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Is Orbán anti-Semitic? During the first Orbán government, in 2001, Hungary established the Memorial Day for the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust and the Holocaust Museum. During his second administration, in 2012, the Fundamental Law entered into force, recognising Hungarian Jewry as an inseparable part of the Hungarian nation. The Orbán government also announced what it described as a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism, effectively banning paramilitary groups intimidating Jewish and Roma citizens. Further, Orbán has acknowledged, and apologised for, the role of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust. Recently he has warmly welcomed the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shares his obsessive hatred of George Soros and the activities of his Open Society institutes.

Moreover, although charges of anti-Semitism against Orbán persist, it is impossible to find a single statement or direct action that could be so characterised. At the same time, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is perfectly willing to exploit anti-Semitism in others for political advantage even if not harbouring such sentiments himself. Last year, more than 40 holders of the Knight’s Cross, Hungary’s third-highest honour, returned their medals when the award was given to the journalist, publicist and Fidesz co-founder Zsolt Bayer, whose views on Jewish issues and on Hungary’s Roma minority — “animals with whom it is impossible to co-exist” — have caused widespread offence, while an award for journalistic excellence to the Hungarian broadcaster Ferenc Szaniszlo seemed even more extraordinary given the latter’s rabid anti-Semitic and anti-Roma opinions. Following protests from the Israeli and American ambassadors, the Hungarian government asked for the award to be given back. Szaniszlo meekly obliged.

Orbán is too acute a political operator not to grasp the political capital such gestures, even when subsequently rescinded, can yield: failure to exploit the vein of xenophobia which runs through Hungarian society would hand an advantage to Jobbik, which has a long record of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma activism. When he describes Soros as “an international financial speculator, ” as he repeatedly does, he is fully aware of the thoughts that are likely to pass through the minds of many. Similarly, he cannot have been unaware of the likely fate of the thousand government posters depicting Soros’s face which urged support for its anti-immigrant stand, upon which anti-Jewish slogans were daubed. Such are the vagaries of Hungarian politics that Jobbik has recently cleaned up its act: there are no more anti-Semitic or anti-Roma declarations. In a bid to widen its appeal, especially among the young, the party leader’s rhetoric is not more nationalistic in tone than that of Orbán, perhaps less so, while those within the party deemed guilty of anti-Roma sentiment have been disciplined or demoted; no one knows for sure for sure how genuine the transformation is, or how long it will last, or whether it will achieve its purpose.

If the accusation that Orbán is anti-Semitic requires a comprehensive response the charge of fascism can be swiftly dealt with: Orbán is insufficiently principled to merit the term. He is careful to ensure that political ideology, in which he may have some superficial intellectual interest, plays no part in his deliberations or in his policies; he is both nationalist and pragmatist, one who believes that it does not pay to take too high a view of his fellow countrymen (many of whom are all too ready to believe that the world is against them), and in whom the desire to win and to slay enemies is unusually pronounced even for a front-line political leader.

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