The queues were long at the ticket booth of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest this month for events of the week-long cultural Jewish Summer Festival that has annually drawn thousands to the Hungarian capital since it was started by Vera Vadas, the festival's director, eight years ago.
The aim of the festival, according to Vera Vadas, is to "conserve Jewish culture and traditions, and to serve as a bridge connecting the Jewish culture to the non-Jewish population." In this, it also means to work against anti-Semitic prejudice.
Europe's largest synagogue on Doh ny Street, also known by the Yiddish name of Tabak-Schul (the translation for Doh ny is tobacco), is the heart of the Festival. The impressive building very much shapes the face of Budapest, representing the country's big Jewish minority of 80 to 90,000 Jews, of which 80% live in Budapest.
However, Hungarian Jewry is not as present in Budapest's everyday life as one would expect, and underlying anti-Semitic prejudices are something that doesn't just belong to the past.
Ro'sza Katalin of the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Hungary wrote in an email that while she felt there was no organized anti-Semitism, the non-Jewish population knew "only little about Judaism". Janos Gado of the monthly newspaper Szombat (Shabbat), said "Jews don't know their culture either." He explained that, for Hungarians, Jews are related first and foremost to the Holocaust.
Other than that, stereotypes prevail. "They believe liberalism is a Jewish thing, cabaret life is a Jewish thing, things that refer to just an aspect of Jewish life." Over the last years, Gado observed what he calls a "Jewish renaissance" within Hungarian Jewry as a new movement of self-exploration.
The Jewish summer festival could be seen as part of this renaissance, which according to Gado is a phenomenon mostly "in terms of literature, arts and culture." He explained that not a lot of people were involved in the many international Jewish organizations that had poured into Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain. "You will find many Jewish intellectuals here that reject being defined as Jews." But of these very assimilated Jews, he said, many were "very active in cultural life and feel more like Hungarians."
Vadas wrote enthusiastically in an email that this year, 120,000 visitors had attended one or more of the festival's events. She did not know how many of them had been non-Jews. Her colleague of the Jewish Tourism and Cultural Institute, Raymond Hauer, felt there was quite a big non-Jewish crowd attending the Jewish events, especially people of academic backgrounds. "They don't come because it is a Jewish Festival, but because our program is interesting, and this way they also learn about Jewish culture," Hauer said. Asked about anti-Semitism, he said there wasn't "anything material" to speak of, and added: "I get along with my neighbors well.
Scientific writer Magdalena Marsovszky, who specializes in Hungarian and Middle European anti-Semitism, agreed that the Jewish Summer Festival could help enhance Jewish identity, but was adamant it could not counter anti-Semitism.
In a telephone interview, she acknowledged that violence against Jewish institutions was low in Hungary. However, she explained, that for fear of losing their identity in a globalized world, "there is a cultural movement to protect "Magyardom " against foreign influence. The term 'Magyardom' stands for a Hungarian ethnicity. "Ethnicizing like this is very dangerous," said Marsovsky.
"The negative of the Magyar is the Jew," Marsovszky said, explaining that this was a constructed image. "No real person could ever have all these features. The Jew that exists in the head of the anti-Semite is a cultural construction. As with everywhere else, anti-Semitism in Hungary is not only directed against Jews and 'alleged Jews,' but against everyone who embodies cosmopolitanism, urbanity and intellectualism."
To counter this dangerous development, before it gets out of hand, Marsovszky said, "we need to strengthen the civil society, and increase the dialogue between East and West."