Rabbi Yoni Golker hosted Hungarian Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky and renowned author Douglas Murray for an engaging conversation as part of the Judaism Alive Series, on 13 November 2019, at the St John’s Woods Synagogue in Central London.

During his opening remarks, Douglas Murray noted that his personal experience seemed to contradict some of the “incredibly easy and very lazy analyses” published by mainstream media. He pointed to an “extraordinary breakdown of understanding” between Eastern and Western Europe, with some Western European leaders treating the former in a rather condescending manner, often perceiving them as “junior partners”. Murray warned against a malicious stereotype concerning the Hungarian Government and Hungarian people, which claims that “seemingly, they could do absolutely nothing right”. Murray cited the family support policy efforts, the help to persecuted Christians and the safety the Jewish community enjoys in Budapest compared to other capital cities of Europe as important areas for reflection.

Ambassador Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky used his opening remark to emphasize the importance of engagement and outreach in the work of an ambassador, and expressed his appreciation for the warm welcome he received from the Synagogue’s community. Referring to Hungary’s change of system in 1989, the Ambassador accentuated, that the successful transformation lead to today’s Hungary, which is stable, safe, democratic and prosperous. The Jewish community is embraced as part of the Hungarian character and while things can always be improved upon, today our Jewish population is supported in various different ways, and enjoys a vibrant life both in Budapest and in the countryside. Their security is seen as an absolute priority by the government, which as a result, adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and introduced zero tolerance against anti-Semitic actions, instilled in national legislation. Consequently, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary is one of the lowest in Europe and continues to decrease year by year. The Hungarian government is working to rebuild trust with the Jewish community by accepting responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust (the Ambassador quoted Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in this instance).

Douglas Murray went for difficult and tricky questions, tackling topics from the stigmatisation of the Hungarian government as anti-democratic, the meaning of the often-quoted ‘illiberal democracy’, the existence of far-right political movements in Hungary and the adversity with George Soros. The Hungarian Ambassador explained the underlining view of the Hungarian government, that following a series of democratic elections (and the Hungarian government is now in its third consecutive term with two-third majority in Parliament) it should be able to utilise its mandate to govern. Its goal is to introduce changes that will support its vision for Hungary, a Central European way of life based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, patriotism, the nation state and families, and to fight those who fundamentally challenge this at a political level, such as George Soros.

In closing, Douglas Murray thanked the Ambassador for the “frankness and equanimity” he showed when tackling some exceptionally difficult issues raised. He also urged members of the audience to visit Central Europe and Budapest to see for themselves, as he did, how excellent the exhibitions on aforementioned topics are. Rabbi Yoni Golker praised the initiative of the Hungarian Embassy to reach out to the Jewish community, a sentiment expressed by audience members as well.