From Orban to Bibi: The writers and editors of Izraelinfo, a Hungarian-language Israeli news site, watched one of their countries slowly creep away from democracy. Seeing the same signs crop up in Israel, they warn: 'Speak out as long as you still can'
By Nettanel Slyomovics. Haaretz
Sandor Sillo doesn’t know how his name made its way into a blacklist in Hungary. As a theater director, dramaturg and set designer, he was working on a production of Romeo and Juliet. One of his friends, a theater manager in Budapest, told him about a letter which had marked him as a person who could not be employed by the theater. Thus, at the age of 53, life as he knew it ended, because the regime of Viktor Orban saw him as a threat. “I wasn’t involved in politics at all,” says Sillo. “Pessimists know when to leave,” he explains in an interview with Haaretz. “I didn’t know much about Israel, only what they wrote in the paper, but I went to the office of the Jewish Agency, and that’s how I immigrated eight years ago. Why was I marked? I think that someone who didn’t like me got into an important position in the regime.” Krisztina Politzer-Maymon, who came to Israel in the 90s, adds: “We know from history that when a regime writes up blacklists, people who simply annoyed people with power very quickly make it in.” 'Why was I marked? I think that someone who didn’t like me got into an important position in the regime.' Sillo and Politzer-Maymon are on the editorial board of Izraelinfo, the Hungarian-language news website in Israel. Two weeks ago, they convened for an editorial meeting in the latter’s house, along with three of the website’s correspondents and editors. They all volunteer at the website, as well as at a non-profit organization that seeks to "Preserve and foster Hungarian culture in Israel, as well as the legacy of immigrants from Hungary." They hold events for people who came from the country, and even published a book about Hungarian Jews who contributed to the state, which included an article by opposition leader Yair Lapid about his father. All of them work in diverse professions, but their website has recently become more significant than ever. Izraelinfo has its roots of the website go back to a tourist blog founded by Peter Frank, 53, who is currently the site’s editor-in-chief. After immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, when he was 26, Frank wanted to show Hungarians the beautiful side of Israel, the one they did not see on the news. “Israel was associated with bombs and questions about security. I wanted to show that there is a really beautiful country here, with diverse people, full of life. So I wrote another blog about Israeli cuisine and another one about excursions. When my brother asked me why I had several different blogs, I decided to combine them into one website. I was immediately joined by other people, and we got started.” That’s how Izraelinfo was born. 'If I ask, for example, why classrooms in my children’s kindergartens are overcrowded, they tell me I’m a leftist.'
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's legal trials were a watershed moment for Frank and the website he edits. This is when he and his friends were deeply reminded of Hungary. They realized that they had a duty to raise a red flag and warn about processes they identified in the two countries they held dear. “During the trial, we started seeing first signs with which we were familiar. We said to ourselves, this is exactly what’s happening in Hungary. It’s the same. You see how it happens, slowly, and it's frightening to watch. I’m worried about our country,” Frank says. From Israel, they watched Viktor Orban’s victory in 2010, followed by a creeping takeover of all the centers of nodes in Hungary. Law after law, regulation after regulation, step by step. Thirteen years later, now that Orban’s Hungary is no longer a democracy by any Western standard, they are truly worried about the fate of Israel. They’ve learned to identify patterns of behavior from Hungary’s authoritarian leader, and they see the warning signs in Israel, too. Israelis, though, often cannot identify these as well as the Hungarian immigrants can, especially when some of the incipient signs are covert. Most Israelis have not seen what the website's editors have, and do not understand just how far it might go. A creeping revolution Ferenc Fleischer is the pen name of one of the prominent writers for Izraelinfo. The name is symbolic: “My grandmother’s younger brother died in the Holocaust. He was young and had no children, so I use his name, since I can’t use my own. Ferenc didn’t have an opportunity to live, so I try to provide him with a new life. When I saw stories written by Peter [Frank], I called him right away since I wanted to join. This website is the true voice of Israel in the Hungarian language.” Ferenc's pen name recalls the terrifying history on which this fear – of being the allegorical frog slowly boiled in the rising heat – is built. The fate of the Hungarian Jews who did not escape in the 1930s is a memory seared into their collective consciousness. The bitter memory of living under a dictatorship is a personal one for each of them. “My mother didn’t immigrate in 1948, or in 1956 [the year of the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union] either, even though they were sitting on their suitcases. They were packed in 1956, but there were always reasons to remain. Once they even sold their house, but they ended up staying,” remembers Ferenc. 'Here in Israel, we haven’t yet reached their level of divisiveness, but there it’s already permeated families. Everything is more aggressive; there are families where people don’t talk to one another.'
