Hungary’s new envoy in D.C. is not new to issues of antisemitism

Szabolcs Takács, who also serves as head of Hungary's delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, is ready for a pivot to the Biden administration

Szabolcs Takács, Hungary’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, is beginning his posting at what is shaping up to be an uncertain moment for diplomatic relations between his home country and the United States. 

The past four years have been relatively clear-cut for Hungarian diplomats, as President Donald Trump maintained an unusually chummy relationship with Hungary’s far-right leader, Viktor Orbán, who has been criticized for violating democratic norms. Trump has told the prime minister he is doing a “tremendous job,” and the feeling is apparently mutual: In September, Orbán enthusiastically endorsed the president’s reelection bid.

Hungary benefited from a “much friendlier White House and State Department” under Trump, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, in contrast to a strained rapport with the Obama administration. But now, with President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on the horizon, Hungary can likely expect a return to Obama-era relations. “My guess is, with the coming Biden administration,” Baker said, “they probably are bracing for something more like four years ago.”

Takács, added Baker — who has known the ambassador for years — “will not have an easy time.”

Still, in a recent Zoom interview with Jewish Insider, Takács, 49, was sanguine about the future, while acknowledging Hungary’s close bond with the Trump administration.

“On many policy lines, we have a very similar ideological closeness,” Takács said of Hungary’s relationship with the outgoing president, alluding to the Hungarian government’s staunch populist approach. “When it comes to illegal immigration, radicalism, family policy, we could work very well with the Trump administration, and we made it clear that we enjoyed the cooperation.”

That affinity, Takács noted, also extended to foreign policy in the Middle East. Hungary has, in recent years, positioned itself as an ardent supporter of Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, going so far as to open a trade mission in Jerusalem. It is the only European Union member state to have done so, a point Takács asserts with pride. 

Takács is also proud to point out that Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was the only minister from the EU to attend the White House signing of the Abraham Accords in September, formalizing recent normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain brokered by the Trump administration. “It was a very, very strong signal,” Takács said. “I think it’s a clear acknowledgement of Hungary’s support to the State of Israel and to the U.S. policies.”

But even as he speaks admiringly of Trump’s term, Takács was upbeat as he turned his attention to Biden, whom Orbán has congratulated for his win. Speaking from the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, Takács envisioned working on a number of other issues with the president-elect, such as climate policy and American business investment in Hungary, as well as collaborating as a NATO partner. 

And he was quick to convey that he accepted Biden’s win, even as Trump has refused to concede. “I look forward,” Takács said, “to working with the new government.”

A spokesperson for the Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Takács succeeds László Szabó, a former pharmaceutical executive and government official who left his ambassadorial position to take over a Hungarian media conglomerate. 

A career diplomat, Takács boasts what may be regarded as a more appropriate resume than his predecessor. His past experience includes stints abroad in far-flung locales like South Korea, India, China, Australia and Qatar. More recently, he has held high-level policy appointments in the Hungarian prime minister’s office as an intermediary on European Union affairs. 

In addition to his ambassadorial role, Takács currently serves as Hungary’s special envoy for antisemitism and as the head of Hungary’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), whose working definition of antisemitism he helped push Hungary to adopt

Hungarian Ambassador Szabolcs Takács (Tony Powell)

“I’m very much involved in European Union debates and then global issues that are dealing with antisemitism,” Takács said, “and I’m very happy that I can continue this job as an ambassador of Hungary in the U.S.”

His words, however genuine, come with some baggage. The legacy of the Holocaust casts a troubling shadow in Hungary, whose government was complicit in the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jewish population. Under the leadership of Miklós Horthy, Hungary deported approximately 440,000 Jews between May 15 and July 9 of 1944. Most were gassed at Auschwitz. But while the history is well documented, Hungary has never directly acknowledged its role in the Holocaust, opting instead for a narrative in which the country is cast as a victim of Nazi Germany rather than as a collaborator.

Absent an acknowledgement of its culpability, critics say, Hungary has put forth something of a two-faced message when it comes to the Holocaust. On the one hand, Orbán has forged a close relationship with Netanyahu while working to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and reassuring Hungary’s more than 100,000 Jews that they can feel safe under his leadership. But the prime minister has also sought to downplay the Holocaust and has espoused antisemitc rhetoric, including a persistent effort to villify George Soros.

“The Hungarian government wants to put forward this friendly attitude toward Israel and toward Jews. That is correct,” said Susan R. Suleiman, a professor emerita of comparative literature at Harvard who has written about Hungary’s tortured relationship with the Holocaust. “But it doesn’t give you the whole story, number one, and number two, they refuse to really ever respond to the big issue, which is, ‘Why don’t you ever recognize the role of the Hungarian government in the persecution and deportation of Jews?’”

