Jobbik Worries Jews

Biggest far-right electoral victory in Hungary since WWII sets off alarm bells.

Jobbik 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Jobbik 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The far-right party, Jobbik, won 17 percent of the vote in Hungarian elections in April, making it the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament. Although the Jews and Israel are not high on the agenda of the party that describes itself as the “upholder of the Hungarian nation, Church, and family,” Jewish community leaders are alarmed by its resonance with the fascist ideology of one of the darkest periods in the nation’s history.
“The Jewish community is in a state of shock,” says sociologist János Gadó, a member of the editorial board of Szombat, Hungary’s leading Jewish periodical. “The community was completely unprepared for the collapse of the socialist party, which had always condemned anti-Semitism. Although Péter Feldmayer, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, has expressed his readiness to cooperate with the new government, the community has yet to issue a formal statement regarding the rise of the extreme right,” he tells The Report in a phone interview from Budapest.
Jobbik – the Movement for a Better Hungary – is a Christian-nationalistmovement founded in 2003 that advocates fundamentalist values andradical change. Its electoral showing earns it a representation of alittle over 12 percent in parliament – the largest far-right victory inHungary since World War II.
Although the issues addressed in the party’s platform – corruption,stagnation of long-overdue reforms to alleviate the country’s direeconomic situation, and the “Gypsy problem” – are real, its rhetoricand proposed policies have set off alarm bells for anyone remotelyfamiliar with the country’s history.
Jobbik peppers its calls for radical reform with expressions thathearken back to one of the darkest chapters of Hungarian history.Phrases such as the “moral and physical infirmity” and “tragicdemographic situation” of the Hungarian nation were part and parcel ofthe ideology of the Arrow Cross, the fascist party headed by FerencSzálasi, responsible for the murder of thousands of Hungarian Jews inthe final months of the war. That these words are not idle banter isconfirmed by Jobbik’s declared intention to legalize the HungarianGuard, a neo-fascist movement founded by the party’s president, GáborVona, in 2007, and dissolved by the Metropolitan Court of Budapest thefollowing year on charges of human rights violations.
“We have been observing Jobbik for several years,” says SergeCwajgenbaum, Secretary General of the Paris-based European JewishCongress. “As an anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party with representativesin the European Parliament, they are a particularly worrisomephenomenon,” he tells The Report in a phone interview. “We aren’t alonein our fears. These parties are a threat to everyone, not just theJews. The rise of extremism is of concern to all Europeans.”
The day after the second round of elections that established Jobbik asthe third largest party in parliament, a small group of elderly men andwomen at the Association of Hungarian Immigrants gathered in Jerusalemfor an address by Szabolcs Szita, a prominent, non-Jewish Hungarianhistorian and founder of the Holocaust Documentation Center inBudapest. “I understand your fears,” Szita told the group. “Thechallenge is grave, and there is much work to be done. Yet we shouldnot lose hope.”
Szita, who arrived in Israel at the head of a delegation of Hungarianacademics visiting the country for the first time, is the author ofnumerous books on the Hungarian Holocaust and a key figure in thestruggle for Shoah education in Hungary, who has dedicated his careerto making it as difficult as possible for people to buy into the cheapnationalism that Jobbik represents. In his speech, he detailed recentdevelopments in Shoah pedagogy in Hungary – which he considers theprincipal means of resistance.
“Hungary is, and has always been, a multi-ethnic state,” he tells TheReport after his lecture. “Our task is to foster awareness of thepluralism that has made our country what it is. Hungary has profitedimmensely from its ethnic minorities, not least from the Jews, who werethe driving force behind its modernization and cultural developmentfrom the late 19th century.”’
This would be news to many Jobbik supporters. In a carefully worded,88-page document accessible on its website, the party describes itselfas the “upholder of the Hungarian nation, Church, and family,” whoseexistence it claims is being gravely threatened by the specters ofglobalization and a society too open for its own good.
“Our creed is to represent the interests of the majority, the Magyars,”writes Zsolt Várkonyi, Jobbik’s international press chief, in an e-mailto The Report, in response to the question of how his party sees therole of Hungary’s minorities in the strengthening of the country’scollective consciousness. In keeping with those interests, and in orderto create “a spiritually healthy society,” Jobbik plans to institute asystem of religious instruction “based on Christian moral values, inthe spirit of the historical inheritance of the Hungarian nation.”Várkonyi declined to comment on the place of religious minorities inthat system.
