How Hungary’s man in Brussels enabled lies about Palestinian school books

Olivér Várhelyi (File)

David Cronin

The Electronic Intifada  /  January 19, 2022

Judging by some recent headlines, Israel’s relations with Europe can be summarized in four words: “you’re pissing me off.”

The outburst is exactly the kind of reaction which diplomats can expect when they complain about how the West Bank is being gobbled up by its occupiers.

Yet those four words – attributed to a high-level official in Israel’s foreign ministry – convey a somewhat deceptive impression. They suggest that Europe is confronting Israel, only to have its protests dismissed aggressively.

The truth is that Israel has a number of staunch allies among the EU elite. Far from protesting at Israel’s crimes, those allies are cheering them on.

Olivér Várhelyi, Hungary’s member of the European Commission, is perhaps the staunchest.

During a June 2020 interview with David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Várhelyi said that he saw “enormous potential in the security cooperation with Israel.”

“We have a lot to learn from Israel,” he added.

Under the pretext of “security,” Israel subjugates millions of Palestinians, frequently testing out its new weapons and surveillance equipment on them.

Decent people around the world are horrified by that extreme sadism. Várhelyi, by contrast, thinks “we have a lot to learn” from it.

Israel and its network of lobbyists have been peddling myths about EU aid to Palestinians for more than two decades.

The European Commission – the body managing the aid – used to insist on debunking the myths. Breaking with that pattern, Várhelyi has tried to lend them credence.

Omitting the truth

One lie circulated by the pro-Israel lobby is that the EU is funding Palestinian school books which promote anti-Semitism and “glorify terrorism.”

Várhelyi, who is in charge of how the EU interacts with its neighboring countries, has corrected that claim in a low-key manner. Replying to one parliamentary question last year, he said “the EU does not fund Palestinian textbooks.”

If that fact was emphasized properly, the pro-Israel lobby would not be able to get away with its lies. Várhelyi, though, omitted the central truth – that the EU doesn’t pay for the books to which lobbyists objected – in other public remarks on the issue.

Commenting on Twitter around the same time, he expressed a commitment to “peace, tolerance, co-existence, non-violence in Palestinian textbooks.” He added that “the conditionality of our financial assistance in the educational sector needs to be duly considered.”

As the EU doesn’t pay for these schoolbooks, Várhelyi bears no responsibility for their content. The reply I received to a freedom of information request nonetheless indicates that Várhelyi has shown himself quite exercised about them.

The reply shows that briefing notes on the textbooks were included in 17 dossiers that Brussels officials prepared for Várhelyi between December 2019 – when he began his current job – and October last year.

Some of these dossiers were compiled for meetings and calls between Várhelyi and representatives from the Israeli government. Among them were Gabi Ashkenazi, then Israel’s foreign minister.

The idea of shooting the breeze with Ashkenazi about Palestinian schools is intriguing. Ashkenazi has committed grotesque violations of the right to education.

As head of Israel’s military at the time, Ashkenazi oversaw Operation Cast Lead, an offensive against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Under his command, a massacre was carried out at Al-Fakhoura school in Jabaliya refugee camp. Numerous other schools were targeted.

Várhelyi was briefed, too, on textbooks for conversations he had with the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine’s refugees. He also appears to have discussed the textbooks with the British and Swedish governments, pro-Israel groups such as the European Jewish Association and the aforementioned American Jewish Committee and Charlie Weimers, a far-right member of the European Parliament.

It is even possible that Várhelyi has devoted more time to the textbooks’ issue than the list of 17 dossiers would suggest. For example, the list does not mention a call between Várhelyi and Karina Gould, then Canada’s international development minister, in June last year.

A tweet from Várhelyi following that chat indicated that the issue of Palestinian textbooks was raised.

Although the EU does not finance the production of Palestinian textbooks, it has funded a study on their content.

Conducted by Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute, the study analyzed 156 Palestinian textbooks.

It referred to some “anti-Semitic motifs” in just one of those 156 – a religious education book for Muslim children.

The study acknowledged that a revised version of the book was produced for the 2020-21 academic year. The new version “has been changed in several aspects,” according to the study, “thereby reducing the negative focus on Jews.”

The conclusions from the study were clear. One book containing “anti-Semitic motifs” was identified by the study, which acknowledged that the book in question had subsequently been amended.

Absurd

After the study was published in June last year, Daniel Schwammenthal, the American Jewish Committee’s main representative in Brussels, tweeted that “EU funds mustn’t be misused to indoctrinate Palestinian children.” He praised, too, Várhelyi’s “clear commitment” to “end anti-Semitism, glorification of terror and denial of Israel in Palestinian textbooks.”

The timing here cannot be accidental.

In May 2021, Israel had bombarded Gaza constantly over 11 consecutive days.

More than 60 Palestinian children were killed during the attack.

Barely a month later, the pro-Israel lobby was seeking to divert attention away from Israel’s crimes by insinuating that sinister thoughts were being planted in young Palestinian heads with the unwitting connivance of the European taxpayer.

While the EU does not fund Palestinian textbooks, it does fund Palestinian education generally.

It is absurd for lobbyists to insist that Palestinians be taught recognition of and respect for Israel. Regardless of what they are told at school, children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza have no respite from a brutal military occupation.

Expecting them to learn in school that they should never resist the occupation but simply “co-exist” with their occupiers is a negation of reality.

The pro-Israel lobby has pounced on the issue of textbooks in order to advocate aid cuts.

The focus on education hints that the lobby’s real objective is to harm the provision of basic services on which Palestinians rely.

Bigotry against Jews and all other forms of racism must be opposed.

If Várhelyi truly wants to tackle bigotry against Jews, he could start by denouncing Viktor Orbán, prime minister of his native Hungary.

Orbán has circulated anti-Semitic tropes in election campaigns and conferred hero status on a Nazi collaborator.

Understanding why Várhelyi would not dare to criticize Orbán is not hard. As it was Orbán who nominated him for his current post, Várhelyi’s own career could be damaged if he fell out with the boss in Budapest.

Várhelyi has indulged the Israel lobby on another issue, too. In 2020, he demanded an investigation into claims that the EU was funding Palestinian organizations with “terrorist” connections.

A reply to another freedom of information request indicates that Várhelyi was briefed on these allegations ahead of a discussion with Gabi Ashkenazi in September 2020. Várhelyi also had notes prepared on the allegations before speaking with Orit Farkash-Hacohen, then Israel’s strategic affairs minister, that same month.

In October last year, Israel blacklisted six Palestinian human rights and social service groups as terrorist organizations. The move cannot be separated from how at least three of the groups are compiling evidence for a potential trial against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Várhelyi has so far been silent on the blacklisting. Considering that he has enabled Israel to wage war on human rights monitors, his silence equals complicity

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada; his books include Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel and Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation