Jewish boycott puts Orban's statue in awkward spotlight
By Eszter Zalan
Hungary has delayed the unveiling of a controversial statue planned for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, following criticism by the country’s main Jewish organisation.
The planned memorial would depict Hungary as an angel being swooped down on by an imperial eagle symbolising Nazi Germany.
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But Jewish oganisation Mazsihisz say the statue - marking the Nazi invasion on 19 March 1944 - represents an attempt to whitewash Hungary's role in the mass deportation and murder of Hungarian Jews.
“The plans don’t take into consideration the arguments and sensitivities of the victims of the horrors of the Holocaust,” Mazsihisz said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban first sent a letter dismissing criticism. But he then asked for time to resume negotiations on the controversial statue and other projects after Easter, with the country due to have parliamentary elections beforehand. Orban is expected to come out top in the 6 April vote.
Mazsihisz would also like Orban to suspend a planned memorial centre and it objects to the appointment of a new history institute director, who has made controversial remarks diminishing the significance of the deportations.
The statue was orginally supposed to be unveiled on 19 March. This has now been pushed back until the end of May.
Mazsihisz's stance on the boycott hasn't changed. "Nothing has been resolved," said Mazsihisz president, Andras Heisler.
As a form of protest, several Jewish organisations sent back government money they have recieved for the anniversary year commemorations.
Meanwhile prominent Holocaust historian Randolph L. Braham earlier returned a high state award to Hungary.
He said "the straw that broke the camel’s back" was the planned statue.
"The history-cleansing campaign of the past few years calculated to whitewash the historical record of the Horthy era (…) to absolve Hungary from the active role it had played in the destruction of close to 600,000 of its citizens of the Jewish faith, have left me, and I assume many others, stunned," he wrote in a letterexplaining his decision.
Hungary's wartime government was an ally of Hitler and fought alongside his troops against the Soviet Union.
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote in an op-ed supporting the boycott that it would not have been possible for Nazi Germans alone to round up and deport so many Jews from Hungary in a few weeks without the help of the administration of Miklos Horthy, Hungary's wartime leader.
Orban's government has publicly pledged zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, but Jewish leaders want to see concrete action. A strong far-right movement, led by Jobbik, has already caused serious damage to Hungary's reputation.
Meanwhile, analysts suggest the controversy is also helping to mobilise support for Orban's Fidesz party.
Lauder said extreme-right forces must not be allowed to exploit the issue and called on Orban to back his rhetoric with deeds.
Eszter Zalán is a journalist at the daily newspaper, Népszabadság.