Another of Jobbik’s oft-touted aims is to spread awareness of “themission of the Magyars.” Asked what that mission was, Várkonyi gave areply that would strike a grotesque chord in most Jewish ears: “TheHungarians are the only nation on earth to have been divided up betweeneight different countries in the wake of a military defeat, with theresult that today, more of our Hungarian-speaking brethren live outsideof the mother country than within it. Our aim, the mission of Magyars,is to affect the return of these Hungarians to the Carpathian basin,and to reestablish... a political entity, a country.”
He was alluding to the partition of Hungary as laid down in the 1920Treaty of Trianon, following the defeat of Austria-Hungary in World WarI, in which roughly two-thirds of its territory was annexed to theneighboring lands – present-day Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and thecountries of the former Yugoslavia. But the concept of an independent“Greater Hungary” – which has become increasingly popular in recentyears, frequently appearing on T-shirts and bumper stickers – ishopelessly anachronistic: since the mid-16th century, the territory,which was also home to significant ethnic minorities, was not asovereign state, but formed part of the Ottoman, and later the HabsburgEmpires. Less than two decades after Trianon, it was in the hope of“reconstituting” this fantasy state that Admiral Miklós Horthy, theRegent of Hungary, allied himself with Hitler.
Unlike Szálasi of Arrow Cross, Horthy was a conservative, naïve, butanti-fascist politician. His attempts to negotiate a cease-fire withthe Allies and his insistent refusal to deport Hungary’s Jews promptedthe German invasion of the country on March 19, 1944. At that point,Hungary was home to the sole remaining Jewish population of Europe,which numbered as many as 850,000, of whom roughly 220,000 lived inBudapest. Approximately 437,402 of them – all from the countryside –were deported to Auschwitz in the space of less than two monthsfollowing the German invasion.
In July, in the wake of the Allied victories in Europe andinternational protests, Horthy summoned his remaining authority andordered a halt to the deportations. The Nazis promptly arranged anArrow Cross takeover, which, on October 15, 1944, ushered in the final,bloody phase of the Holocaust: thousands were murdered on the banks ofthe Danube and up to 60,000 were sent on death marches towardsHungary’s western border. Altogether some 100,000 Budapest Jewsperished, while roughly the same number survived in the ghetto and inhiding. An estimated total of 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered inthe Holocaust. Roughly 200,000 Gypsies throughout Europe perished atNazi hands.
Asked to summarize his party’s position on Israel, Várkonyi highlightedthe “severe economic damage” caused by previous Hungarian governments’“unconditional support” of the Jewish state, a policy which Jobbik seesas having led to a decline in the sales of Hungarian-made products toArab countries, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
These remarks are typical of Jobbik’s tendency to exploit realproblems, such as unemployment – especially rife in the eastern part ofthe country, home to the bulk of its constituency – and general publicoutrage at the failings of previous left-wing governments, to stir upfeelings of national pride. Its chauvinistic rhetoric fits in well withmainstream Hungarian political discourse, which tends to blur thedistinction between the injustice suffered under the 40-year period ofpost-war Communism, and the disasters brought on by the country’scollaboration with and occupation by the Nazis during World War II.
The sweeping victory of the center-right Fidesz party in these lastelections, which received almost 53 percent of the vote, and commandsan overwhelming 68 percent majority in parliament, has broken thetradition of left-wing rule that had characterized Hungarian politicssince the first democratic elections in 1990. According to Hungarianlaw, a ruling party or coalition must command a majority of two-thirdsin parliament. With the exception of the 1998 elections, in whichFidesz came in second, but managed to form a coalition with anotherconservative party, all of Hungary’s governments have been led by acoalition of the two socialist parties, neither of which ever receivedsufficient votes to form an independent majority.
The results of the present election are thus extraordinary in severalrespects: the socialist party, MSZP, traditionally the most powerfulparty in parliament, sustained a staggering loss of 24 percent comparedto the last elections, and has been relegated to second place; and forthe first time in the history of modern Hungarian democracy, a singleparty – right-wing, no less – commands an undisputed majority inparliament.
Jobbik’s success, if the most obviously shocking result of theelections to outside observers, is thus not the only worrisomedevelopment that Hungarian society will have to contend with for thenext four years. In fact, according to some local analysts, it is morethe domination of Hungary’s political life by a centralized, omnipotentFidesz that poses the real threat to liberal democracy in the country.
