In an in-depth article, Hungarian journalist Dóra Ónody-Molnár analyses why Fidesz and the press of the ruling party have attacked the elderly philanthropist and businessman. Is Soros's Jewish heritage a factor contributing to why he has been singled out as public enemy number one?
By Dóra Ónody-Molnár
Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, has launched a concerted series of public attacks, more intense than ever, against George Soros. The prime minister and Fidesz politicians claim that the Jewish-American billionaire is working to ensure that migrants are settled in Hungary. As part of this firing squad attack, these politicians (with the help of the broad-reaching media controlled by the ruling party) have been accusing Soros for months in connection with the refugee crisis. Since then, mudslinging at Soros has dominated the Hungarian public discourse. Although his Jewish heritage is not explicitly referred to by politicians, the majority of the Hungarian public associate this with any mentions of Soros.
This article analyses why Fidesz and the press of the ruling party have attacked the elderly philanthropist and businessman, and whether his Jewish heritage is a factor contributing to why he has been singled out as public enemy number one.
Friend or foe
For a long time, the political strategy of Fidesz has been based on permanent warfare. This policy divides the world into two opposing camps: “us”, the Hungarians, on one side: the uniquely talented nation with its “own special procedures”, burdened with the wounds of history; and on the other side, “them”: attempting to prevent us from reaching the standard of living that we deserve. These enemies can be both external and internal, the former including Brussels or the international press, while the latter include the Hungarian opposition and the liberal intelligentsia.
The strategy of Fidesz is built up on the continuous strengthening of cohesion through positive feelings, while increasing negative feelings towards opponents. The rhetoric of cohesion exploits national sentiment and a completely outdated, marginalising, ethnicity-based nationalism. Negative feelings are generated through anxiety about foreigners and anger towards the evil forces allied against us. The basis of Fidesz’s identity politics is the unending battle between good and evil, us and them, Hungarians and foreigners, respectable people who work hard to earn a living and speculators, etc.
Give us this day our daily enemy
This state of unending hostilities, besides creating a permanent state of alert, serves two purposes for Fidesz. 1) When you are inside a besieged fortress, it is no time to address the issue of the family and friends of the captain gathering wealth at record speeds. In a time of siege, there is no dialogue and no dissension. The underlying principle is that we can only win if we stick together and follow orders. 2) A large part of the Hungarian population is frustrated and dissatisfied with their level of income, standard of living, and services provided by the state. If the enemy is attacking, then all problems can be blamed on it – not on the government. Meanwhile, this shifting of responsibility keeps the voter base unified.
It is for this reason that Fidesz couldn’t care less who the enemy is – all that matters is that there always be an enemy. It makes no difference what the other party actually did, someone is appointed to this role. They then proceed to battle against this enemy for a week, two months, four years, depending on the potential of the opponent. Once it loses its power to mobilise people, it is discarded and replaced.
Over the last years, Fidesz has fought against speculators, credit rating institutions, NGOs funded by the Norwegian Fund, offshore profiteers, liberal philosophers, public utilities companies, shopping centres, MEP Rui Tavares, banks providing foreign currency loans, and – above all – Brussels.
A year and a half ago, it started a battle against the drug mafia. This only lasted two weeks however, because nationwide outrage broke out once they announced that all schoolchildren would be subjected to compulsory urine tests. For a day or two they still said that anyone who opposed the idea was siding with the drug dealers, but then quickly dropped the topic. But the public didn’t have to wait long for a new topic, as not even a week went by before a new target was found: the migrants.
The perfect target
Refugees became Fidesz’s favourite enemy. The battle against them has lasted a year and a half – few enemies were given this much time. At first the machinery moved slowly, as at this time last year, the greater mass of refugees had not yet set out, but the government had no need to worry, as this problem was soon solved. By autumn, all the necessary factors were present for a successful campaign:
- Even by international standards, the Hungarian population strongly rejects immigrants and foreigners.
- Although refugees were only passing through Hungary, this was sufficient to provide the necessary verisimilitude.
- The EU crisis response (quota recommendations) fit in perfectly with the anti-Brussels Hungarian freedom-fighting narrative which was already in place.
- Fidesz has for a long time defined itself as being on the side of the nation, and regularly calls into question the patriotism of various political actors. The refugee issue has helped it to strengthen this division: while the government protects Hungarian interests, opponents don’t care about national security.
- By taking over the xenophobic topic which was traditionally connected with the extreme-right, Fidesz managed to halt the dynamic growth of the extremist Jobbik party, which was threatening its position.
All roads lead to Soros
The government announced that it would halt the flow of refugees; however, the plan was too successful. While the fence put up along Hungary’s southern border did not stop migration towards Europe, and only changed its trajectory, the number of refugees present in Hungary dropped noticeably. Accordingly, government strategists had to work harder to keep the topic on the agenda.
