On Aug 21, 2023 the respectable news site Times of Israel published an article on the conflict in Hungary between the small, local Orthodox community and EMIH, the local branch of Chabad (https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-hungary-orthodox-jews-fight-over-chabad-bailout-some-see-as-a-trojan-horse/). The article is a serious piece of journalism: a balanced and well-informed overview based on serious research, offering a rich selection of information, a variety of voices, and a balanced distribution of opposing views.
Somewhat unexpectedly, a Hungarian news outlet called neokohn.hu, a mouthpiece of Chabad/EMIH, published this article in Hungarian translation three days later. From the perspective of Chabad-propaganda, it was a wise decision. Why? Because a quality international Jewish media outlet presented the story to the international audience in a Chabad-friendly way with a sophistication that the local Chabad/EMIH propaganda-arm would never be able, nor willing, to apply. The main line of the article is that there is a local infighting in Budapest where some die-hard local fanatics (the “legitimate” members of the Orthodox community) are trying to obstruct dynamic and open-minded Chabad’s efforts to rebuild and reinvigorate the small Orthodox community.
Only a selective reading of facts allows such a presentation of the story. Despite its professionalism, the article is a textbook example of journalistic manipulation and has numerous flaws, by commission and omission. “There is a time for ripping and a time for sewing,” as Koheleth says. This is a time for shredding the article. Below we discuss the manipulative toolbox used in it, under four headings, from the more overt to the more covert and sophisticated: False and distorted information; Suppressing information; Manipulating statements and their representativity; and Casting. Every one of the numbered 19 items below (except no. 9) begins with a citation (or citations) from the article, followed by critical comments.
A final introductory remark. Chabad has built up an outsized global influence and lobbying power in Jewish press and politics. We have a firsthand knowledge of their toolbox and methods. This is a sinister phenomenon for the „free” Jewish press and politics, and we can only hope that the flaws of this ToI-article are not the result of such pressures, censorship or self-censorship.
False and distorted information
1. “To cover the cash shortfall inherited from his predecessor, Keszler turned to the local branch of Chabad, known as the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (or EMIH). They forked over some $85,000 … But that was only the opening shot in an internal legal fight involving claims of a takeover by Chabad.”
It was not an opening shot. It was a late, minor episode in a long story that started two years before, right after the election of Robert Deutsch as president of the community. (The beginnings of this long story are clearly outlined in published articles, documents, and interviews that were available to the author of the article.)
2. “… EMIH, an umbrella group with 25 synagogues and thousands of congregants, and MAOIH, a far smaller group with only a few dozen members and four functional synagogues.”
Concerning EMIH, hugely inflated numbers are given here. These overblown data are partly rooted in a conceptual confusion. MAOIH has a few dozen members. EMIH does not have a membership; it has outreach activities of course (like publications etc.) and it is fair to say that they “reach out” to and communicate with thousands of local Jews. How did the author or his Chabad-informants arrive at the number 25 as the number of synagogues they operate? It is unclear. But later in the article R. Köves is cited as saying that there are currently 25 Chabad-shlichim in Hungary. Apparently it is taken for granted by the journalist that every shaliach belongs and represents a synagogue or community with “congregants”. This is an absolutely false assumption. EMIH operates about a dozen synagogues in Hungary, with a few hundred regular attendees at most, who can be called “congregants”.
3. “Last month, the conflict … attracted considerable attention in local and international media because of a picture that showed congregants praying outside MAOIH’s largest and best-known asset … Keszler was among the congregants who prayed outside the synagogue …”.
This wording suggests that Keszler joined the community members in their prayer. However, the fact is that Keszler appeared among the congregants when they prayed outside only once in order to check what they are going to do and asking them why they don’t go to the nearby Chabad/EMIH-run restaurant which he kindly offered them as a prayer venue. He was chased away by the congregants. Since his election, Keszler is so much rejected by the congregants that he barely appears among them in prayers or other occasions.
4. “Keszler denies any attempt to block any worshipers from the synagogue. He did not hire Rabinowitz, but welcomes his arrival, he said.”
