Text size

Not long ago, the Budapest district courthouse was the scene of a very vocal demonstration of happiness: The friends and disciples of Protestant Pastor Lorant Hegedus broke into the Hungarian national anthem and then, after lifting him onto their shoulders, shouted with joy as they carried him to the entrance of the building. They were celebrating the fact that the court had acquitted Hegedus, who, up until recently, had been a member of the Hungarian parliament and deputy leader of the extreme right-wing party headed by Istvan Csurka, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party or MIEP.

Hegedus had been put on trial on charges of incitement and for provoking national and religious hatred. Last year he wrote an article in which he called on Hungarians to "expel the riff-raff, who have arrived here from Galicia and from the banks of the Jordan River, before they expel us." He was found guilty in a lower court, but the district court judge who acquitted him ruled that, in that article, he had made no direct call for violence and that, even though his words "arouse disgust and shock," they were not incongruent with the principle of the freedom of thought and expression - a freedom guaranteed under the Hungarian constitution. She added, with no small measure of sarcasm, that, "as everyone knows," the Jewish community in Hungary posed no threat of violence and had no intention of expelling the Hungarians from Hungary. Thus, she reasoned, there was, in any case, no basis for fears of retaliatory actions.

Hegedus' supporters chose to ignore the judge's determination that his words "arouse disgust and shock." As far as they were concerned, the most important thing was that Hegedus had been acquitted and that remarks like his are not prohibited under Hungarian law.

In a parallel development to this verdict, the state prosecution terminated legal proceedings that had been initiated against fans at a soccer match, who had yelled at their rivals, traditionally considered a "Jewish" soccer club: "The train is leaving, the train is leaving for Auschwitz!" Although the state prosecution considers this kind of outburst revolting, it is not in itself a direct call for violence. It is humiliating, but is not aimed at any "direct object" that could consider itself the specific target of this humiliation.

The above legal decisions are based, for the most part, on a fundamental ruling of Hungary's constitutional court. In accordance with that ruling, priority has traditionally been given to freedom of speech over all other principles. Such practice is quite natural for a country in which, for more than 40 years, severe restrictions had been imposed on freedom of expression and in which, even before that era, democratic principles of freedom were never fully applied.

To the credit of the constitutional court, it must be said that, in order to protect freedom of expression, it repealed the law that had established punishments for all those found guilty of "defaming the Hungarian nation." If the court gives freedom of expression priority over the danger that people might defame the Hungarian nation, it stands to reason that the court will naturally give priority to freedom of expression over the danger that other ethnic groups might be defamed. The difference, however, between defamation of the Hungarian nation and that of other ethnic groups is not just the frequency of remarks denouncing Jews and Gypsies in Hungary as opposed to the frequency of those against the Hungarian nation. There are also the practical consequences of a call like "Let's expel the Jews" or "Let's expel the Gypsies" as opposed to the possible results of a call like "Let's strike out at the Hungarians."

Ironically, the verdict in the Hegedus case stirred up a stormy debate within the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz), which is a liberal party and a junior partner in the government coalition. Representatives of the senior partner, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP), have proposed tougher definitions for incitement against an ethnic group, to ensure that they will be unequivocal and will apply to statements such as the ones that appeared in Hegedus' article.

Among liberal Hungarian politicians, there were sharp disagreements. Many of these politicians - including Jews and individuals who cannot be accused of harboring anti- Semitic feelings - have claimed that ethnic incitement must be fought in social, cultural and educational contexts, but not in the courtroom. The justice system cannot, in any case, be effective in the war on ethnic incitement because it is impossible to find a precise definition for the various forms of this phenomenon. For example, a quick-tongued defense attorney for those accused of anti-Semitic incitement could always argue that a slogan like "The train is leaving for Auschwitz" is a hollow statement. Can anyone prove that the slogan is directed specifically against Jews? Moreover, if expression of criticism regarding any social group can be interpreted as an illegal act, rightists could perhaps sue those who condemn violent skinheads, who could be regarded as members of a defined social group.

Despite everything, developments since the ruling in the Hegedus affair indicate that the members of the extreme right - who are disciples of both the pastor and his political party boss, Csurka - have this time achieved only an imaginary triumph and that it is perhaps only a Pyrrhic victory. In public opinion polls, a majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the verdict and supported Hegedus' conviction. A number of well-known intellectuals have, in their articles, called their readers' attention to the fact that the accused's name means "fiddle" and have condemned the "melody" played by this "Fiddler on the Roof."

Elsewhere in the press, it has been stressed that all Hungarians are, in one sense of the word, "riff-raff who have arrived in Hungary from various countries," that some of the immigrants came to Hungary earlier than others, and that, over time, all of these immigrants have become an integral part of Hungarian society and culture. Without such riff-raff, Hungarians would have had to dispense with their greatest national poet, Sandor Petofi, whose father was Serb and his mother Slovak.

However, in Hungary today, no dialogue is being carried out between people with different opinions. Each side conducts a monologue with itself. Learned reasons or parables or articles will have no impact on the joyous singing of Hegedus' supporters. They will just continue along the path they have been following up until now.