Budapest meeting

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 Hungary home.

Defaced placard of Jobbik Party leader Gyongyosi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Defaced placard of Jobbik Party leader Gyongyosi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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) minority.
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 2010.
But Orban’s speech was disappointingly lacking in content.
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 consciousness.
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.
“The bigger problem is that around half a million people support the far Right and many people accept the negative attitude to Jews,” said Feldmajer.
A survey 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 country.”
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 their deaths.
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.