In Hungary, the first lockdown was launched due to the COVID-19 epidemic exactly one year ago. I, as leader of the most important Jewish organization safeguarding Hungarian Jewish religious traditions, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary – MAZSIHISZ, was already in full swing consulting with my colleagues about the tasks of crisis management.
In the new situation we had to solve the meals, social and medical care of several thousand people and also transition into “virus-safe” religious life. We did what we thought was right despite having no prior experience to draw from.
In retrospective, we overcame the difficulties with success. In this fight, the largest international Jewish organizations, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the European Jewish Congress (EJC) were our partners and we also received extraordinary help from the Hungarian government lead by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In Hungary, as in other countries, those who are responsible for the management and control regarding the protective regulations receive a lot of criticism. Decisions that are incomprehensible from the outside vantage point may occur and nonprofessionals may have the feeling that things happen slowly.
In the fight against the novel coronavirus, mistakes can be measured in numbers of human lives taken as the victims of the disease. As an active Jewish leader I understand and feel the burden of it.
The vaccination campaign also began recently in Hungary. By now, the rate of vaccinated people can be seen through international comparisons.
We also see the high efficiency of protection afforded by Israel that is regarded in amazement in the whole world. The Jewish State has never been so highly appreciated in Hungary as it has been during the past months. Average people on the street talk about the Israeli vaccination program as exemplary. We hope that such positive feelings will continue and reflect favorably as to perception of Israel in the common view.
My daily experience as a Hungarian Jewish leader is that it is a very difficult task to bring about the vaccination of the largest Jewish community in Central-Eastern Europe. This population is comprised of one hundred thousand persons who are resistant to the idea of protections from the pandemic.
From the very beginning, the constructive and flexible approach by the Hungarian government to our protection-related requests has been very helpful. The only Jewish hospital of Central Europe operates in Budapest. That health-care institution has a strong geriatric profile and primarily nurses Holocaust survivors, but it is also open to all, regardless of religious affiliation. The average age of the patients is more than 84 years old. Their protection and professional care is our high priority.
During the past year, sometimes we were confronted with problems that could only be solved with the personal intervention of Orbán. He helped us.
We greatly appreciate the partnership assistance because in “peacetime” we have different opinions about certain issues that are sensitive specifically for the Jewish community. However, averting the emergency situation overrides all other public disagreements.
At the pandemic outbreak, the development program of the Hungarian government concerning church-managed hospitals – including the Jewish hospital – became especially important. We are refurbishing our outdated facility – in an over one-hundred-year-old building – into a modern, 21st century hospital with the $15 million financial support of the Hungarian government.
Two-thirds of the reconstruction has been finished. The project is expected to reach completion in 2022.
The curative medical work continues during the reconstruction. While we care mostly for Holocaust-survivor patients, we also do our part in the national vaccination program and we launched an awareness-raising campaign encouraging everybody to be vaccinated.
According to the position taken by our most prestigious rabbi, protection of human life is paramount, thus vaccinations can also be given on Saturday even though it is the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat. Our hospital is ready to inoculate as many people – Jewish and non-Jewish – as possible within the framework of the national vaccination program.
In addition, our common goal with the government is to fight against another type of virus, the antisemitism. Over past years, there were no physical attacks committed against the members of the Jewish community in Hungary, but we have to work a lot against antisemitic statements and antisemitism in public.
It is gratifying that the Hungarian government consistently stands up for Israel in international organizations. We lived through the years of the Cold War in the Eastern-bloc countries and suffered through decades of interrupted diplomatic relations between the two states after the 1967 Six Day War.
Now we witness the friendly relationship between our countries with relief. Hungary’s foreign policy regarding Israel and Hungary’s support for Israel is exemplary. It gives us hope that Orbán and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally consult together about the shared fight against the pandemic.
It would be our great pleasure if the Hungarian and the Israeli governments continue their cooperation and return to a normal situation. Hungary’s largest Jewish organization, MAZSIHISZ, supports it through its own tools and means. If we can finally leave behind quarantines, the traditional good wishes of the fast-approaching Passover holiday can become true: Lösáná hábáá biJörusálájim, in other words, next year in Jerusalem!
András Heisler is the President of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ) and the Vice-President of the European Jewish Congress