The wave of anti-Semitic incidents that recently washed over Hungary was symbolic. In one instance, a pig’s foot was placed on a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the righteous gentile who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. A Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube River was vandalized. An extremist member of parliament, Zsolt Barath, demanded to reopen the investigation into the 1882 Tiszaeszlar affair, in which 15 Jews were accused of murdering a young Christian girl, setting off a wave of anti-Semitism in the country. The most shocking event took place when the former chief rabbi of Hungary, Jozsef Schweitzer, was accosted on the street by a number of anti-Semites who hurled insults. The incident prompted official condemnation from the government.
One strange, yet terrifying, aspect of current anti-Semitism in Hungary is that it is largely theoretical. It exists almost entirely without any direct contact between the anti-Semite and the Jew. A few weeks ago, I asked the director of a large Jewish center in downtown Budapest how much hate mail she receives via email. Daily? Weekly? “In the last 10 years, we may have received two or three,” she said. A miniscule number.
The Jews of Hungary pose a challenge for the anti-Semites because they are a somewhat transparent community. Nobody knows the exact number of Jews there. Estimates range from 50,000 to 150,000, depending on whether one asks an Orthodox rabbi or a grandfather who still has a number tattooed on his arm from Auschwitz.
A century ago, many Hungarian Jews changed their surnames to Hungarian names as a show of patriotism. There are few Rabinowitzes, Greenbergs, or Berkowitzes there. The names of Jews in Hungary are very much similar to the names of gentiles. Years of intermarriage with a nation that is itself a cornucopia of races has created a Jew who very much resembles his neighbor.
A tiny ultra-Orthodox community lives in a part of the Seventh District in Budapest. There is a small area known as “the ghetto” – here, too, the Jews constitute a minority – and the synagogue on Duhani Street attracts a few thousand visitors during the holidays. But anti-Semites have a hard time spotting Jews in their vicinity.
Perhaps this is why hatred of Jews in Hungary is abstract and theoretical – it is poisonous and inciting, but less physical. “If you pay attention, the anti-Semitism almost always blame some Jew for Hungary’s problems,” says Daniel Renyi, a journalist with the prestigious liberal weekly Magyar Narancs. “They always blame the Jewish religion, or Jews, or Zionism.”
This is the most pathological form of anti-Semitism. The Arab-Jewish conflict – irrespective of one’s point of view – takes place in a setting in which both sides are struggling over something tangible like land and other interests. European anti-Semitism doesn't need actual Jews in order to exist. Their violence is aimed at symbols. It is a psychological state.
Nonetheless, words are hurtful for a community that has existed for over 1,000 years. It is a community that views itself as an inseparable part of Hungary. Vera is a young Jewish girl who works in a multi-national firm in Budapest.
“Within a few days I understood that this was the atmosphere here,” she said. “The boss and some of the employees curse Jews all day long. They talk about ‘rich, smelly Jews.’ They also denigrate Roma [gypsies]. Now the homosexuals are the main target, and this is because of the gay Olympics that were held here.”
A female co-worker, who is unaware that Vera is Jewish, explained to her that this was the way things were there. “Many of the workers are Hungarians who emigrated from Transylvania, where they suffered discrimination at the hands of the Romanians,” she said. “I don’t understand how someone who suffered discrimination can speak like this.”
But not all Jews are transparent. Shlomo Kovesh became the first Hungarian in a generation to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. Most of the Jewish community belongs to the Neologian sect (a Reformist stream that is unique to Hungary). When I ask Rabbi Kovesh about “the wave of anti-Semitism” he offers a somewhat surprising answer.
“I spent a few years in France,” he says. “A Jew’s sense of personal security, particularly if they have a ‘Jewish appearance,’ is much higher in Hungary. In fact, it’s even higher than it was during the latter stages of the socialist government that ruled from 2006 to 2008. I do not make light of the attacks that took place here, but the wave of anti-Semitism is mainly in the public sphere. Verbal violence toward Jews in parliament is on the same level that it was in pubs until just a few years ago. The intensity of anti-Semitism is high, but unfortunately it is not that much different than what we have seen in Hungary for the last two decades.”
When Kovesh talks about the verbal violence in parliament, he is referring to Jobbik, a far-right faction that emerged on the Hungarian political scene in 2006 and won just over 2 percent of the popular vote. In elections four years later Jobbik scored dramatic gains – 16.7%, which translates to more than 855,000 Hungarian votes.
The extensive support that Jobbik attracts is worrisome especially because of its popularity among the youth. The party organizes an annual music festival, Magyar Sziget, which is patronized by some 10,000 youngsters. An Internet site that is sympathetic to the party – KURUC – is the third most popular political website in the country, with 150,000 unique visitors per day. In 2009, the site reported that Rabbi Kovesh “surrounded his home with a high-voltage electronic fence out of fear that someone will accost him because of the lies which he disseminates.”
Ironically, “most Jobbik voters wouldn't even recognize a Jew,” Renyi says. “These voters most likely have never met a Jew, at least not one that they knew was a Jew. Their hatred is more abstract, and it’s aimed at concepts like ‘Jew,’ ‘Zionist,’ ‘America’ and ‘Europe.’ The Jews are one of three or four main targets, alongside the European Union, the Roma and the homosexuals. But there is not one specific Jew that Jobbik voters single out.”
There are other players at the fringes of the Jobbik party. The so-called Magyar Guard is a thuggish organization that has been mainly responsible for acts of violence. Relatively few Jews have been victimized by the organization, whose primary targets are gays and Roma. A year ago, an international outcry emerged in reaction to news that the group held “a training camp” in which it chased away Roma from their homes in the village of Gyongyospata. Hungary became the subject of worldwide press scrutiny and criticism during these incidents. The police provided little protection to the Roma, while the Hungarian government was left to explain away the disappearance of the Roma as “an Easter vacation.”
