Israeli Ambassador: Hungary And Israel Are In Many Ways Similar

2013. június 14. 08:54

The Israeli-Hungarian relations are special - says Ilan Mor, the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary. According to Mr Mor, it was a good decision from the World Jewish Congress and the Hungarian government, to organize the WJC's conference in Budapest. We have talked with the Ambassador about the conference, the present and the future of the Israeli-Hungarian relations and Israel's current situation in the Middle East.

2013. június 14. 08:54
Rajcsányi Gellért
Rajcsányi Gellért

You have worked in Israel’s Foreign Service for 30 years, serving on four continents. What were the highlights of your career?

Every junior diplomat dreams of becoming an ambassador, who represents his own country and government. Since starting my career, I worked my way up, and it was not easy moving from continent to continent with my wife and children. I served in Germany twice, China, Los Angeles and in Liberia. Finally, I became an ambassador to Hungary and I am happy to serve in this beautiful country. In Europe, I feel like I am at home; in many aspects, Israel has strong ties to Europe – belonging to European culture is part of our identity and heritage.

China and Los Angeles are important for Israel and Israeli society. Does Hungary also have a special importance for Israel?

I like the fact that you used the word "special". Los Angeles is the home of the second biggest Jewish community in the United States. China is China: a leading global power in almost every aspect. We established diplomatic relations with China only in 1992, because prior to that, China traditionally supported the Arab countries. The Israeli-Hungarian relations are special because of the past, the Shoah. After World War II, and after 1956, many Jewish people emigrated from Hungary to Israel, and opened a new chapter in their lives. But they haven't forgotten their Hungarian roots. So there is a special bond in our relations: a unique influence of the past, but aimed to the future. And this is what I am doing here. I use this special bond, and encourage young Hungarians and Israelis to visit each other. For example, in May 2013, the two governments signed an agreement on youth exchanges between the two countries, the first in the history of our diplomatic relations.

You have been representing Israel in Hungary since September 2011. You have been to many places in Hungary, outside Budapest. And what do the young Hungarians know about Israel?

Our embassy's daily activities are oriented to the future. We organize many cultural activities, like film festivals, concerts. I have given lectures to many high school students all around Hungary, from Miskolc to Százhalombatta or Nagykanizsa. I ask the students: “If you hear the word “Israel”, what do you associate it with?” The answers are varied, mainly concentrating on the politics of the Middle East. Most of the students say that Israel is about religion, Judaism, and...war, terrorism, Palestinians. Yes, these are parts of our reality, but the picture is much brighter and much more colorful than this political conflict. That is why I tell them the other, the beautiful, modern aspects of my country.

In an earlier interview you stated that you want to show another Israel to the people.

I want to present Israel from a different point of view. Not the politics, but the society, its culture, science, and technology - which are not that well-known to the majority of the people in Hungary. Let me give you an example: Israel actually is a startup nation. Very few people know that there are 3,500 to 4,000 startups in Israel. This is a success story of a country with very poor natural resources: no water, no oil. Half of the country is desert, while the other half consists of hills. We took these disadvantages and turned them into an advantage. We decided to invest in the people. We invest a lot - not enough! - in education, while four to five percent of the GDP goes to research and development. Hungary and Israel are similar: we both are small countries, we have unique languages and the people are very talented. A great potential for cooperation with Israel is waiting for the Hungarian entrepreneurs. If you know each other, many stereotypes can be dissolved. You can overcome racism, anti-Semitism and other misconceptions. There are some conspiracy theories floating around in Hungary. We are proud of Israel. We defend our country. We are part of the Middle East, and we won’t go anywhere. There are threats from Iran, yes. But we have fought wars and terrorism in the past, and we have overcome them. Anyway, yes, of course there are Israelis coming to Hungary: 55,000 tourists every year, three times more than the number of Hungarians going to Israel, something that I would like to change. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land is more than welcome, but one could also look around in Israel to see a vibrant, pluralistic democracy - not without faults, of course, but the overall picture is very positive.

