“I do not see Arabs as enemies” – Israel’s outgoing ambassador about the Soros-billboards and the challenges ahead of the Hungarian Jews
An Arab can be a good citizen of Israel, says Yossi Amrani who believes Hungary would also do better if it did not judge people by their origin. Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Budapest explains Válasz Online his Arab roots as well and stands by Pride and the advertisement of Coca-Cola that caused serious public impact lately. He has not regretted to criticise the Hungarian government’s Soros-billboards and does not consider a political move when he spoke out against Viktor Orbán’s embracing comment about Miklós Horthy.
– Several weeks ago, you issued a mysterious statement addressing it to Hungarian Jewish communities who were not friendly enough with… with whom exactly? With your deputy who has recently left? He was a Druze. Have the local Jews not taken him seriously?
– If I decided to be mysterious at that time, I do not see a reason not to be mysterious this time. This mysterious message was clear enough to those who are involved. Answering your question, I would not limit this case to my deputy.
– Were they not friendly with you either?
– If I wouldn’t have thought that this statement was appropriate, I would not have issued it.
– OK. Your predecessor was here for five years. You are leaving in less than three years. Are you fed up with Hungary because of this sort of incidents?
– Hungary is a beautiful country but I have accomplished my agenda. After three years, the Israeli – Hungarian relationship is in a better position than ever. This is not just to do with me. The reason is mostly the strategic cooperation and mutual understanding on philosophical issues between PM Orbán and PM Netanyahu.
– What happens if PM Netanyahu will lose the elections in September? Does it mean that the Hungarian-Israeli relations will automatically get worse?
– I cannot forecast or foresee political developments in Israel; we should wait for September 17th. Then, we can see what kind of coalition is going to be formed.
Regarding the Hungarian–Israeli relationship, we are now on a level of beyond friendly relationship. It has been a strategic alliance between the two countries. It will continue for the future, regardless of any government here or there, to the benefit for both countries.
– What is the “mutual interest” of Israel and Ferenc Gyurcsány?
– I do not interfere in your elections.
– We were just quoting from the embassy’s Instagram. You met Mr. Gyurcsány lately.
– I am meeting everyone.
– Why did you write that you were talking about mutual interests? What are the mutual interests of Israel and the Democratic Coalition?
– The role of an Ambassador is to maintain good relationships and establish a network of contacts. I have been knocking on doors and Mr. Gyurcsány’s door has been always open for me. I updated him on the development of bilateral relations.
– Did he acknowledge that there is development?
– Yes, but I cannot talk for him. My impression – coming from meetings with Hungarian politicians – is that they have recognised the improvement of relationship and they are open to continue the good relationship in the future, whoever is in power.
– In Israel, the primary challengers of PM Netanyahu have Hungarian roots. Benny Gantz’s mother and Yair Lapid’s father have Hungarian roots. Can we say that Hungarians can “unhorse” the Israeli prime minister?
– Well, this is a democratic game and I do not think that the question of origin is important. It gets me back to your first question. It would be important to give credit, regardless of the origin, in Hungary as well. You can still do a great job without Hungarian origin.
– But who is a good Hungarian? László Kövér said this summer that one who had three kids, sixteen grandchildren and they all speak Hungarian.
– I do not comment the politics in Hungary. In any case, you can be a very good Israeli regardless of your roots. At the end, we are who we are by our culture and by our identity. As a person, as an individual, I decide my own personality and my own identity. I am very proud of my roots, I am very proud of where I come from.
– In short, one can be a Druze and a good man. Just to return to your deputy…
– Of course. You can be anything and anyone and you are entitled to have more than one identity.
– Is it possible that an Arab is a good Israeli as well?
– Very clear and loud yes. No one should tell you who is a good Israeli or a good Hungarian. Once you decide, are those – who do not fall into that category – bad? This is wrong. I do not get into your politics, it is not my role but I would tell you that a good Israeli is someone who regardless of his family background, origin and religion, believes in the State of Israel and shares the Israeli culture.
– It sounds nice, but is it true that Arabs cannot be soldiers in Israel?
– That is not true. Arabs are not been drafted to the army for certain regional, political reasons. If you follow the developments in Israel in the last few years, you can see that more and more Arabs, Christians and Muslims serve voluntary in the army. A true Israeli feels that s/he belongs to the State of Israel. Regardless of political view and background that can be Arab, Ashkenazi, Sephardic or other; you can be gay or not gay; you can have an academic education or not. The question is how you define yourself. I would like people to define themselves.
– As we are talking about this topic, what do you think of the Hungarian Coca Cola campaign and a reaction to that, namely a Fidesz MP called for boycott? He is the same MP who urged to ban the Pride.
– I believe in live and let live. Nobody should get into the private life of anyone nonetheless you are a member or president of the Parliament, or a model, a singer, an actor, a diplomat or a businessperson. Any nation, any country should make a maximum effort to educate for tolerance. For me the Coca Cola campaign served this.
I always ask people who have strong opinions about gay people what about if your son will be gay, or your daughter will be lesbian. Do you know if your brother is gay or not? Would you judge them even in that case? Or, do you judge only those who you do not know?
As for the Pride Parade, I understand people who need to go out and express themselves. I personally prefer people to run their personal life within their four walls. That is a question of generation and a question of attitude but I do not want to judge anyone who thinks differently.
– So, we are sitting with a true liberal Israeli Ambassador. It cannot be easy.
– If that makes me a liberal, I am a proud liberal. In my opinion this is not about being liberal or illiberal. It is only about being human. The most important teaching in the Bible and in the Jewish religion is “love your neighbour as yourself”. Because we were all created in the face of God. If you believe in God, how can you judge others for being created this or that way by the God? As I refer to the Bible, I can be called conservative as well.
– Are you religious?
– No, I am not.
– Even though, are you quoting from the Bible?
– Yes, because it is my heritage.
– Cultural heritage?
– Yes, and it is a philosophical attitude.
– How can you manage living in a country such as Israel, where on one hand there is a Pride Parade, on the other hand, the daughter of a well-known rabbi says that it is no longer a democratic country because the Supreme Court recently forbade men and women to seat separately in cultural events…
– Are you claiming that Israel is not a democratic state because the Supreme Court has not accepted Halachic Ruling? It is self-contradiction. This debate is between Halachic state or Democratic state. Then, why do you talk about the end of democracy? The democracy in Israel, with all challenges that it is facing, is full and vibrant because of the role of Supreme Court, investigative journalism, state institutions like the Attorney General, and checks and balances.
– Don’t you think that the communities have rights to decide how to live, and the state should not interfere in it?
– If I remember correctly this was a cultural event financed by a certain community, a municipality. If I would like to separate men from women in a cultural event, I should organize it and they should pay for it. Once you use or employ any government means or facility, it is a justifiable expectation to observe the community rules. Otherwise, where is it going to end? At first, are we separated by gender, then by political views? This is not the government’s role to interfere in this kind of issues.
– Nice thought, even though it is a bit conflicting with a recent decision of your government. The Israeli trip of two Democrats from the US House of Representatives has been banned. The reason is that they are pro-Palestinians and Muslims. Does the freedom of opinion not apply to them?
– In an ideal world, you are right, but we do not live in an ideal world. Let me be clear: the two Democrats have not planned to visit Israel. They do not recognise Israel. They said they wished to visit Palestine. If they want to visit Palestine, let them land at Palestine Airport. You cannot visit and criticise someone you do not recognise.
I do not think that the state should sacrifice and allow its borders open, and then one day we wake up in the morning and see that we lost our country. No, thank you.
I expect my government to defend the dream of generations: the Jewish homeland. Our view is not a contradiction, unlike the view of these US Representatives – who do not recognise Israel, want to boycott the country but cry laud after their access to enter Israel was denied.
– Standing out for the nation state is a common element of the philosophy of PM Orbán and PM Netanyahu. Do you have concerns that this friendship may change in a minute? In 2015, a significant part of Orbán’s camp changed their mind; started considering Muslims as enemies, however earlier they had been more pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
– I understand that the goal of politics is to have people who support and oppose given issues but it is better to avoid identifying others as bad, enemy or villain. It is wrong to say: Arabs and Muslims are enemies. You cannot ignore the Muslim culture and its contribution to the civilization. I do not see Arabs as enemies. I come from a Mediterranean family with a very clear Arab cultural background, and I am proud of that. The food we eat, the music we listen to, also have Muslim, Arab roots.
– Are you still listening to those songs?
– Yes, and this has nothing to do with my joy of listening to Liszt, Kodály or Erkel as well. We are all multi-cultural. Denying the role of Islam and Muslim people to humanity is wrong. By the way, because of that, in recent years we have seen the improvement of the relationship between Israel and the Arab world.