A brazen lie. Mr. Keszler did everything to prevent the welcoming and inauguration of R. Rabinowitz, to the extent that he has „stolen” (took hold of and hid) a poster welcoming the rabbi, as well as a special „rabbinic” chair brought in by congregants to the ceremony honoring him. (Weeks later, in late August, EMIH/Keszler reached out to R. Rabinowitz. The cited statement can be seen as the first indication – a retrojection – of their later intention to reach out to the Rabbi.)
5. “A Hungarian court dismissed Deutsch’s petition to nullify the election, ruling it was lawful.”
„Hungarian court” should read: Hungarian government authorities. Quite a difference.
6. “In addition, MAOIH is fighting in court MAZSIHISZ, Hungary’s largest and most liberal Jewish federation, for money that MAOIH says was appropriated illegally.”
Absolutely false information.
7. “A Chabad takeover of MAOIH could mean access to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding that MAOIH receives from the Hungarian government annually, added Turan.”
In his comments on parts of the draft of the article, Turan also pointed to a very important additional financial element – in fact the main element – in Chabad/EMIH’s motivation for and benefits from taking control of MAOIH: through their control of or merger with MAOIH they can justify initiating a renegotiation of the law and contract which regulate the state funding of the three Jewish “denominations”. Given their exclusive government backing, they may be able to reach a share of 40 to 70 % of the state funding, as opposed to their current ca. 10 % share. This would be of course a major step and a game changer in achieving their goal of dominating Hungarian Jewry.
8. “A police investigation into the apparent disappearance of about $2.25 million from MAOIH books, which happened under Deutsch’s predecessor … is ongoing …”
One of the most relevant elements of the beginnings of the conflict (cf. no. 1 above), this embezzlement is mentioned at least superficially in the article – unlike numerous other dubious economic and financial dealings of EMIH which are widely covered by local media.
9. A crucial, criminal element of the whole story is left entirely unmentioned in the article. The legitimate members of MAOIH filed a court case against EMIH arguing that in the General Assembly held on Febr. 22, 2023 the new – EMIH-controlled – leadership was elected with the votes of dozens of “phantom members” who were never admitted to the community legally, but were “smuggled” in in clear contravention of the community’s bylaws.
Manipulating statements and their representativity
10. “One longtime member of MAOIH said he regards the opposition to working with Chabad and to Keszler’s leadership as irrational.”
Certainly it was not easy to find this person to cite a pro-Chabad opinion among the legitimate members. A very small minority – 10 % of the „legitimate” membership of the community, at most – may share similar views. Documents and articles clearly articulate this fact, which could also have verified by the author of the article with little effort. Whether he was aware of this fact or not, the wording here creates the false impression that the takeover enjoys the support of a significant part of the “legitimate” membership of MAOIH.
11. “Turan, meanwhile, attributes the abrupt closure to the arrival on the scene of Rabbi … Rabinowitz …”
In fact in the interview with the author of the article, Turan attributed the closure partly or mainly to the arrival of the new Rabbi. Formulating a view in an extreme form, through slightly changing the original wording is an efficient way to present that view as absurd.
12. “Rabinowitz believes the current leadership is not autonomous and is subservient to Chabad rabbis.”
“[B]elieves”! There is something bizarre to present this view as a personal view, putting it into the mouth of a freshman rabbi, almost and “outsider”. Let us mention the basic facts, which were and are also probably well-known to the author of the article from numerous sources and documents provided to him. When elected as “President”, Mr. Keszler (1) was a member of R. Oberlander’s Chabad-congregation, (2) worked as EMIH’s agent within MAOIH from the beginning of Mr. Deutsch’s presidency, (3) was still a Board member of one of the communities which belong to Mazsihisz. The newly “elected” General Secretary of MAOH, vested simultaneously with absolute powers by a change in the community’s Statutes, named S. Oirechman, is a Chabad rabbi and the brother-in-law of R. Köves.
13. “… subservient to Chabad rabbis. He [R. Rabinowitz] cites how, in lieu of a synagogue, MAOIH congregants have been invited to use a Chabad-affiliated kosher restaurant, Carmel, as their temporary house of worship.”
