Hungarian Jewish leader's Purim 'joke' underlines real concern over community

Peter Feldmejer urged Jews to flee country before national holiday, fearing anti-Semitic violence; now he says he was kidding, sort of...

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
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What was originally meant as a Purim spiel in a Hungarian Jewish newspaper has set off a commotion in diplomatic circles and the Israeli and Hungarian media, focusing attention on anti-Semitic threats to the local Jewish population ahead of that country's March 15 national holiday. The original piece in the Ujelet's newspaper's Purim edition quoted Hungarian Jewish community president Peter Feldmejer as saying that Hungarian Jews should flee the country before March 15, for fear of anti-Semitic violence. That article led to Ma'ariv running a story on the matter, stressing the threat and warning to Hungarian Jews, which stirred concern here for their safety. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reacting to the Ma'ariv piece, then ran its own story, under the headline: "Hungarian Jews urged to leave for Passover." However, Feldmejer told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from Budapest Thursday that his warning was "a joke, but we have had violence on this day before." Feldmejer, while reiterating his initial jocular intent, nevertheless told the Post that Hungarian Jews, centered in Budapest and estimated to number some 50,000, "should stay at home and not go outside during the holiday... If they do want to celebrate in public, they should go to the countryside, and not stay in Budapest." Asked why he had joked about such a serious matter, Feldmejer said that he had simply been trying to focus attention on the problem. Feldmejer on Thursday also told Israeli government officials that he hadn't been seriously encouraging his country's Jews to flee. Israeli sources, in turn, then confirmed that the "warnings" picked up by other media outlets need not be taken quite so seriously. A government source in Jerusalem said that while there had been anti-Semitism activity in Hungary recently - such as dozens of neo-Nazis and fascist demonstrators at a massive anti-government protest in October - it was no worse than anywhere else in Europe. "Things need to be kept in proportion," the source said. Nonetheless, again highlighting the serious basis to his attempt at Purim humor, Feldmejer told Israel Radio on Thursday that community officials were still afraid that the anti-Semitic nationalists who generally demonstrate during national holidays would try to attack Jews and or Jewish institutions on that day. The Fidesz opposition party has planned a large demonstration for March 15, the day which commemorates the 1848 revolt against the Hapsburg dynasty and Austrian rule. Eran Elbaz, director of the Jewish Agency's representation in Eastern Europe, observed that while the original call by Feldmejer might have been meant "as a joke, in every joke there is an element of truth. The goal of the comment was to draw attention to the problem of anti-Semitism in Hungary." Those concerns have recently been underscored by Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who highlighted the plight of Hungarian Jews in a recent interview with The Timesof London. "There is something horrible happening," he said. "There have never been so many anti-Semitic remarks as now, [and] we are seeing things we haven't seen in 50 years." The prime minister noted that Fidesz recently staged a demonstration in the parliament square in which the names of "alleged Jewish politicians" were read out, in what was seen as an effort to detract support from Gyurcsany's Socialist government. The prime minister asserted that the rise of anti-Semitism in his country was due to his main rival's attempt to use anti-Jewish propaganda as a political tool to disrupt his government's course towards modernization. According to Gyurcsany, Fidesz, led by Viktor Orman, who was prime minister from 1998-2002, has gravitated toward far-right extremism and could lead Hungary toward isolated nationalism, which he said was taking hold in other European countries such as Poland and some of the Balkan states. The centuries old Arpad flag, adopted with a slight variation by Hungarian Nazi supporters during World War II, is now a common feature at Fidesz rallies. With roots tracing back more than 800 years to a medieval dynasty, the flag was expropriated by the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, whose Nazi-installed puppet regime in late 1944 began murdering thousands of Budapest Jews, many of whom were shot and dumped into the Danube River. The Arrow Cross emblazoned its black or green emblem on the Arpad flag, while today's demonstrators wave the red-and-white stripes free of any Arrow Cross insignia - if for no other reason, because the Arrow Cross logo is now illegal. While the flag is deeply rooted in Hungarian tradition, it carries the stain of the 80,000 Hungarian Jews deported from Hungary by the Nazis, according to Feldmejer, who described it as "a symbol of murder and mass murder." He noted that these flags were now visible all over Budapest and that the specter of anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the city. "Even the prime minister's wife cannot get away from anti-Semitism," he explained. "She is Jewish and we have seen in the news that she too has been a victim, and is not an exception." Gyurcsany has described how his wife was given anti-Semitic pamphlets at the university where she works. "The people are ready for a revolution. The situation is getting worse and worse," a Dror Habonim organization official based in Budapest told the Post. "We have a government that is on the Left, and the Jews in Hungary are traditionally on the Left." Herb Keinon and JTA contributed to this report.