In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Gaza on Oct. 12, the English Football Association decided against lighting up Wembley Stadium in support of the Israeli victims, mostly due to pro-Palestinian protests taking place in the U.K. as well as other major capitals of Europe.
Apparently, such shows of support will now only take place for national figures or actual matches held in the stadium, meaning no lights for other countries’ causes, nor even for LGBT and other such campaigns. However, the timing of the decision was indicative of other motives.
It seemed an unfriendly environment for Israel, especially as the country was no longer able to host its own home games — including the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifiers. Luckily, Hungary’s friendly relations with Israel would come to the fore, with Orbán extending an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel to play its UEFA championship qualifying matches against Switzerland and Romania in the stadium of his hometown of Felcsút. Poland and Germany did offer to host as well.
At the time, Israeli Ambassador Yacov Hadas-Handelsman told AP: “We have a very good combination of personal connections and relations (and) sheer love of sports and football in the Hungarian government.”
Given the massive security concerns Jews are experiencing in many areas of Europe, Hungary is a convenient location for their athletes to be able to continue to play. The Israeli women’s national team has also had games here, as well as the Maccabi Tel Aviv football club.
Hungarian friendliness toward Israel is nothing new. The Orbán governments have repeatedly shown solidarity with Israel (one of the few countries that do) in U.N. resolutions against it, and it has made no secret of the fact that it is today one of the safest countries for Jews.
In the wake of the Hamas attacks, Orbán has even banned any pro-Palestinian protests. “There will be no pro-terror demonstrations in Hungary,” Orbán wrote in a post on X, also posting a photo of himself at the Israel-Swiss UEFA game on Facebook with the caption, “Respect Israel!”
And just this past weekend, Israel’s Tel Aviv Heat played the Romanian Wolves in a semi-final game of the Rugby Europe Super Cup 2023 on a pitch at Budapest’s Kincsem Park, where spectators could take in not just a rugby match but some harness racing as well.
Ronen Dorfan, a sports writer for Israel Hayom, helped organize the match and was in awe of the immediate help he got from the Hungarian Rugby Union. He noted that the group games had been held in Cyprus, but higher-ups there then decided that no further Israeli matches would be allowed to take place. It was just ten days before the Israel-Romania match was to be held that he contacted the head of the rugby association in Hungary, and everything was taken care of.
Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Yacov Hadas-Handelsman also attended this event, as well as representatives from Hungary’s different rugby clubs and a good turnout of fans.
Commenting to Remix News on his post in Budapest, the safety of Jews in Hungary, and being able to have Israeli athletes play their home games free of security concerns, Hadas-Handelsman said that “the Hungarian government and Hungary have an important role to play in allowing sports events to be held here.” He noted that “besides Hungary, other countries have also offered their help, but we took a lot of considerations into account when choosing the venue, especially with regard to security, and that is why we chose Hungary. Above all, Israeli athletes have a good experience of the country, the sports facilities are excellent and the Hungarians always organize similar events to a high standard.”
As to other planned games in Hungary, the ambassador said, “We will provide information in due course.”
“Interestingly, this was the first professional rugby match ever played in Hungary,” Dorfan told Remix. Having beaten Romania 31-6, Israel will next play its first finals game in Georgia against defending champions Black Lion.
Rabbi Shlomo Köves, Chief Rabbi of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH), told Remix News, specifically focusing on the UEFA games, that “the fact that Hungary offered help hosting the Israeli soccer team for European Championship qualifiers is yet another example of the deep friendship between these countries. I think this friendship is not merely based on politics, but on Hungary’s deep appreciation of the values the Jewish state stands for, that is democracy and the right to self-determination. Add to that the fact that Hungary is arguably the safest place in Europe with a sizable Jewish community, where a large scale event, like these soccer games, could be held with maximum security.”
Immediately following the Oct. 7 attack, a vigil was held jointly in Budapest by all Jewish organizations, with community leaders, families, and government representatives gathering in a tremendous show of support for Israel.
Hungary has the largest Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the World Jewish Congress. Dorfan noted that the local support he saw organizing the rugby match, from everyday people, was what really impressed him. Unlike the UEFA games, which involved much publicity and higher-ups, this was a much more low-key event, really proving how much heart and spirit the Hungarian people have.