The World Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities worldwide,
usually holds its annual plenary assembly in Jerusalem. But this year a
different venue was chosen.
In a brave show of solidarity for Hungary’s
embattled Jewish community, the WJC’s leadership decided to hold its conference
in Budapest. The message was clear: Hungary’s Jews are not alone, despite a
worrying spate of anti-Semitic incidents (neo-Nazi soccer fans pummeled Ferenc
Orosz, head of the Raoul Wallenberg Association, breaking his nose just a week
before the conference opened); despite outrageous statements by members of the
Hungarian parliament (Marton Gyongyosi, a parliamentarian belonging to the
Jobbik party, told a crowd a day before the conference, “Our country has become
subjugated to Zionism, it has become a target of colonization while we, the
indigenous people, can play only the role of extras”); and despite a
deteriorating economic situation that has exacerbated an already inhospitable
climate for Jews and other non-Magyars such as the Roma (Gypsy)
The WJC then invited the populist, ultra-conservative Hungarian
Prime Minister Viktor Orban to speak before the three-day assembly opened on
Sunday. It was a perfect opportunity for Orban to openly address the rising
levels of anti-Semitism and xenophobia since his ascent to power in
But Orban’s speech was disappointingly lacking in
As the WJC noted on its website, Orban “refrained from
mentioning any recent anti-Semitic or racists incidents in the country, nor did
he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his
government and the far-Right fringe.” According to veteran journalist and
Holocaust survivor Paul Ledvai, whose latest book is titled Hungary: Between
Democracy and Authoritarianism, Orban is not an anti-Semite. But in a push to
consolidate political power, the Hungarian prime minister is tapping into
long-suppressed xenophobic sentiments festering in Hungary’s collective
Apparently, Orban, interested in getting reelected in
2014, is well-attuned to the realities of widespread anti- Semitic and
xenophobic sentiments in his country. He cannot appear to be too much of a
friend to Hungary’s Jews or a champion of the Roma.
While most attention
has focused on Jobbik, which became the third-largest party with about 17
percent of the vote in a 2010 election campaign that vilified the Roma, the
strengthening of Jobbik is “only a symptom,” Peter Feldmajer, chairman of the
Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, told Reuters.
problem is that around half a million people support the far Right and many
people accept the negative attitude to Jews,” said Feldmajer.
conducted last year by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, titled
“Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report,” found that
Hungarians agreed at higher rates than any other country surveyed – that is,
Denmark, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Poland – with
anti-Semitic declarations such as “Jews have too much influence in the
In this atmosphere of widespread anti-Semitism, Orban must be
wary of the potential negative electoral fallout when extremists on the Right
mockingly refer to his ruling Fidesz party as “Zsidesz,” a play on the Hungarian
word Zsido, meaning Jew.
The Hungarian Education Ministry’s decision to
add to the public school syllabus literary works of known anti-Semites and
nationalists, including those without artistic distinction, can be seen as a
concession to the extremists. So is ministers’ silence over the growing cult of
Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader from 1920 to 1944. Statues have been erected and
several streets and squares have been named in his honor, despite Horthy’s
checkered past. Though he refused to deport Hungary’s Jews, Horthy was an ally
of Hitler and passed anti-Semitic laws. And after the Nazis invaded, he stood by
when Hungarian gendarmes rounded up more than 500,000 Jews and sent them to
Like most politicians, Orban must send out different
messages for different audiences.
At the WJC conference Orban declared
that anti-Semitism is “unacceptable and intolerable.” But the sad realities of
Hungarian politics make it difficult for Orban and other ambitious politicians
to appear to be too much of a philo-Semite.
The WJC’s courageous show of
solidarity with Hungary’s Jews is an important gesture in the ongoing battle
against European anti-Semitism. But with hatred of those perceived to be
different so entrenched in Hungarian society, the future is not encouraging for
Jews and other “minorities” who call the Magyar nation home.
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