I was completing the first year of my Master at the Central European University in 2015, when EUJS, as a partner in the project a Europe of Diasporas, visited my alma mater for a series of conferences, panels and exchanges of best practices in the pursuit of a more inclusive and open society.
This very ideal was attacked yesterday, once again, when the Orban government decided to go after the "Soros university" – CEU. As expected, the justification appears to be driven solely by resentment towards what they perceive as their ideological opponents from a government that seeks to entrench illiberal ideas in Hungarian society. (You can read the details here)
It was touching to see the wave of students, alumni, professors, staff, all standing up to defend the University and an undeniable testament to the impact CEU has had on thousands of people. More importantly, it was a proof of the spirit of active citizenry that the University fights to instill in all those who enter its doors.
The Central European University is quite an oasis in the Eastern European spectrum of educational institutions. That is not because, I've come to think, of its curricula, its double American and Hungarian accreditation, its outstanding rankings – incomparable to any other university in the neighboring countries, let alone Hungary, or the world-renowned names of the professorial body. No, it's because it is truly a space of empowerment. It is a space where young students are encouraged not just to learn, but to think, to explore, to invent, to question.
Our teachers were indeed our peers. This was a truly surprising and intimidating realization. To understand that you are deemed a complete adult, a fellow intellectual and academic and a source of fresh, forward-thinking ideas was a maturing experience, the formative nature of which cannot be rivalled by the mere content of what we have learned in our many intense hours in the seminar halls, library and cafes surrounding our beloved building on Nador street.
There is no doubt that it is precisely this that bothers the Orban government. In its ruthless pursuit to brainwash the Hungarian population through a hostile populist discourse, to create false national narratives and cultivate a spirit of resentment of the "other", an international educational environment that promotes freedom of thought is an immense danger.
To see the lengths that the current Hungarian regime is willing to go to in order to damage its own most valuable institutions – quality education, a free press, and in the most fundamental sense, democracy - is astonishing. It is the kind of imagery associated with decades we thought were long gone, yet we become increasingly more aware this is not the case. And it is perhaps most ironic to reflect on the endless hypocrisy of the man behind all this, Viktor Orban, who in fact is a Soros scholarship holder.
One thing is for sure, petty regulations may be disruptive, costly and malicious, but they do not manage to impede freedom of thought, they do not manage to impede civic spirit and they will not discourage the thousands of youth empowered by the Central European University to continue to fight for a more open society, be it in ministries, courts, European institutions, schools, think tanks, or right here, with the European Union of Jewish Students.