What are the main economic ties between Israel and Hungary nowadays?

Less high-tech, more low-tech, chemical products, engines, medical equipment. The overall turnover is a little bit more than half a billion dollars a year. Israel buys more from Hungary than sells to it. I would like to diversify the activity of Israeli companies in Hungary. I think that the current economic situation, the recession, will not last forever. It is time to think of moving forward. Last month, May 2013, we have renewed the activities of the Israeli-Hungarian Joint Economic Commission in Jerusalem. The signed protocol summarizes our current activities and draws a plan for the future. After six passive years it is in the interest of both Israel and Hungary to convene this commission again. The Hungarian high-tech sector and agriculture have great possibilities. If everything goes well, we will have the first ever Hungary-Israel Innovation Day in the autumn at the Graphisoft park in Budapest. We work with Professor Cséfalvay, young Hungarian entrepreneurs at Fivosz, and with Israeli companies.

When it comes to Hungarian-Israeli or Hungarian-Jewish relations, on one hand we hear about the rise of anti-Semitism, but on the other hand there is a Jewish renaissance in Hungary, especially in Budapest. What do you think about these developments?

There has been anti-Semitism in this country for more than two centuries. Anti-Semitism is also a worldwide phenomenon, except for one place on Earth: China. There is zero anti-Semitism there. On the contrary: in China there is a great admiration for Jewish capabilities. If you mention Albert Einstein to the Chinese their eyes open wide. Einstein is an ideal Jew for them: smart, hardworking and diligent. So China is different. The anti-Semitism in Hungary and in this part of the world is unfortunately rising, according to analyses of the Tel Aviv University on European anti-Semitism in 2012. It is also rising in France, Germany, Ukraine, and Romania. No one is immune, unfortunately.

And what about the Jewish renaissance?

I think the renaissance of the Jewish life and culture in Hungary have been a natural development since the fall of the Communist dictatorship. In today's world, once you have no constraints, once you have the freedom of movement, once you live in a democracy, it is quite natural for the Jewish community to revive. It used to be so lively, so rich in the past. Today if you walk around in the Jewish quarter in Budapest in the evening, it is as alive as it would be in Tel Aviv. The Summer Jewish Festival has become a tradition, with Israeli artists coming and participating in it. Jewish life is part of Hungary, and Hungary is part of Jewish life. You cannot disconnect them. The Jewish community contributed much in Hungary before World War I, in 1848 and during the era of prosperity under the Monarchy. The Jews were sometimes more Hungarian than the Hungarians themselves in their attitude. They left their mother tongue, like German or Polish, and spoke Hungarian. It showed their identification with Hungary. What happened in the 20th century is a tragedy for all of us. Not just for the Jews, but also for the Hungarian people. One should support and encourage the revival of the old Jewish cultural traditions. From the festivals to the old Jewish cemeteries, from the Jewish quarter in Budapest to the empty synagogue in Miskolc, it is all part of the history and the tradition, which all Hungarians, especially the younger generation, must know and cherish. The Jewish communities should reach out to the Non-Jewish people to invite them and introduce their traditions. If you talk to each other or meet each other, you reduce suspicion and fear. The Hungarian Jews are not a minority. They are Hungarians with a different religion, but they are definitely part of the Hungarian society.

The World Jewish Congress was held in Budapest: what do you think about the importance and the message of the location?

It was a good decision from the two sides, the WJC and the Hungarian government, to organize the conference in Budapest. It was an act of solidarity with the Jewish community in a not-so-easy time, and on the other hand it was a demonstration of determination of the Hungarian government to support the Jewish community and to send a message to those out there, who do not like the Jewish community, and I am being very diplomatic now. I think both sides can be satisfied with the aftermath of the conference. Everything went well. The Hungarian Jewish community got support from their brothers and sisters from all over the world, issues were discussed in a very friendly way, and decisions were made. Now we have to wait and see. I personally see that this is a window of opportunity to work and fight together against anti-Semitism. It was good that it happened and I think the conference could be a new beginning in the relationship.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was very active in those days, trying to prevent any anti-Jewish protest in Budapest. Was the Embassy of Israel aware of these efforts?

