10 things he really said: Zoltán Balog, Hungarian Minister for Human Resources
24 October 2017
Zoltán Balog, former Calvinist preacher turned minister of human resources in the Orbán government, is prone to saying outrageous things and straying off-script. After all, this is the man who, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, reckoned it was Jesus rather than Moses who came down from Mount Sinai bearing the fabled tablets of stone.
His admirers may find his blunders endearing in a buffoonish sort of way; but for many others beyond the party faithful, Balog’s gaffes – which veer from the merely crass to the willfully and wildly offensive – are symptomatic of something more sinister at the heart of Hungary’s illiberal democracy. His unscripted interventions are meant to carry the whiff of populist authenticity – the common man, speaking common sense to common folk – but from the mouth of a senior government minister, they serve to forge a bad common sense that legitimates an authoritarian nativist politics, and reinforces a prejudiced world-view. Here is a sample of just ten things Balog has said, and some of the things he did.
On Roma, segregation and the Porrajmos
(1) In July this year, Balog claimed that many Hungarian families living in bordering countries such as Slovakia do not send their children to Hungarian schools because “many gypsy children go there”. He added that “neither Hungarian communities nor the Hungarian government have decided whether Hungarian-speaking gypsies living outside Hungary’s borders are a burden or an asset.” Blithely disregarding European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence, which asserts that segregation of Romani children is discrimination and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, Balog said “In the case of the Roma, the decision must be made, we have to think about the education system we build from Budapest…. It’s necessary to decide whether an integrated school is good or whether there should be separate schools for Romani children, with a separate educational program for them.
(2) In late 2014, Balog testified in court on behalf of the Greek Catholic church’s running of a Roma-only school in Nyíregyháza, which he described as the “citadel of convergence” for Roma students, a segregated environment where Romani children can “catch up”. When the church first lost the case, Balog declared: “this verdict only increases my fighting spirit. We will continue to fight for a good, decent verdict which is good for the children.” He described school segregation as a “tender loving attainment process.” Balog modified the law to exempt some schools from the requirements of the Equal Opportunities Act. Opposition MP Tímea Szabó called this modification a disgrace, and declared that Balog’s idea of “benevolent segregation” was contrary to both the statutes of Hungary and the European Union. The EU agreed and in 2016 launched infringement proceedings against Hungary.
[BR3] (3) In an audaciously offensive lurch into historical revisionism, Balog, managed to insult both Romani and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. He delivered this double-whammy on state-run Kossuth Radio on 3 August 2014, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Romani camp in Auschwitz:
“There was no deportation of Roma from Hungary; they were deported from Austria. I have witnessed the process through which the Gypsy intelligentsia has begun to say: ‘pardon me, but we too have a Holocaust, and as such we too are part of this history.’ Yet I would still like to caution my Gypsy friends from concentrating too much on this element of their identity. Because even among the Jewry, many have come to the realization that if the experience of the Holocaust and the knowledge that ‘we were victims’ are the only (or the most important) aspects of Jewish identity, then this creates internal confusion and schizophrenia. And this does not help these communities look towards the future”
On Hungary’s ‘Jewish question’
(4) Back in 2008 Balog, together with fellow MP Sándor Lezsák, spoke at the inauguration of a statue of Catholic bishop Ottokár Prohászka, described as the founder of modern anti-Semitism. This was the cleric who likened Jews to a “bedbug epidemic” and in 1919 called for Hungary to defend itself against “the rampage of a cunning, faithless, and immoral race.” While Lezsák praised Prohászka for "raising his voice for curbing the cosmopolitan-parasite element," Balog reminded those present "there is a need for the defense of the Christian faith because if we let it be taken away from us then we Hungarians will survive only in the biological sense."
(5) In 2009, as recounted in the Hungarian Free Press, Balog told visiting Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, that Hungarians “will not tolerate that the sufferings of Jewish people are used to distract attention from the difficult problems of our country.” Concerning Hungary’s responsibility for the mass deportations of Jews, Mr. Balog stated that the nation is constantly defending itself “against false accusations.”
On theological blundering and Lutheran wrath
(6) Balog incurred the wrath of the Lutherans, when he stepped in to defend Fidesz far-right publicist Zsolt Bayer, who described Pope Francis as “either a demented old man who is completely unfit to be Pope, or simply a scoundrel.” Former preacher Balog’s ‘theological’ intervention, which was condemned by a prominent clergyman, as insulting to both the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church, went like this:
“Zsolt Bayer is a Lutheran. Go ahead and read what Martin Luther wrote of the Pope. Compared [to Martin Luther’s] writing, Bayer’s statements are worded quite tamely.”
In a withering critique, Tamás Béres, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, wrote that Zoltán Balog’s statements succeeded in surpassing Bayer’s “stomach-churning tastelessness” and ill-intent, and accused Balog of having “failed to demonstrate the ability to separate political and theological issues” and of a complete failure “to be virtuous in suppressing ill-intent.”
On refugees and the mystery 1,000 Copts
(7) On Hungary’s refusal to accept refugees, Zoltán Balog claimed at a conference in Paris in 2015, that Hungary had given shelter to 1,000 Coptic Christians from Egypt. The problem, according to the Budapest Beacon was that the small Coptic community in Hungary knew nothing about these people. When asked about the government’s selective preferential treatment of refugees who claim to be Christians, Balog stated, “[The families] were able to provide us guarantees we felt ensured the country would not be exposed to the danger of compromising our security. Their presence would enrich the country.” Balog said that this way the government knew the kind of people it was welcoming and when questioned about selection on religious grounds retorted “Is that a problem for you?” Well, it is a problem according to the UNHCR: “The United Nations convention on refugees stipulates that no country can be selective in who they provide asylum to based on the asylum seeker’s religion.”
On conspiracy theories and foreign criticism
(8) Research by Political Capital showed that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have a strong pull on Hungarian society: 46 per cent of those sampled agreed with the statement “Jews would like to control international financial institutions”. It defines a conspiratorial mindset as a firm belief that conspiracies are the main driving force behind economic and political events, even history itself. But according to Zoltán Balog, Hungarians don’t fabricate “conspiracy theories” because “it is a fact that … financial and economic powers try to influence the internal affairs of Hungary and other countries.” The real threats are the “concealed powers”, like Soros’s Open Society Foundations, for “there are people who want to make us the plaything of world powers.”
(9) When foreigners proffer advice, Balog claimed his “blood boils.” As Hungarian Spectrum reported, Balog takes great exception when “big international organizations keep explaining to us what we should do with the Gypsies, women, the media, the economy.” All such criticism is driven he claimed by selfish economic interests, but since complaining about diminished profits doesn’t impress, “they talk about the dangers threatening Hungarian democracy, Hungarians killing Gypsies, virulent anti-Semitism.” Of course, none of this is true, but in Germany “they make films in which they try to explain to children that Viktor Orbán is a dictator.”
On domestic violence
(10) Back in 2012, Balog declared that he was not ashamed of the Fidesz initial decision to block the proposal for a separate statute on domestic violence. Hungarian Spectrum reported that while Balog conceded that domestic violence does exist, he was totally dismayed “that women always talk about violence against women while men are often being terrorized by women.” Rejecting the idea that this is a gender issue, he accused opposing voices of “exhibiting a bluestocking attitude.” And, he added, Because the family is sacred, Balog opined one mustn’t talk about “violence within the family” and that the government insists on “violence within the confines of partnership or relations.”