That is the conclusion of an article written by Rudolf Ungváry, aprominent intellectual, that appeared in the left-liberal dailyNépszabadság following the first round of elections on April 11, inwhich he described the combined force of the two right-wing parties(together, 69.5 percent of the vote, making up roughly 80 percent ofparliament) as having created a “centralized sphere of power” – a termcoined by Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán – strongly reminiscent of thepolitical structure of the country on the eve of World War II.
Ungváry goes on to describe what he sees as the main reason for thecollapse of the left in the elections: in his view, since the fall ofCommunism, the Hungarian left has suffered from the internally corruptpolitical mechanism it inherited from the Communist system, under whichit had for decades profited from unique, dictatorial state support. Thesocialists’ failure to abandon that one-party inheritance and reformthemselves into a self-sufficient, democratic party had lead toincreasing corruption within the party, severely undermining theircredibility and setting the stage for proponents of radical change suchas Jobbik.
But relations between Fidesz and Jobbik are far from amicable.Continuing the historic parallel with Horthy – who, after being electedregent by the country’s National Assembly in 1920, affected a completemonopoly of political power, suppressing extremist parties such as theArrow-Cross – many predict that Fidesz will strive to exercise similarcontrol over Jobbik.
In a recent interview with the Jewish periodical Szombat, analystZoltán Kiszelly explained that since Fidesz’s majority is uncontested –having gained over the required two-thirds – it is free to choose itsallies; and it is unlikely that it would want to engage the help ofJobbik in enacting laws that would tarnish Hungary’s image abroad andstrain its relationship with its neighbors.
“Much depends on the success of the new government in resolving thecurrent economic and social crisis,” says György Vári, a representativeof Politics Can Be Different (LMP), a young left-wing party whoseunexpected success in the elections, which made them the fourth largestparty in parliament, was welcomed by the liberal intellectual elite.
“Jobbik’s votes are protest votes,” Vári tells The Report in a Skypeinterview. “Many of them come from people who were fed up with thescandalous corruption of the previous socialist governments, and withwhat they see to be the incompetence of the socialists in dealing withissues like the Gypsy problem, which is one of our gravest socialproblems today.
Hungary’s Roma population, which according to official estimatesnumbers about half a million, constitutes the country’s largest ethnicminority. Living on the fringes of society, in colonies characterizedby extreme poverty, crime and dereliction, the Roma have increasinglybecome the targets of racial violence and verbal abuse.
“It’s not that they’re all racists,” Vári continues, referring toJobbik’s supporters. “There is certainly a large core of committedxenophobes among them; on the other hand, in a recent poll, around 30percent of Jobbik voters put down LMP as their second choice.” Askedwhether he thought Jobbik was merely a passing fad, Vári respondedsoberly. “If the economy and social situation improves, the anger thatmotivates their supporters may well diminish, and with it, therelevance of their agenda. But it would be overly optimistic to saythat they will disappear,” he concludes.
Alongside his political activities, Vári, a Jew, is actively involvedin Budapest’s Jewish cultural scene. Until recently, he ran a popularJewish intellectual blog which attracted some 15,000 participants overthe course of three years – merely one sign of the growing awareness ofJews and Judaism that has – also – characterized Hungarian society inrecent years.
After the war ended in 1945, the majority of the approximately 144,000Hungarian survivors were located in Budapest; in the following decadesthat number greatly decreased, principally due to successive waves ofemigration – up to 75,000 left the country in 1948 and 1956.
Hungary today is home to between 80,000 and 150,000 persons of Jewishdescent; most of them live in Budapest, making it the largest Jewishmetropolitan center in Eastern Europe. Over the past 20 years, the cityhas seen an upsurge in Jewish cultural events and institutions,including a summer festival, schools, and a handful of “Jewish”restaurants and cafés; Europe’s first Israeli cultural institute is dueto open there this fall. Publication of books dealing withJewish-related topics has also flourished. All of these havecontributed to the development of a unique cultural scene, which hasdecidedly altered the character of the city.
Interestingly, many of the participants in this scene are non-Jews –although the very definition of who is a Jew is obscure in a countryhistorically home to one of the world’s most deeply assimilated Jewishcommunities. Blogs like Vári’s and the popular, whichpresent Jewish takes on current issues, have played a considerable rolein shaping the attitude of Hungary’s younger generation, showing theman interesting, attractive face of Judaism they had not known before.