Of course, the whole world was aware of it: he tried to use the law to prevent an anti-Jewish demonstration and it is also known that the Supreme Court dismissed the decision, and finally allowed these people to demonstrate. It shows that, in a democracy you win some, you lose some, but you must be vigilant in protecting the democracy. Unfortunately, in the case of hate speech and racism, democracy should defend itself. Personally I believe that when the freedom of speech - which is sacred! - abuses this freedom and insults minority groups based upon race, religion, sex, we must limit it. I know that it is against the liberal ideal of the freedom of speech, but when this freedom is abused, it becomes dangerous. Because words can kill. Yes, words can kill. We know it from our own young dark experience, when words led to the murdering of our prime minister. We have to be very careful in times when a young democracy is developing. If you have the proper legislation against hate speeches, it is good but not enough. If you don't implement the spirit of the law, then the law remains a dead word in the law books. Democracy must defend itself. There is no contradiction between values and drawing limits against attempts to abuse them.

The Prime Minister also held a speech at the World Jewish Congress, in which he declared a policy of zero tolerance against anti-Semitism. What’s your evaluation?

It was not the first time that he said it. We appreciate these statements. Those are wise words. Now deeds must follow.

However, there was a conflict at the end of the congress: Mr. Ronald Lauder criticized Mr. Orban's speech but later stated that the prime minister really did make a strong statement against Jobbik. What do you think about this affair at the end of the congress?

I know only what I read in the newspapers. I think that the interview with Mr Orbán in Yedioth Ahronoth, the number one daily newspaper in Israel, is very important. I know many people read it. The interview got a lot of attention. The message in the interview is clear: Mr. Orbán would not cooperate in any way, inside or outside the government with Jobbik. This is a strong political statement.

Ilan Mor at the Danube's flood in Szentendre

An article of the Jerusalem Post in 2012 stated: "Isolated, feeling misunderstood and misrepresented, Hungary is getting a taste of what Israel goes through". How would you react to that?

Sometimes I get this feeling of déja vu. When I hear the news about Hungary's relations with the EU, the USA and neighboring countries, I think that Israel has been in this precare situation for many years. So I can sympathize with the feeling of Hungary being isolated, outcast, fighting for legitimacy, being criticized day and night in the international forum. The conflict in the Middle East, and misperceptions regarding Israel, there are efforts to boycott and sanction Israel. Of course, Hungary is far from this situation, but being attacked, being always on the defensive and trying to explain your position, the context, etc., give me déja vu. Hungary is part of the European Union in a globalized world. There are different opinions, debates within the EU’s 27 member states, but you have an advantage that the Middle East doesn't have: you talk to each other. You never use violence to solve potential differences! In the Middle East, the rules of the game are different.

As long as we’re talking about the Middle East, in one of your earlier interviews you mentioned, "if we really wanted to, we could solve the Israeli-Arab conflict in fifteen minutes." How?

It is symbolic: the conflict could be solved in a very short time. Two states for two nations, living side by side, recognizing each other, respecting each other, and finally they would put the conflict aside, once and for all. All the components of the solution are on the table. We have to sit down and talk. Once we talk, there is a positive dynamic. Ramallah and Jerusalem are just seven minutes away from each other by car. We have to read the Old Testament, the fight between Abraham and Lot for the water. Abraham told Lot, “you go to the right, I go the left, and both of us will have our own territory.” That was the first political compromise in the history. Let us learn from it. Very simple. If everyone is sincere in solving the conflict, the peace is possible. But it takes two to tango, and we in Israel do not see at this point in time a sincere and devoted Palestinian partner who is ready to talk to us without precondition. Israel remains devoted to peace under the principle “to live and let live”.

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