Everywhere you turn in Budapest these days, there are posters and billboards portraying a grinning George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist billionaire. The government-funded posters say that 99 percent of the public who submitted the May national consultation questionnaires on migration and civil society [1.2 million out of 8 million] reject settlement of “illegal immigrants.” The large font says: “Let’s not allow George Soros to have the last laugh!”

Anti-Soros campaign poster defaced with "vampire" scribbled across Soros' face. Budapest metro, July 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Several billboards have already been scribbled with anti-Semitic graffiti like “Stinking Jew,” “vampire” and stars of David. On some Budapest trams, passengers are forced to step and stand on Soros’s face as the poster is placed on the tram floors.

The billboards defaming Soros bear similarities to WWII Nazi posters depicting Jews as evil, grinning people seeking to destroy German society. The largest Hungarian Jewish organization, Mazsihisz, wrote to Orban saying that the billboards encourage anti-Semitism and urged Orban to pull them down.

This is just the latest phase of a vile campaign that has been going on for months against Soros, whom the Hungarian government has declared public enemy number one. The government, and Prime Minister Orban, have repeatedly accused Soros, and the Hungarian civil society organizations he funds, of wanting to settle millions of “illegal immigrants” in Europe, all of whom are potential terrorists endangering national security and seeking to topple the government.

In recent months, the government has adopted alarming laws that seek to close the prestigious Central European University in Budapest that Soros founded and require independent groups receiving more than €27,000 per year from abroad to register as foreign funded – a move inspired by Russia’s notorious “foreign agents” law. Many of the groups affected are funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundations. (Full disclosure: Human Rights Watch is among the many groups around the world that receive funding from Open Society Foundations).

Orban has ignored calls to cancel the billboard and poster campaign, arguing that the government has a zero-tolerance policy of anti-Semitism. This might be easier to believe were it not for Orban’s praise for Hungarian interwar leader Miklos Horthy, responsible for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps, as an “exceptional statesman.” The government announced on July 12 that the anti-Soros billboards and posters will be removed as of July 15.

In a country where anti-Semitism is alarmingly commonplace, it’s irresponsible for the government to use taxpayers’ money to run a campaign that plays into anti-Semitic tropes and encourages hateful views. Hungary’s government should aim to tamp down intolerance, not stir it up.