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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays tribute to the memory of victims of the Holocaust at a memorial in the main synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo(reuters_tickers)
By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Jews on Wednesday sharply criticised Viktor Orban's billboard campaign using the image of U.S. financier George Soros and said the Israeli government's backing of it came as a disappointment to the local Jewish community.
In the campaign, Soros is singled out as an enemy of Hungary. "Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh" say billboards next to a picture of the 86-year-old Jewish investor, a campaign that Jewish groups say foments anti-Semitism.
Many posters have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Addressing Prime Minister Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a ceremonial hall near the main synagogue in Budapest, Andras Heisler, chairman of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Federations (Mazsihisz), said it was unacceptable that the campaign triggered fear among Jews.
"Today, in Hungary an all-out propaganda campaign could be started with visual and lingustic tools that triggered bad feelings among us Jews," Heisler said. His mother, 92, who survived the Holocaust, was in the audience.
"There can be a debate about the government's intentions, but the reason why it became unacceptable to me was that Jews in Hungary have started to fear ... "
Orban's government has said the campaign has nothing to do with anti-Semitism but sought to counter what it said was Soros' attempts to unduly change Hungary's immigration policies.
Soros has funded groups in Hungary that promote human rights and a positive approach to immigration.
The government has said it would end the campaign on July 15, but posters are still up around Hungary. The government says the firm that owns the billboard sites has yet to remove them.
Ahead of Netanyahu's visit to Budapest, Israel's Foreign Ministry last week issued a statement saying that Soros was a legitimate target for criticism.
Heisler said the statement was a "let-down for our community". He also called on Netanyahu to ensure greater recognition for disapora Jews in Hungary.
Neither Orban, who faces an election next year, nor Netanyahu reacted to the comments in their subsequent speeches.
"I am proud of the fact that today in our country there is a renaissance of Jewish life, even if I heard there were certain difficulties," Orban said.
Netanyahu's trip came less than a month after Orban praised Hungary's interwar leader Miklos Horthy, a Hitler ally.
But on Tuesday, Orban told Netanyahu that his country stood firmly against anti-Semitism after the "crime" of failing to protect its Jewish citizens during World War Two.
"(Orban) reassured me in unequivocal terms (over the anti-Semitic concerns)," Netanyahu said after meeting the prime minister.
Soros' spokesman said last week the poster campaign was "reminiscent of Europe's darkest hours".
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Alison Williams)