Takács, for his part, describes the Holocaust as “one of the darkest periods of Hungarian history,” while making clear that he is an Orbán acolyte. “I would say that the prime minister is the most philosemitic prime minister Hungary has had” since Hungary emerged from communist rule, he said, adding that “the Hungarian government is very much committed to the Holocaust remembrance policy and also that the Hungarian Jewish community should feel safe and secure.”

Given his past experience, Takács is well versed on the Holocaust, a quality that has served him well in his capacity representing Hungary on diplomatic matters. “In a way, the Jewish issues are among the most sensitive,” said Baker, “and he’s sort of been at the center of them.” 

In 2015, Takács assumed the chairmanship of the IHRA for a year, an appointment that many regarded with skepticism because of the sensitivities around Hungary’s failure to fully reckon with its past. “They really had almost to do a kind of diplomatic blitz to win support,” Baker said of the Hungarian government, which soon found itself at the center of a heated public debate around a proposed Holocaust museum that was accused of putting forth a skewed historical narrative.

“Takács was in the middle of all of this,” Baker recalled. “On the one hand, speaking with or trying to represent the government position on these matters to Jewish groups or individuals, and also presumably to try and convey those concerns from outside to the government.” 

Despite frequently finding himself in such charged environments, Takács has managed to walk a delicate line with agility, according to Baker, involving himself in conversations around the Holocaust in a manner that suggests he takes the issue seriously, even as he toes the party line. “I like him,” Baker said. “I don’t think he’s dealt with these issues without being moved by them or engaged with them.”

Takács with former Chargé d’Affaires Dóra Zombori after presenting his credentials in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. (Twitter)

Takács was born in Budapest and spent his childhood moving throughout Hungary as well as the former Yugoslavia because his father, who came from the Croatian-Hungarian community, was often relocating the family to find work. “In the 1980s, when I was young,” Takács recalled of his time growing up in the Soviet bloc, the Holocaust “was a topic that people didn’t talk about.” 

He still finds it jarring that Europe as a whole took so long to reckon with the Nazi genocide, noting that the IHRA, which includes 34 member states, was only established around the turn of the 21st century. 

“Even in Western Europe and even here in the United States of America, it took a much longer time, until the society in general and also the political elite could face what exactly happened in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe,” he said. “Our reading is that the Holocaust was, in a way, the end of civilization, because what happened is this industrial-scale genocide against a people. It was unprecedented.”

Takács studied English literature at the University of Pécs and then received his master’s in international relations at Corvinus University of Budapest. In 2002, he joined Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went on to hold a number of positions in his ascent to the upper echelons of Orbán’s government. 

Before accepting his post in Washington, Takács served as ministerial commissioner for Brexit and also held roles as minister of state for EU policies and coordination as well as state secretary for EU affairs. 

“There’s no question that he is a very faithful, loyal, and articulate representative of Hungary’s position,” said Suleiman. 

That extends to Orbán’s hardline views on immigration, which has caused tension with European Union member states. “What we feel is that there is sometimes unjust criticism against Hungary, simply because we are opposing a policy which is hurting the identity and the security of European citizens and European societies, including the European Jews,” Takács told JI. “But I think our policy is quite consistent and very solid.”

Takács framed the recent uptick in antisemitic attacks throughout Europe in the context of Hungary’s opposition to migrants from places like Turkey and Syria. “The fight against antisemitism is obviously in the national interest for Hungary because it’s a security issue,” said Takács, adding that “uncontrolled illegal immigration” has led to “very serious physical attacks against” Jews. 

“The level of antisemitism in Hungary is, and this is not government propaganda, really, because we have a lot of surveys by independent sources that the antisemitism that we have in Hungary is much, much relatively lower than in Western European countries,” he said. “It’s not physical attacks. It’s usually verbal.”

Takács emphasized on more than one occasion that he was not putting forth any sort of government propaganda. “We really mean the fight against antisemitism,” he said, “and we also walk the walk, not only talk the talk.”

That isn’t exactly the case, as critics have observed. But “it could be a lot worse, I would say,” Suleiman acknowledged. “So let’s applaud the Hungarian government for wanting to convince American Jews that they really love the Jews. But let’s also not forget.”

Looking ahead, Takács is optimistic that he will facilitate collaboration between the Hungarian government and the Biden administration, noting common interests in the Middle East in particular. 

“For us, the future and security and stability of Israel is of strategic importance,” he said, adding his hope that Biden will continue to build on the normalization deals Trump helped set forth. “This is a strong pillar of the Hungarian foreign policy doctrine.”

After four years of Trump, Takács is no doubt aware that Hungarian relations with the United States won’t remain as cozy as they have been in the recent past. But he is still looking forward to a constructive dialogue. “We are allies in NATO,” Takács said. “I think we are in the same family. And I believe that this is the basis that we have to build on.”

“If there are issues where we might not have the exact common understanding, then I think I’m here in the U.S. as an ambassador to create a platform to exchange notes,” Takács told JI. “I’m always ready for any discussions. What is important is that it should be based on the principle of equal treatment and mutual respect towards each other. We are on the same platform, the same side of history.”

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