After subjectivizing and marginalizing the obvious fact that the marginal figure of Keszler is subservient to Chabad/EMIH rabbis, here the article suggests that the main – maybe only? – support for this marginal and subjective view of R. Rabinowitz is that Keszler offered the Chabad-restaurant as an alternative venue for prayer. This is another way of presenting a crystal-clear fact as a subjective, extreme – possibly unfounded and absurd – opinion, especially since it is “denied” next by Keszler, a major informant of the journalist.
14. “Turan disputed these claims [of Köves].”
A voice critical of EMIH is heard again. Alas, without corroborating arguments it has almost no rhetorical value. Turan (or anyone else among Köves’s adversaries) would have been happy to answer the question why these claims are disputed by them.
15. ”Some Hungarian Jews accuse … . Others laud his support for …”
“Some say …” and “others say …”. This is the standard, easy way to present conflicting opinions as of more or less equal weight. In fact the relative weight and prevalence of the two opinions and the very significant imbalance between them could be found out with little effort. Note that dissent is indicated only in the MAOIH-camp; but not in the EMIH-camp, although there are a lot of EMIH-congregants and employees who disapprove of what EMIH is doing.
16. “Deutsch alleged that Keszler and a few of his allies changed the bylaws of MAOIH illegally to oust him …”
Again, the standpoint of the almost entire community (the “legitimate” members are meant) is presented as an individual opinion.
17. “A Hungarian court dismissed Deutsch’s petition to nullify the election … Separately, several rabbis have issued rulings disputing the legitimacy of Keszler’s election …”.
“Separately, several rabbis …”! The rabbinical court of the community, as well as other highly prestigious rabbinical courts ruled, half a year before the Hungarian authorities, that the acceptance of dozens of new members into the community was fraudulent and therefore the decisions of General Assemblies of the community, with the votes of these new “phantom members” – among them the election of Mr. Keszler and Oirechman – are illegal, null and void. These rabbinic rulings are basic components of the story. Chabad/EMIH’’s position is supported by government authorities and politicians (in Hungary and Israel), but by no rabbis or rabbinic bodies – including their own rabbis or the rabbinic court of R. Oberlander, who is the supreme rabbinic authority for EMIH. These two facts were well-known to the author of the article. He opted for an absolutely marginal mention of the first, and for silence about the second. This story is about two Jewish communities which claim to be Orthodox ones. One of them relies on halakha and most authoritative rabbinic bodies, while the other ignores halakha and rabbinic authority, and in trying to “settle” the conflict it relies on local authorities and politicians alone. Only journalistic manipulation can ignore this significant fact altogether in an otherwise detailed and well-researched article.
18. “Keszler dismissed Turan’s claims …”
This is the first instance in the article where Keszler is invited to respond to claims of his adversaries. There are two other similar instances, and an additional one where Köves responds to a claim critical of EMIH. No similar offer was made, even once, to spokesmen of MAOIH to respond to EMIH’s claims (cf. no. 14 above).
19. “But we are retaining our independence, that’s nonnegotiable. … The fight is also stoking personal animosities … and … tarnished the reputation of a Jewish community … The communal infighting that has in recent years characterized Hungarian Jewry ‘is a far greater threat than any particular Jewish group on the scene, and with it we shame all of our ancestors,’ Keszler said. “I say ‘we’ because of this, I am also to blame. My goal is for this to stop.”
Mr. Keszler’s cited statements seem to be solemn, reflexive, elevated statements summarizing the events, closing the story with a moral perspective. Touching. But maybe, perhaps, these statements are not more than rhetorical flourishes, lies and hollow moralizing? The author of the article seems to fully believe what he heard (maybe even helped formulating it?) and presents it as a moral lesson. At this point, as in many others, he proves to be strangely gullible – to EMIH’s profit, and at the expense of MAOIH’s legitimate membership.
In fact Keszler is a marginal figure and clearly a puppet of Chabad/EMIH rabbis (cf. no. 12 above). And it is noteworthy that the article does not make it clear that Mr. Keszler and Mr. Oirechman were elected at the same General Assembly which is considered illegal by the “legitimate”, “old” membership of the community, who argue (before court) that both were elected fraudulently by a “phantom”-membership. In any case, the author avoided to confront some of the protagonists of this story, R. Köves (the chief EMIH-macher) and R. Oberlander (the senior Chabad-rabbi in Hungary) with the real, more difficult questions and allegations about their activities.