WASHINGTON — A new project by the Hungarian government to burnish its image in Washington appears to be paying off, as the head of a new organization created as a non-profit to advance Hungary's interests in the U.S. won a statement from a New Jersey Republican congressman defending Hungary from charges of anti-Semitism.
In the statement, Rep. Chris Smith cited "the long list of significant actions the Orbán government has taken to combat anti-Semitism in Hungarian society" and dismissed criticism from Jewish leaders and others as "unfair, involving double standards,
misrepresentatíons, and inaccurate information."
A staffer from the Helsinki Commission, which Smith co-chairs, sent the statement to Tamas Fellegi, a former minister in in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government who is establishing Friends of Hungary, a 501(c)3 non-profit group aligned with the government. Fellegi testified about anti-Semitism in Europe in front of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of which Smith is also a co-chair. Smith's principal advisor on the Helsinki Commission, Mark Milsoch, promptly forwarded the statement to Fellegi in an email from March 21 obtained by BuzzFeed.
In the statement, submitted for the record for a Helsinki Commission meeting which Smith couldn't attend, Smith writes that he's sure Hungary will effectively deal with the persistent social problem of a right-wing extremist party that has made shocking statements about Jews, Roma, and gay people.
One of the witnesses was Tamás Fellegi, a former minister in the Orbán government, who is himself Jewish. His testimony was impressive, as was the long list of significant actions the Orbán government has taken to combat anti-Semitism in Hungarian society.
Mr. Fellegi admitted frankly that anti-Semitism is a serious social problem in Hungary.
Fortunately, the Orhan government is on a clear upward trajectory here, and gives every sign that it will continue to be part of the solution rather than the problem. I'm confident it will particularly take on the persistent attempts to rehabilitate Holocaust perpetrators and vicious anti-Semites, both from the 1930s and 1940s and today. I will certainly continue to urge it to do so.
Smith goes on to write that he perceives the criticism of Orban's government for not dealing effectively with the problem as unfair. He argues that the Obama administration is particularly unqualified to levy criticism at Orban because of Obamacare.
We all know that many NGOs and a few governments, including our own, have been vocal
in criticizing the Hungarian government on various grounds touching on democracy and human rights - and that the Hungarian government and its supporters have rejected these criticisms vigorously.
Having reviewed material on both sides, I must say that I believe the Orban government is
right when it says that many of the criticisms are unfair, involving double standards,
misrepresentatíons, and inaccurate information. The Hungarian government has carefully documented this, for example in its "Open Letter to Freedom House."
For another example, the administration, in criticizing the Orbán government's adoption of
a new constitution, claims in its written testimony that in "fundamental" matters, "the process must lead to a consensus built from a cross-section of society, rather than reflect only the opinions of the ruling coalition. . . the lack of serious consultation with different sectors of society, did not honor the democratic spirit. . ." Anyone familiar with the passage of the Obamacare legislation might well question whether this is a message our government is ideally situated to deliver. Certainly it should have avoided the rude insinuation about democracy.
The statement is dated March 19, a few weeks after Fellegi testified in a February 27th meeting on "Anti-Semitism: A Threat to All Faiths" convened by another foreign affairs committee Smith co-chairs. Smith's opening statement at that meeting presaged what he wrote in the March statement: "One thing the witnesses will address is whether elected officials are fulfilling their responsibility to speak out publicly against any expressions of anti-Semitic hate," Smith said. "In this respect, I want to recognize the leadership Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has shown in the fight against anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Orbán has taken his government into the vanguard of those fighting anti-Semitism in Europe." And it mirrored what Fellegi himself said at the first meeting, in which he argued that virulent ant-Semitic sentiment was limited to just one political party and that Jewish life was experiencing a renaissance in Hungary.
Yet Orban has been roundly criticized for not doing nearly enough to stop the aggressively anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric of the far-right nationalist party Jobbik, whose members have called for a national registry of Jews in Hungary and described them as a "national security risk."
"Disturbingly, Prime Minister Viktor Orban took almost a week to add his voice to the reprobation with a vow to protect his country's 100,000 Jews, though he didn't denounce Jobbik by name," wrote Bloomberg's Max Berley in December. "Unfortunately, the delay wasn't much of a surprise: In solidifying his hold on power, Orban has shown a disquieting tolerance for Jobbik, the third-biggest party in Parliament, and for its bald appeals to the politics of resentment."
In June of last year, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel returned an award he'd received from the Hungarian government in 2004 as an act of protest against the speaker of Hungary's parliament attending a memorial ceremony for an infamous Nazi sympathizer named Jozsef Nyiro.
Just this month, Hungary was forced by FIFA to play a soccer World Cup qualifier in an empty stadium because of the problems with crowds of extremist anti-Semitic fans.
A spokesman for Smith didnt immediately return a request for comment on how he came to take the Hungarian side of the dispute.
Fellegi confirmed that he will be in charge of setting up Friends of Hungary, for which the government has budgeted $15 million and which will be established as a non-profit in the United States. While that's an increasingly popular way around strict American rules on the registration of foreign agents, Friends of Hungary's direct funding by the Hungarian government means it will be required to file under the Foreign Agent Registration Act like other foreign principals.
"I can confirm that I'm on the Board of Trustees and my responsibility is to set up the foundation," Fellegi said in an email. "I cannot tell more before the board meeting(s) which will make the strategic decisions about the build-up, programs, etc."