Once there were no more refugees, people became less interested in the refugee crisis and again began to raise internal policy issues. The government tried everything to increase the sense of threat (for example, citing the threat of terrorism, it launched a constitutional amendment procedure which would have given it very broad powers by limiting fundamental rights), and did not permit the level of mobilisation to decrease (it launched a referendum process against Hungary having to accept refugees on the basis of the quota system), but once the EU signed an agreement with Turkey, the whole issue began to lose its momentum. With less refugees, there were less news stories about refugees. This turning point happened at exactly the time that a major professional/political opposition movement emerged, the biggest ever since Orban came to power. Forceful centralization of the public education system, limits on the freedoms of teachers and continuous budgetary cuts ignited longstanding dissatisfaction in the education sector. As a result, repeated demonstrations and protests broke out since February of this year, visibly alarming the government.
It was at this moment that they brought back a former enemy, once discarded, but still useable: George Soros. The current series of attacks are not without precedent. The name of Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire who has supported human rights organisations through his foundations for nearly three decades, had come up from time to time in the past. For example, in 2013, a Fidesz spokesperson accused the Helsinki Committee of “receiving funding from organisations connected to George Soros so that, in exchange, it can discredit Hungary, Fidesz and the Hungarian government.” Later however, a court ordered the politician to apologise for these statements.
Soros was drawn back into the spotlight when Fidesz tried to discredit organisations taking part in education-related protests by claiming that Soros was behind all of their activities. However, they soon realized that things were not so simple: they had to start by discrediting Soros himself so that they could later discredit others by being connected with him. It was for this reason that they connected Soros with the migration crisis, which had the side benefit of breathing new life into a lagging topic.
The whole set-up is the same as always: on one side is the (Jewish American) billionaire with the NGOs “mobilised” by him, seeking to settle refugees in Hungary; on the other side is the government, fighting for the sovereignty of the country.
Anti-Semitism or not?
“There are international forces working to ensure that as many migrants as possible are brought into Hungary and (…) the other countries of the European Union. Whatever you say about the person who is financing this, regardless of his achievements in the former anti-communist time, what he is doing today goes against Hungary’s national interests, and – as we are not mercenaries, but instead stand for the interests of our homeland – we must make this clear”, stated Viktor Orban before the Parliament1 .
On the Atv.hu news portal, the Prime Minister’s leading cabinet minister János Lázár announced that secret service reports proved the influence of George Soros on Hungary, adding that there is not a single organisation supporting the migrants and connected with the opposition that is not backed by the money of the American businessman2.
“The Parliamentary Committee for National Security, the President and Vice-President of the National Defence Committee are in possession of secret service information indicating that the so-called humanitarian human rights organisation are encouraging and helping hundreds of thousands, even millions of illegal migrants to enter Europe”, stated Fidesz vice-president Szilárd Németh3. He claimed that the reports clearly showed that George Soros was the main funder behind these organisations.
It must be noted at this point that the prominent personalities in leading positions within the Fidesz parties, most of all the prime minister himself, were at one time beneficiaries of the Soros funding system. At the time of the regime change, Viktor Orban studied in England on a Soros Foundation scholarship – a circumstance which does not in any way however prevent him from vehemently attacking his former benefactor. This contradiction would not surprise anyone familiar with the prime minister’s relationship with the EU: he makes daily attacks on the very institution which essentially funds all of Hungary’s public investment projects.
Use of traditional Anti-Semitic themes
According to some, the above statements sketch out the sort of conspiracy with which anti-Semites traditionally accuse Jews: they run the world and hold actual power, they stand behind politicians and, through behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, bring ruin onto others.
This type of anti-Semitic topos was disturbingly revived in a recent statement of the Hungarian prime minister. When, not long ago, Bill Clinton said that Hungarians want a Putin-like leader, Viktor Orban reacted by saying: “the mouth is Clinton’s, but the voice is George Soros’”4. He went on to call the organisations financed by Soros “background powers”.
With this sentence, he also claimed that even an influential politician such as Bill Clinton does not speak his own opinion, but that of his backers. Meanwhile, the expression “background powers” is primarily found in anti-Semitic pamphlet writing.
However, none of the above statements make a single direct reference to his Jewish ethnicity, and the issue does not come up even in the most virulent anti- Soros government attacks. For this reason, many people think that there is no anti-Semitic aspect to this campaign. According to publicist László Seres, “the opposition image drawn around the person of Soros works even without any anti-Jewish racial slurs: he is the ideal target as a dangerous neo-liberal with a hidden agenda, a major capitalist who supports migrants, with his own network backing him up and funding opponents”5.
Gábor Horn, a former liberal politician, presents similar arguments. “It is a common presumption that the Prime Minister’s attack on Soros are essentially anti-Semitic. I think that this misses the point. Orbán is not an anti-Semite and the promotion of anti-Semitism is not in his interests, although he probably does not mind if anyone who wants to and likes to chooses to read this into his attacks on Soros”.
This debate cannot be resolved at this point. The government has made many symbolic gestures towards Jewish organisations, but it has also taken many steps – perhaps as part of its competition with the extreme right – which contributed more to increasing than decreasing anti-Semitism. It uses topics very similar to those used by anti-Semites, and the anti-Soros campaign falls under this category as well. Meanwhile, the solution is perhaps simply that the Hungarian prime minister, as in so many other areas these days, is following the Russian example in taking measures against Soros. As Gábor Horn (cited above) put it: “the mouth is Orban’s, but the voice is Putin’s”.