Frans Timmermans must respect the dignity of Holocaust victims

Political debates can get nasty. A certain amount of give-and-take comes with the territory, and as a spokesperson, I’ve experienced it firsthand. There are red lines that should not be crossed, though, and assailing the dignity of the victims of mass genocide crosses the brightest of them. Every reasonable person, including European Commission Vice President Timmermans, should know that no matter how deep the political disagreement, Holocaust victims should not be exploited as weapons in such a fight.

Here’s the background: in a debate at the European Parliament last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán raised questions regarding the warm reception the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros received in institutions of the European Union. Orbán called him a financial speculator, who “ruined the lives of millions of Europeans with his financial speculations.”

In a subsequent interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Timmermans, a staunch critic of some of Europe’s conservative governments – especially Hungary’s – said that the prime minister’s comments were anti-Semitic and that he, as a person “who dealt with anti-Semitism a great deal in his life,” was “appalled” by it. Timmermans made these comments in response to a loaded question from a reporter that accused Orbán of anti-Semitism for calling Soros an “American financial speculator.”

This, according to the reporter, is a “clearly anti-Semitic voice,” and Timmermans apparently agrees. But why? Soros is based in America and has been convicted and fined 2.2 million EUR for insider trading in France . He was found guilty and fined 2.5 million USD for unlawful trading of bank shares in Hungary (the latter was imposed by Hungary’s financial regulator under the previous government). He broke the Bank of England in 1992 when he bet against the pound sterling. But even if all that weren’t true, how would any of these words imply anti-Semitism? Who was referring to Soros’ background? Nobody but the reporter and Timmermans. 

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó called for Timmermans’ immediate resignation. Any reasonable person would agree that, based on the Commissioner’s comments, he could use some time off. A journalist might be forgiven for baiting sensationalism, but a leader of one of the EU’s top institutions should mind what he says, especially since as an EU Commissioner, remaining apolitical and not intervening with the politics of EU member states is in his job description.

Considering the facts, the accusation is ridiculous anyway. The prime minister’s deeds speak of an unprecedented appreciation and respect for the Jewish minorities of Hungary. Over the course of 30 years in public life, there has not been a single instance of him making an even slightly anti-Semitic remark. Under the current and former Orbán Governments, Hungary introduced a National Memorial Day for the Hungarian Victims of Holocaust, announced a zero-tolerance policy for hate crimes, banned Holocaust denial and far-right paramilitary groups, and accepted a constitution that regards Jews and other minorities as “inseparable” parts of the nation.

So why the harsh words coming from the Commissioner, you may wonder. Because, unable to debate Prime Minister Orbán’s facts, he wanted to go after the person. It’s familiar territory. The same thing inevitably happens when Orbán is accused of being undemocratic or violating so-called common European values. What exactly these values might be and how they were violated is never quite made clear. However, Frans Timmermans, as a European commissioner, targeting his political opposition with accusations of anti-Semitism is most certainly not in line with those values.  

Putting the pitiful accusations aside and focusing on the real issue, Hungary’s government is at odds with Soros over policy. Here at the southern borderlands of the European Union we see his attempts to push a political agenda of open borders and uncontrolled migration as a threat – a threat not only to Europe and its Judeo-Christian culture as a whole, but also a direct threat to the security and stability of the European Union.

Using as a political weapon the memory of those dark days of the 20th Century when truly anti-Semitic forces wreaked havoc, especially in an interview in which the commissioner had ample time to craft a fitting response, is outrageous and disrespectful. The survivors of the Holocaust and the families of the victims are still with us. For a member of the European Commission – a body that by definition should refrain from party politics – to disrespect the elected leader of a member state is bad enough. Perhaps that’s even business as usual these days. But disrespecting those who had to face (or still face) persecution over their bloodline or heritage steps way over the line.