During a visit to the site two weeks ago, a few of the Roma who did return could be seen. A number of Roma children could be seen playing with white Hungarian children on a local soccer pitch nearby. In the small Roma region, someone tells me that “the problem wasn’t due to people from the village itself.” It is hard to gauge the accuracy of his statement and the fear with which he speaks. The Roma, unlike the Jews, are not transparent. They live in small ghettoes among people who wish them harm.
All of this could not take place were it not for the conduct of the ruling party, Fidesz, and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Fidesz is one of the most right-wing parties in power in Europe today. It captured the 2010 elections by a sweeping majority, granting it enough seats in parliament to enact changes to the constitution.
Kovesh met with Prime Minister Orban after the Tiszaeszlar matter was brought up in parliament. “I praised the prime minister for the symbolic steps that were taken, including the president’s visit with Rabbi Jozsef Schweitzer, who was attacked,” Kovesh said. “But I made it clear to him that the key thing was implementing the rule of law. In this respect I’m disappointed. I even filed a complaint with police against Barath. When I submitted a statement, I was asked about any specific incident that I know of which came about as a result of what he said. That’s not the way to act. Incitement can cause violence even 10 years after the fact, and it will never be possible to prove a direct link.”
One source of incitement that is difficult to ignore is the Internet. One site allows readers to hold discussion forums in which people openly ask questions like, “Which rope is most suited to hang Jews?” In addition, one can find street signs that warn: “The Jews are taking over our property and our country,” a reference to Israeli real estate investors who are active in the Hungarian market.
The distance from theoretical anti-Semitism, which is palpable all throughout the country, and actual violence against Jews is not a far jump. The Jews’ transparency in Hungarian society may protect them, but the potential for violence is considerable. “The Roma are facing a far worse situation,” Kovesh said. “The police don’t always succeed in protecting them, despite the murders that were committed against them. As Jewish communities, we must condemn this and always stand in solidarity with the victims, including homosexuals who are under assault, even though I certainly don’t agree with their lifestyle.”
Things aren't good, but this is not 1920, when the Hungarian authorities began to pass a series of anti-Jewish laws. We are also not in 1930, when Jews were the victims of acts of terrorism, or in 1944, when most of Hungary’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz and exterminated. At the risk of sounding excessively naive, there is virtually no danger of these events recurring. The State of Israel exists, and every Hungarian Jew is also a resident of the European Union and has the option to emigrate.
Kovesh said there was a slightly greater interest now among Hungarian Jews to emigrate or to make aliyah. But what kind of danger could anti-Semitic rhetoric lead to in Hungary? It’s unclear. I ask Renyi if Jobbik could conceivably be voted to lead Hungary. “I don’t think so,” he says. “The ceiling of Jobbik’s support is no greater than 30 percent.”
How can you be so sure?
“Because basically 70% of Hungarians are fair enough not to vote for such a party.”
Could frustration over its dim political prospects lead Jobbik to commit acts of terrorism?
“It’s hard to see the end of the tunnel. We see rabbis who are assaulted, and cemeteries and synagogues that are desecrated. So certainly violence is part of Jobbik’s agenda. Still, it’s hard to envision them mustering political support for real terrorism.”
A journalist with the Heti Valasz weekly newspaper that is considered sympathetic to the right-wing government admits that Hungary has a problem with anti-Semitism.
“There is no tradition of racism in Hungary, but there is a tradition of anti-Semitism and poor treatment of Roma,” he says. “Today, there are more Roma than Jews, and there are many conflicts with them, particularly due to the cultural differences between them and the average Hungarian. On the other hand, the average Hungarian has very little interaction with Jews.”
What is the level of danger posed by the current wave of anti-Semitism?
“Since the fall of communism, there have been a few waves of attacks. Both media scrutiny and Jobbik’s presence in parliament fan the flames of anti-Semitism. Overall, all of Hungary’s governments have done the best they could to minimize this phenomenon of hatred. Despite this, I would prefer the government take more forceful steps at this point.”
Last week, Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin declared his Hungarian counterpart, Laszlo Kover, persona non grata. This was prompted by Kover’s participation in a ceremony commemorating Joszef Nyiro, an anti-Semitic author who belonged to the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross party. The faction collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
Even if the current Hungarian government is not anti-Semitic, it is certainly flirting with extremist nationalists. It is doing so perhaps out of ideology or due to its desire to neutralize its most serious threat from the political Right.
Consider that the government only recently changed the names of streets and town squares in Budapest that were assigned during “the communist period." A town near Budapest recently named a town square after Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian ruler who led the country during the interwar years. Historians are divided as to whether Horthy was anti-Semitic. They note, however, that his political moves may have delayed the extermination of the Jews. Nonetheless, everyone is agreed that Horthy oversaw anti-Jewish legislation, and Jews were expelled to Auschwitz during his reign.
The Hungarian school curriculum has been updated, and includes nationalist authors, among them prominent anti-Semites like Nyiro and Albert Wass.
“There is certainly a problem with the content that is being introduced into the Hungarian school system, like the works of authors who were anti-Semites or works about the legacy of Miklos Horthy,” said Kovesh. “I understand that at times these people’s memories are being perpetuated in a context that is not at all anti-Semitic, but I always emphasize this: I have no problem if they are taught in classes so long as the entire truth is taught. Kids should be taught that Nyiro and Wass were anti-Semites. And that Horthy is indeed responsible for sending Jews to Auschwitz.”
In the midst of an economic crisis in which no one really has an answer, it seems a government in distress will always fan the flames of nationalism.