Ferenc came to Israel at the first opportunity, after the fall of the Soviet bloc. “My mother still didn’t want me to come to Israel, and she had good reason to. She told me I’d be cleaning houses despite having a master's degree. This was in 1992, when Hungary was still a democracy, but there were already signs of what was coming in [Orban’s] party. I hadn’t started working yet, so I said that this was the right moment to immigrate, and I did.” Ferenc and her friends’ concern for the future of the country they chose to live in is expressed through their writing on the website. Even though its circulation is limited to Hungarian-speakers, the experience and knowledge that these writers have gained is unique. When they talk about plans to weaken the judiciary and about shutting down the public broadcaster, as people who know Hungary, they can unequivocally determine that this is all part of one larger plan, and this is only the beginning. Izraelinfo's editorial board. When asked why intellectuals like them are so threatening to rulers like Orban, Sillo said, 'This is a tactic we know from Goebbels.'Credit: David Bachar
“Rulers like Orban aren’t interested in just one area,” says Politzer-Maymon. “The justice system and the media are the focus, of course, and later universities and the army, are, too – all in one move. The ultimate goal is to create an irreversible situation. The aim is to create a rigid system in which Orban cannot be removed from the royal palace in Budapest.” When they describe Orban’s creeping revolution, they point to his inclination to set several processes in motion at the same time. Everything happened in parallel, everywhere at once, and that made it difficult for the opposition to see the full picture. When the major reform in the judicial system took place there, people did not protest. When Orban's regime depleted university budgets and founded an anti-liberal research institution called MCC, he also changed public education so that it would stop at age 16, instead of 18. Only people with money and loyalty to the regime are entitled to higher education. Only someone who is friendly to the anti-democratic ideology is invited to MCC. “People with money continue to benefit from an education, since they have the means for private education. Orban also slashed education and health budgets, and lowered taxes to a minimum,” notes Ferenc. Frank explains that this “preserves ignorance.” 'the greatest criticism we get in online comments is that we’re like Haaretz, or that we’re leftists. We don’t have a problem with that.' Politzer-Maymon notes that this had a big effect on the middle class. “There was a brain drain. I have some friends who remained, but their goal was for their children to leave.” According to Ferenc, 9.7 million Hungarians lived in the country when Orban came to power, but since then, 900,000 people have left. This was a voluntary exile of liberals. Just this month, in Orban’s 13th year as prime minister, it became clear that another one of his covert processes had reached its culmination without anyone noticing it: The defanging of the army. A laconically worded law set a younger retirement age for generals, leading to the departure of hundreds of them. The bureaucratic language obscured a massive dismissal of all the army’s top brass, replaced by younger Orban loyalists. “Hundreds of officers were pensioned off within days,” says Frank. “That was the time it took his schools to create a new generation of officers,” notes Politzer-Maymon. "This was the method. They said that all they wanted was to make room for younger people. That’s how you explain it in two sentences and then move on.”
Rubber bones Along with weakening key centers of power – the justice system, the media, academic institutions and the army – Orban’s Hungary is busy dismantling social mechanisms at every possible level. “This applies to the very lowest levels in government offices. For example, they’ve stopped publishing openings for available jobs. People no longer know why they don’t get a position. But the main thing is that people who seek such posts are afraid,” notes Ferenc. Politzer-Maymon adds: “There are a lot of distractions. In Hungary they call them 'rubber bones,' that is, diversions. In order for the opposition not to talk about larger problems such as education, poverty and unemployment, they talk about surgery for transgender people. Here in Israel, it could be a debate about bringing a bit of chametz into a hospital over Passover.” Ferenc wants to clarify, and her friends concur, that in Orban’s Hungary is undergoing a “politicization of everything.” “If I ask, for example, why classrooms in my children’s kindergartens are overcrowded, they tell me I’m a leftist," she says. "You can no longer talk about anything without politics being brought in.” This phenomenon has even entered supermarkets, where products suddenly disappear from shelves for no apparent reason. Politicization seeps into to the family unit, sometimes dividing it. “Here in Israel, we haven’t yet reached their level of divisiveness, but there it’s already permeated families. Everything is more aggressive; there are families where people don’t talk to one another.” Gabriella Fenyves, a 58-year-old painter who writes for the website, points to Orban’s expertise: “It’s the principle of divide and rule. He manages to stoke anger between people so that they don’t trust each other. Even within the Jewish community.” Indeed, Izraelinfo's writers have personally felt the rift among Hungarians. Although they are a small group, they have managed to set up a serious editorial board that has published 8,000 articles thus far. Among these are some extensive investigative reports, such as one by Politzer-Maymon that looked into personal relations between members of Orban’s party and Likud members. Even though it is not well-known in Israel, Orban’s regime takes Izraelinfo very seriously. The regime has gone as far as to establish an alternate website for Hungarian Jews, one which presents Orban in a positive light. “Five people work there," says Frank, noting that their “competitors” have even approached him. “They proposed that I write for them. I told them I’d be happy to, on the condition that I could write freely. It turned out that that was impossible.” Politzer-Maymon says that “the greatest criticism we get in online comments is that we’re like Haaretz, or that we’re leftists. We don’t have a problem with that.” The 52-year-old immigrated to Israel after attaining two academic degrees, one of them with the help of a scholarship from George Soros, the Hungarian Jew who has become a target for antisemites and for Netanyahu's son Yair alike. In Israel, she is a lawyer specializing in labor law. “Not everyone here is left-wing, but everyone here believes in the values of liberalism, equality and the opportunity to voice criticism. I am a Zionist, and when I write about something that’s wrong here, it’s not because I don’t like living here – on the contrary.” When asked why intellectuals like them are so threatening to rulers like Orban, Sillo said, "This is a tactic we know from Goebbels, or from political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. It’s the same thing. Authoritarian figures know that intellectuals are like a vaccine against their spirit.” Frank replies that “Intellectuals refuse to take part in this engineering of consciousness”; Politzer-Maymon says, “You could say that we’re a thorn in their butt.” Regardless, the website's contributors remain optimistic. "I’m optimistic for the same reason I came to Israel," Politzer-Maymon says. "Society here is much stronger and much more diverse. We are capable of overcoming this.” Fenyves notes that feudalist thinking is deeply embedded in Hungarian culture, but that it is not a feature in Israel. Ferenc says, “The problem with Hungary is that it jumped from feudalism directly to communism. Here in Israel, you have citizens. Citizens are unwilling to be subjects.” Do you have any advice for Israelis who don’t know Hungary? Frank says, “Speak out as long as you still can. Unite around a common denominator. Put aside any controversies and look for charismatic leaders.” Ferenc, for her part, adds: “Simply put up a fight. It must be stopped. We have no choice. We need to take to the streets. We need to oppose this. We can’t let the same thing happen here.”