– You did not answer the question regarding the base of the relationship with Hungary, although you were involved in some Hungarian issues.
– Yes. During the Soros campaign, your government said you were not right, and the Hungarian government should have not been criticised for that.
– My government did not say I was wrong.
– Then, why did you offer your resignation after this case?
– Because I felt there was no need to clarify my statement. My message was clear enough, and the Israeli MFA authorised it before sending it out.
– I see.
– An Ambassador would be an idiot to issue this kind of statement on his own account, without authorisation. As an Ambassador, I speak on behalf of my country. I consider myself as not to be an idiot.
– The other case was when you disagreed with Orbán for praising Horthy.
– I do not think it is a role of a diplomat or an ambassador to pass judgement on the hosting country. We have channels to communicate and I used them. I have not chosen any political sides.
– You talked publicly about the Horthy case and criticised the Hungarian Prime Minister!
– I believe they are not political but historical issues.
As the representative of the Jewish State, I speak up when I think or I feel that the message is wrong to history. We need to fight against any efforts to rewrite history.
As a historian, I could speak a lot about Horthy’s role, but I would quote PM Orbán “Horthy has made a serious sin to Hungarian people”. Hungarians of Jewish origin. That is the important message that I had to convey at the time.
– Have you visited the German occupation monument in order to protest with a stone?
– One of the most impressive statues of commemoration is in Budapest: the Shoe Monument at the Danube. It is one of the most touching as well. Yet, some people criticise it because there is no real reference to the victims’ religion and ethnicity.
– You do not?
– I do not. For me the inscription in Hebrew says it all. Why is it in Hebrew if the victims were not Jewish? This is our language.
– Still, the occupation monument. What is your opinion about it?
– With suitcases, stones and pictures, it is making a real message. I may not be very enthusiastic about its symbols, I may argue against, but you cannot separate the monument from the objects that have been added to it by people.
– You can. Just take away the spontaneous exhibition.
– I hope it never happens.
– Is it acceptable for the great relationship with the government that Fidesz supports the fully anti-Israel far-right party, Mi Hazánk, with at least some media exposure?
– I do not know the ins and outs of Hungarian politics well enough. I read the press but I cannot see behind the scenes of political co-operation. Those parties, which are based on certain anti-Jewish and anti-Israel philosophy, cannot be legitimate partners. They cannot be acceptable by the State of Israel. I hope they will not be acceptable to the mainstream politics and none of the political parties co-operate with them. Neither here, nor in any country. I know there were debates and discussions here and elsewhere about legitimising co-operation with these forces in order to win the elections. My answer to that is definitely no.
– Now you are talking about Jobbik.
– Yes, I do. Even now, there are efforts to co-operate with them to win certain municipal elections.
– So you do not believe that they are no longer anti-Semitic.
– I do not.
– Even though the well-known anti-Semitic members have left Jobbik to join Mi Hazánk, which is supported by the government with media exposure.
– Look, writing a Hanukkah greeting is not rejecting your past.
– How could they reject their past?
– If you say in public that you made mistakes, apologize for them, and do not make anti-Semitic statements anymore.
– Márton Gyöngyösi has told Válasz Online that he regretted what he had said in the Parliament.
– An interview is nice, a very little first step to the right direction but not more.
– Finally, let us return to the first topic. What is your message to the local Jewish communities?
– They are facing crucial challenges. These challenges are not about the relationship with the government. I am not an expert on the Hungarian Jewish community and I am not advising anyone but I recently read a study, which found that many Hungarians have Jewish roots…
– Allegedly, Hungary’s population has the highest percentage of Jewish ancestry, following Israel.
– I do not know how scientific it is and how the conclusions fit to reality. By all means
I would like to see a community where you would not decide who is a good Jew and who is not.
If your relationship with the government would not define that you are a good Jew. I would like to see a stronger community. Not only in terms of religion but in culture as well. I hope that the community leadership will be right for this historic mission and challenge. I would like to see a leadership, which is uniting the people, and I would like to see a leadership, which is bringing people of Jewish origin on board.
– Soon you are leaving to Greece. Is it going to be your last term, or can you do it until you turn 80?
– I do not want to be Ambassador until I am 80. That will be my last term. Then I would like to enjoy life.
Photos by Szabolcs Vörös