The results of this process were evident in a number of recent eventsthat not even the success of Jobbik can overshadow. On April 6, about600 people took part in a “Kipa March,” spontaneously organized withina matter of days to protest the attack, a week earlier, againstLubavitcher Rabbi Shmuel Raskin in his Budapest home on the eve ofPassover.
Twelve days later, a crowd of 10,000 gathered to commemorate HungarianHolocaust Day. The “March of the Living” was attended byrepresentatives of every parliamentary party except Jobbik, as well asprominent social figures, including Sándor Németh, a respected priestand leader of the Hungarian Pentecostal Church, one of the country’smost dynamic and fastest growing religious communities. In a movingspeech, Németh expressed his dismay at the success of Jobbik, which hedescribed as an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel movement whose presenceposes “a serious moral and spiritual challenge to all conscientiousHungarians,” and expressed his unequivocal support and respect forIsrael.
Németh’s speech represents the positive side of the mixed attitude ofthe Hungarian Church towards Israel and the Holocaust. According toSzabolcs Szita, the church, through its well-developed educationsystem, exercises a huge influence on large segments of the population.“The attitude of many Hungarian church leaders to this issue is stillambivalent,” he tells The Report, quoting, as an example, a ceremonyheld recently in commemoration of the approximately 770 Hungariansknown to have sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. Although Péter Erdo,the archbishop of Budapest and primate of Hungary, attended the event,when the occasion arose for him to speak, he failed to make anystatement of rapprochement.
“Ambivalence” is a useful term to characterize Hungary’s attitudetowards recognition of its role in the Shoah in general. On one end ofthe spectrum is the controversial House of Terror museum, which openedin 2002 and is one of Budapest’s main tourist attractions. The museum,housed in the building that had served, first, as the headquarters ofthe Arrow Cross, and later, the communist secret police, was seen bymany at the time as a deliberate political stunt on the part of thegovernment, then led by Fidesz, to bend public opinion against thesocialists.
Although ostensibly dedicated to the victims of both fascism andcommunism, the exhibition – which begins with a video showinghistorical footage of the various invasions and partitioning of GreaterHungary – places overwhelming emphasis on the latter, and barelymentions the Holocaust.
On the other hand, the past five years have seen the dedication ofseveral Holocaust memorials in the capital, most recently, a monumentto the 40,000 Jews who perished in the Hungarian forced laborbattalions. It is a costly construction, consisting of two walls ofheaped Jerusalem stones held together by a metal netting that terminatein a cement slab, delineating a trapezoidal space with a thin, steeltree whose branches reach skyward.
Yet despite its poetic suggestiveness, the overall effect of themonument is negligible: located in an outlying part of town, bearing noexplanatory text or allusion to its function as a memorial, it attractslittle attention. More prominent is the so-called “shoe monument,”inaugurated in 2005, on the banks of the Danube near the parliamentbuilding. It consists of 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, a reference tothe thousands of Jewish victims shot into the river by the Arrow Cross.
The success of the far-right is, unfortunately, hardly an isolatedphenomenon. Over the past decade, Eastern Europe has witnessed anunsettling rise in extreme-right parties: in 2000, theultra-nationalist Tudor party in Romania carried almost 20 percent ofthe country’s vote; in 2006, the Slovakian National Party receivedclose to 12 percent; and in 2008, the Radical Party in Serbia gained anastonishing 29.5 percent.
The picture becomes even more troubling when one considers the recentrise in nationalism in Austria. “We are well aware of these trends,”says Serge Cwajgenbaum, of the European Jewish Congress, which monitorsextremist movements in Europe in conjunction with other internationalorganizations, such as the European Union’s Agency for FundamentalRights, and speaks up on issues, such as political anti-Semitism ininternational forums.
Cwajgenbaum underscores the importance of distinguishing betweencenter-right, democratic parties like Fidesz, and extremists whoseprograms are incompatible with democracy. “We know Orbán, and haverepeatedly met with him and members of the Hungarian Jewish community.He has maintained good relations with the community, supports Israel,and early on declared his refusal to form a coalition with Jobbik.”    
Cwajgenbaum acknowledges that Holocaust education is still theprincipal means to combat the rising of extremism. In June, theCongress will initiate a joint task force on international Shoaheducation, together with the Council of Europe, with the presentationof a “White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue,” which has been translatedinto all European languages – with Hebrew and Arabic versionsforthcoming – and addresses issues of equality, extremism and religiousfreedom. “Our main task remains to reach out to non-Jews in furtheringShoah education. It’s an around-the-clock job, and there is still muchto be done,” he concludes.