Analysis from Israel

The news that Hungary’s prime minister will visit Israel next week has sparked outrage from liberal Jews both in Israel and abroad. Opponents raise two main objections. One would be serious if true, but it doesn’t seem to be. The other is sheer hypocrisy–and it’s an excellent example of the way liberal Jews routinely hold Israel to standards they apply to no other country on earth.

The hypocritical objection is that Viktor Orban is an authoritarian. “Sad company to keep,” tweeted Brookings Institute fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes after hearing that Orban was definitely coming and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (who is admittedly more problematic) might be. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro also questioned the wisdom of welcoming Orban and other authoritarians. “While Israel’s unique security and other requirements understandably impel it to develop as wide a network of relationships as it can,” he said, “I think it will want to avoid finding its own democratic identity tarnished by, of its own choosing, aligning less with the club of democracies and more with this very different coalition.”

This is simply ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also regularly hosted liberal leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (several times) and Barack Obama, with French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly planning to visit later this year, the reality is that most countries in the world today are authoritarian, and even a growing number of Western democracies have authoritarian leaders. Thus, any country which wants to maintain relationships with more than a handful of other countries will end up hosting a lot of authoritarian leaders, which is why every other Western democracy also does so.

In fact, other Western democracies often host leaders considerably more objectionable than Orban, and with less justification. I can understand hosting Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping despite their aggressive foreign policies; Russia and China are too important to be ignored. But just this month, Switzerland and Austria welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as did France and Italy in 2016, even though Rouhani’s government is actively abetting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Yemen and brutally crushing dissent at home. That’s far worse than hosting Orban, whose government isn’t killing anyone.

Moreover, Hungary is genuinely important to Israel’s core foreign policy interests, since it has repeatedly helped quash anti-Israel decisions by Israel’s largest trading partner, the European Union. What vital contributions does Iran make to Europe’s core interests that justify overlooking its complicity in mass murder?

In short, liberal Jews are criticizing Israel for doing exactly what every other Western democracy does—except that other Western countries are even more egregious, and with fewer excuses.

Now let’s consider the serious objection, which is that Orban foments anti-Semitism in Hungary. Most Israelis would agree that their government shouldn’t whitewash anti-Semitism; that’s why Netanyahu’s recent statement downplaying Poland’s role in the Holocaust sparked outrage far beyond the ranks of his usual opponents. If true, this charge would be a valid reason to oppose Orban’s visit.

The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support it. That isn’t because Hungary has no anti-Semitism problem; indeed, a major study published last month showed that almost two-thirds of Hungarian Jews think it does. Moreover, Orban has undeniably made some problematic statements.

Nevertheless, the study found an objective and significant improvement over the past 18 years, almost half of which were under Orban’s rule. For instance, the number of Jews who reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the street dropped from an astronomical 75 percent in 1999 to 48 percent (still outrageously high) last year, while the number who reported experiencing three or more anti-Semitic incidents fell from 16 to 6 percent.

This jibes with JTA’s in-depth report on Hungarian anti-Semitism earlier last month. In light of the data cited above, the fact that the Hungarian Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog, TEV, recorded just 37 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 (down from 48 in 2016) only shows that anti-Semitic comments are massively underreported. What was noteworthy, however, is that not a single reported incident involved violence.

By comparison, reporter Cnaan Liphshiz noted, the United Kingdom, with a Jewish population only about 2.5 times that of Hungary, recorded 145 physical assaults in its total of 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Austria, with a Jewish population less than a tenth of Hungary’s, recorded five cases of physical violence among its 503 anti-Semitic incidents last year—and, incidentally, that was under a left-wing government led by the Social Democrats. Conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz took power only in December 2017.

Thus, Jews in Britain or Austria were far more likely to suffer anti-Semitic violence than their Hungarian brethren. Indeed, unlike their counterparts in, say, France or Belgium, Jews with beards and kippahs told Liphshiz they feel safe walking Hungary’s streets.

Hungarian Jewish community leaders also said a 2014 revision of the legal code enacted by Orban’s government significantly increased prosecution and punishment of anti-Semitic offenses. “It was a big step forward,” said TEV’s secretary-general, Kalman Szalai. Nor, incidentally, did the Jewish leaders Liphshiz interviewed think Orban’s attacks on George Soros—Exhibit A in most liberal Jewish indictments of Orban—were anti-Semitic (a point I made last year).

In other words, as Szalai said, “It’s not that Hungary doesn’t have anti-Semitism . . . But it also has little to no anti-Semitic violence, and responsive authorities in the judiciary, the police force and also in government.” All of which makes it hard to argue that Orban should be shunned as a dangerous anti-Semite. That is, unless you think, as liberal Jews increasingly seem to do, that right-wing authoritarians are by definition dangerous anti-Semites.

And once you remove the straw man of anti-Semitism, you’re left with the double standard in all its glory: Israel alone has no right to host authoritarian leaders important to its interests, even as other Western democracies routinely host worse leaders with less justification. By insisting that Israel shouldn’t host Orban, liberal Jews are effectively saying that Israel, alone of all the countries of the world, has no right to conduct a normal foreign policy.

Originally published in Commentary on July 13, 2018

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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