After the political changes in the late 1980s, Hungary was the first country in the former Soviet bloc that established diplomatic relations with Israel two decades ago. The Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Aliza Bin-Noun is of the view that this has been a special relationship between the two countries.
“The relationship between Hungary and Israel is a very special one.” That is how the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Aliza Bin-Noun describes the nature of her job. “Hungary is a very friendly country to Israel in bilateral and regional relations as well in the framework of international organizations – a close friend in a very special relationship,” she points out in an interview with Diplomacy and Trade mahazine. The Ambassador is of the view that the Hungarian public, people from all segments of the society are very open, very receptive to Israel.
Just recently, the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs and the embassy, in cooperation with the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, organized a Political Conference with internationally acknowledged lecturers about the 20th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The relations between Israel and the European Union, and the challenges of the Middle-East were also discussed at the conference. “Through the conference we learned about the process of the renewal of bilateral relations that branched out over time enhanced cooperation into areas like economics, trade, culture, science or tourism,” the ambassador stresses.
Like coming home
Born to Hungarian parents in Transylvania, Aliza Bin-Noun emigrated to Israel as a child with her family. “For me, being in Hungary is like coming home, visiting my parents’ relatives. I understand the language, which is a benefit for a diplomat not only because of the language, itself but it also brings me closer to the culture, the thinking, the mentality”. However, knowing Hungarian is not enough to put one in the Ambassadorial position. Aliza Bin-Noun has plenty of experience in diplomacy and international relations, having worked for the Foreign Ministry for the past 23 years.
From all perspectives The aim of every ambassador is to strengthen the cooperation and understanding between peoples, and increase their cooperation in as many fields as possible. Aliza Bin-Noun points out that “unfortunately, most of the time when one sees Israel in the news on TV, it is fighting terrorism, or other security problems.We pay a lot of attention to the media coverage of Israel. My aim is to show Israel from all perspectives, everything that Israel consists of: a cultural center, a scientific center and a vibrant society.We constantly encourage Hungarians to visit Israel and experience it from first hand.”
Diplomatic relations between Hungary and Israel are intensive. In the past two years, the Hungarian president visited Israel as did the prime minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister as well as a number of Knesset members came to Hungary and our Foreign Minister may visit soon. All these official visits indicate that the two countries are close, they have many mutual interests and share common values.
“It is important that our work contributes to the understanding of Israel, and also its concerns and policies. The ultimate aim is to increase friendship and good relationship between the two countries,” the Ambassador stresses. Regarding the importance of the visit of Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai to Israel this summer, Aliza Bin-Noun thinks that “when top politicians meet they can exchange views, they can share common issues without any mediators. Prime minister Bajnai met politicians of the highest level and could hear from them Israel’s position concerning the Middle East, Israel’s concerns and expectations relating to the international community with a strong emphasis on Iran’s activity to develop a nuclear capability.”
Science and economy
Regarding bilateral cooperation, the two countries signed in January this year an agreement on bilateral cooperation in science and technology. According to the agreement each country allocates a certain amount of money for companies, thus providing them an incentive for enhanced cooperation. Israel is also an important economic partner to Hungary, being among the ten biggest investors in the past 20 years.
The Role Of Communities
The excellent relations are also related in part to the Jewish community in Hungary, estimated to number 100,000, thus making it the fourth largest in Europe after the ones in France, Britain and Germany. “This community had a significant contribution to the Hungarian society but it was also this community that suffered a dreadful loss, as some 600,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust – my grandparents were among them,” she says. “I attribute a great importance to fighting anti-Semitism. In this context, we organized together with the CEU an international conference on anti-Semitism in March 2009” she adds.
“It is very important for me to visit the countryside, visit the Jewish communities. 95 percent of the Jews in Hungary live in Budapest, and outside the capital, it is mainly Szeged and Debrecen that have larger groups of Jewish people. Unfortunately in many places, it is only the cemeteries were left,” the Ambassador says. At the same time there is a sizeable Hungarian community in Israel, numbering 200,000-300,000 including second and third generation Israelis. She is of the view that “it was not by chance that Hungary was the first in the former Soviet bloc that established diplomatic relations with Israel two decades ago. At that time, Hungary was also of great help in the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel.”
Concerns and worries
“Anti-Semitism is still a very big problem in the world that concerns me as an Ambassador and concerns also the State of Israel, and Jews worldwide. I believe it also concerns everybody who believes in democracy, and human rights. It is not limited to just the Jews and Israel,” she points out. It is one of the issues that the embassy follows in Hungary, as well. Ambassador Bin-Noun believes that in the past two years, there has been unfortunately an increase in anti-Semitism in Hungary. “The fact that at the last elections for the European Parliament, the extremist party ‘Jobbik’ got 15% of the votes cast is definitely a worrying indication, not forgetting that they founded and support the group Magyar Garda who are more and more active in Hungarian life. They are marching, they are recruiting people, they are denying the Shoa” she says, adding though, that the mainstream of the Hungarian public doesn’t buy this ideology and “it is very encouraging to see that there are much more people demonstrating against them than those who support them. The Jews are not the prime targets of these groups but they also have an agenda against the Jews and against Israel. This is something that we should not overlook but monitor and try to do everything possible in order to fight it.”
Tourists and students
Ties on the non-governmental level are also of a high importance. Every year, there are at least 100,000 Israelis who come to visit Hungary, with 15-20,000 Hungarians visiting Israel. “Budapest is just three hours away and has so much to offer” she stresses. Regarding academic relations, there are a few universities in Hungary, like the Technical University here in Budapest that have joint projects with Israeli universities including the exchange of professors. At the same time there are about a thousand Israeli medical students in Hungary. “The level of medical education in Hungary is very high,” she notes. The Ambassador highlights that the most important task for her is to show and present her country in its own reality, beyond political conflicts. In order to do so, culture appears to be an excellent medium.
Ambassador Bin-Noun and Katalin Bogyay, former state secretary at the Ministry of Education and Culture signed an agreement last year on supporting initiatives, which forge ties between Hungarian and Israeli cultural institutions, artists and civil groups. “Israeli culture is unique in its diversity and creativity. It is well received in the world, and Budapest is heading the line with a regiment of cultural programs,” the ambassador says. She notes that this year, Budapest’s Sziget Festival welcomed two Israeli bands, the ‘Habanot Nechama’ and the ‘Oy Division’, in addition to contemporary literature workshops, and an exhibition on Tel Aviv, the city that celebrates its centenary in 2009, and the ‘Heritage of the Holy Land’ exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts this summer.
The Israeli ‘Sheketak’ group performed in the theatre ‘Vigszinhaz’ in May, and earlier this summer, the Israeli Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company brought a spectacular show to Budapest's Palace of Arts.“We also have the upcoming 13th Israeli Film Week between November 18 and 25, premiering a dozen of new Israeli films at the Odeon Lloyd cinema. I expect it to be at least as successful as last year’s event which drew thousands of people to the event, so we had to organize extra shows in the mornings and late nights.”
The Ambassador would love the idea of an Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest: “It’s good when private people find their ways to work with each other as a real bottom-up process” she says. She believes that the Embassy should encourage connections and create an atmosphere where Israelis and Hungarians feel comfortable to exchange ideas and artists. “The constantly growing exposure to Israeli culture in Hungary has helped introduce an important dimension of Israel and its people, thus bringing the two societies closer to each other,” Aliza Bin-Noun concludes.