World Jewish Congress Meets in Hungary
My wife and I arrived in Budapest, Hungary days for an unforgettable Shabbat and three day World Jewish Congress (WJC) Plenary Assembly held on May 5 – 7, 2013, which we attended as part of the 18-person Canadian delegation. This was our first time visiting Budapest and although it seems to be a rather cosmopolitan city, certain of its elements were reminiscent of a past Soviet era.
The WJC traditionally meets in Israel every four years to discuss pressing issues facing Jewry, to set policy and to elect its officers. But this plenary was different. With nearly 500 other delegates and observers from over 100 countries, we made a statement to the world: we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community of Hungary.
There’s a vibrant Jewish community in Hungary today numbering over 120,000 people, considered to be the second largest in Europe. Among them, Michael Miller, a multilingual Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class 7, who is originally from New York and moved to Budapest 12 years ago to teach at the Central European University. We met Michael one night when, thanks to Cindy Chazan’s introduction, for an evening lecture he organized on his campus on Jewish Refugees from the Middle East (a topic of the WJC assembly as well), followed by a traditional Hungarian meal at a nearby restaurant.
“Why meet in Budapest?,” Michael asked us. Although anti-Semitism is on an upswing globally, it’s particularly bad in Hungary, where the neo-Fascist political party Jobbik, had grown to be the third largest in their legislature. Jobbik’s leadership last year called openly for a list of Hungarian Jews to be provided to the government to enable the state to monitor the “security threat” they pose. This party supports the overturning of the ban on Nazi symbols, espouses extreme anti-semitic, anti-Israel and anti-Roma rhetoric and, most recently, succeeded in appealing to the courts to overturn a government ban and held a demonstration against our WJC plenary claiming that “international Jews” had come “to buy up” Hungary. Michael noted that the WJC’s gathering in Budapest had drawn much attention from local and international media.
Our gathering in Hungary certainly had an impact though time will tell to which extent. The local Jewish community appeared elated to host the delegates from all over the world. We began our visit with Shabbat at the renowned 19th century Dohàny synagogue (second largest in the world), followed by dinner at the Jewish Community Centre, which happens to be on the exact site where Theodor Herzl’s childhood home stood.
In the face of all the protests and anti-semitic rhetoric, the delegates of the WJC united at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Budapest amidst tremendous police security of over 300 Hungarian security agents, local and international politicians and media, and more than 500 participants, to publicly support the local Jewish community and openly pressure the Hungarian government to take a more vigilant stance against the rise in anti-semitism. The atmosphere was electric.
The Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán gave the opening address in Hungarian, with simultaneous translation in more than 7 languages. While there was disappointment with the absence of any specific criticism of Jobbik, the PM’s undertaking to enhance Holocaust education and unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism drew some comfort. I was struck by the second day of the assembly where it was a remarkable sight to witness the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle speak passionately about his trips to Israel and his country’s responsibilities including the need for all Europeans to remember the Holocaust and to stand up for Israel’s rights to self-defense and to live in peace. His passion, warmth and genuineness earned him a standing ovation from the World Jewish Congress; what a development, particularly in the city of Budapest where the Jewish population was decimated during the last year of the Shoa with the mistreatment and ultimate murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews.
During the plenary, we had the privilege of hearing from senior business, political and religious leaders and discussing the depths of certain compelling Jewish issues such as the Claims of Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and the continuous rise of neo-fascist groups in Hungary, Greece, Germany and certain other European countries. On one of our breaks, we encountered another welcomed surprise Wexner moment. My wife spotted Rabbi Michael Paley who taught us a course on Islam during our 2011 Wexner Summer Institute in Utah, so we both ran up to him like young students meeting up with their teacher outside of school! It was good to see Rabbi Paley, particularly given the distant location and the exciting occasion we were gathering for.
Notwithstanding all the amazing encounters and exchanges, I was most humbled by the courage of an elderly Hungarian Jewish survivor who gently rose to the stage for the closing ceremony and shared her experience of surviving the Holocaust in Hungary. She described to a large room of fellow Jews, politicians, journalists and outright strangers the details of her struggle to survive the Holocaust. You were able to hear a pin drop as everyone in the room, including the security agents, technicians and support crew, paid special honour and close attention to each word that was spoken. We all bore witness in the very city where such genocidal devastation, outrageous horror and senseless loss took place. When the elderly survivor exited the hall, the numbness of the experience continued until a young girl walked on to the stage holding one burning candle. Then music began to play and we joined the familiar melody, rededicating ourselves to the work ahead as we ended the plenary singing the closing stanza of Hatikvah.
Jason Caron, a Wexner Heritage alum from Montreal 09, sits on the board of directors of several non-profit organizations, including Federation CJA and CIJA Quebec. Between 2002 and 2010, Jason was also the lecturer of the course ‘Business Law II’ at McGill University’s Centre for Continuing Education which outlined the essentials of business law in Quebec. Jason is the Director of Legal Affairs, Canada of Covidien Canada.