to Israel, we’re all team players.

This deference towards Israeli leadership, abroad, is as old as the hills. Particularly in Europe, where small Jewish communities and weak communal institutions have relied on it for direction.

Not everyone inside drinks the Kool-Aid though, even if they can pretend it tastes good. To wit, the person who offered me Hungarian opportunities made clear his disdain for Netanyahu.

“I can’t tell you much we’re looking forward to him being gone,” they said, in the same conversation. “I’m Avodah (Labour) and he makes our work that much harder here.”

It’s not difficult to connect the dots between that and the Orbán pimping. As a non-European outsider, it gave great insight into local Jewish politics and how complicated they are.

At the same time, there are European Jews who identify with the politics of far-right populists like Viktor Orbán, if not explicitly, enough to explain why it’s frequently assumed we’re in bed together.

One such example was a grant application a friend asked me to review. Drafted by an Austrian Jewish organisation, seeking funds to educate Muslims about Jews, it was particularly noteworthy.

Line after line, the proposal was full of generalised statements about Islam and immigration. Everyone was at risk of ISIS and Antisemitism. It was never going to get approved.

I was the right journalist to look at it. I’m a strong supporter of Muslim-Jewish cooperation and could see the value in making the application less patronising. I did and I’m told it got funded.

But, I remained alarmed at how crass the stereotyping in the first draft was, and whether the grantees had the best of intentions. Hopefully, the project helped reduce their provinciality.

However, I can’t help but feel how useless such endeavours are when imagining what the political consequences of the Pegasus spyware scandal could turn out to be for European Jewry.

The fact that Israeli technology was used to clamp down on press freedoms and opposition politicians in Hungary will do little to dampen suspicions we’re on the wrong side of EU politics.

Few countries in the bloc epitomize democratic backsliding more than the world’s first ‘illiberal’ state. Everything that’s wrong with today’s Europe is wrapped up in Orbán’s regime and ideology.

The fact that Viktor Orbán is Antisemitic has been secondary to his utility for Israeli policy. It’s the price we’ve had to pay to make the EU play fairer with us, according to Netanyahu.

But is it worth the resentment that using Israeli cyberweapons like Pegasus on Europeans might sow? History will be our judge, and it’s not unlikely to get out of hand.

How ironic. No Israeli leader has complained more about Antisemitism than Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet none has done more to promote anger at Jews than the former premier. This is a potential case in point.

Providing military assistance to oppressive regimes, and requiring Jewish solidarity with such policies, provides the perfect recipe for the generalisations about ‘globalists’ made by Orbán.

Of course, that’s not something that the left is supposed to indulge Hungary and the Jews, particularly those opposed to the Hungarian leader. Nonetheless, it identifies Jews with his power and that’s wrong.  

Israelis often complain that they get unfairly stigmatised for mistreating the Palestinians. But they don’t give much thought to the possibility we might get blamed for oppressing Europeans as well.  

Pegasus makes that possibility a reality. That’s why I want to stop being identified with Hungary and I want European Jews to stop playing follow the leader with Israeli politicians like Netanyahu.

Screenshot courtesy IsraeliPM. All rights reserved.