Hungary and the Jews

When countries such as Hungary take an anti-democratic, anti-liberal turn, inevitably it is the Jews who feel the heat first.

Far-right Jobbik party rally370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Far-right Jobbik party rally370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In yet another example of how nationalist sentiments and patriotism trump common sense, Hungarians went to the polls on April 6 and reelected Prime Minister Victor Orban and his ultra-conservative Fidesz party. One in five voters also backed Jobbik, a far-right party that sees itself as the ideological heir to the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party that existed from 1935 to 1945.
Investment bankers and economists said the election results would hurt Hungary’s economy. The Goldman Sachs investment bank said Orban’s reelection means “unpredictable” economic policies are likely to hinder growth.
An analyst at MKB Bank Zrt., a unit of Bayerische Landesbank, told Bloomberg that “Fidesz won’t really have an incentive to change its economic policy after this victory. And unless it does, there won’t be much of a sustained gain in the Hungary currency or in government bonds.”
There is concern that with Jobbik grabbing votes from Fidesz from the Right, Orban will be tempted to take further anti-democratic, nationalistic steps. Limitations on political advertising in commercial media, conditioning recognition of religious groups on cooperation with the government, and curbing the Constitutional Court’s powers have already caused the Council of Europe, the body responsible for defending human rights in the EU, to warn Orban that Hungary’s democratic checks and balances are at risk.
If not for its membership in the EU, Orban would have taken further anti-democratic steps. In 2012, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso launched “infringement proceedings” in a successful bid to torpedo legislation advanced by Orban that would have empowered him to replace judges appointed under previous leftist governments and appoint the head of the central bank. One of the more eerily totalitarian bills had proposed to give the central government control over protecting the confidentiality of Hungarian citizens’ data.
The emboldened Orban might try to pass similar legislation again. And this time he might be less willing to heed the EU’s watchdogs.
Why would Hungarians support a party and a prime minister that legislate policies that hurt their weak economy and threaten their fragile democracy? It seems the crude populist messages of Fidesz and Jobbik – suspicion of the EU and foreign business interests, distaste for migrants and a pride in Hungarian separatism – strike a deep chord.
Unsurprisingly, the declining situation of the Jewish community – at more than 100,000 one of the largest in Europe – is collateral damage of Hungary’s turn to the Right. Attacks on Jews in times of crisis have been a theme in Europe throughout history, and the situation in Hungary is no different.
The latest controversy is over a series of public ceremonies and other events planned this year in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Hungary. Hungary’s fascist government played a prominent role in the annihilation of half a million Jews. This fact will be played down, however, if not erased.
One example is a memorial to be unveiled during the commemoration ceremonies depicting an eagle (Nazi Germany) attacking an angel (Hungary). The special plight of the Jews will be omitted from the memorial.
Hungary’s Jews are threatening to boycott the government- planned ceremonies. In parallel, the Central European University’s Open Society Archives, a Budapest- based research institute established by Hungarian- born American Jewish philanthropist George Soros, will hold alternative activities, such as the Yellow Star Houses Project, to increase awareness of Hungary’s complicity with Nazi Germany.
These independent efforts should be applauded. Hungary’s election results, however, do not augur well for the country’s Jews. When countries such as Hungary take an anti-democratic, anti-liberal turn, inevitably it is the Jews who feel the heat first. But rarely are they the only ones to suffer.
Victor Klemperer, the German-Jewish diarist whose writings predicted the Holocaust, noted long ago, “You know, we Jews are seismic people.” Jews’ vulnerability means they are often the first to register dangerous upheavals.