Political, social turmoil worries Hungary’s Jews
Controversial new laws reduce number of officially recognized religious bodies, including three Jewish streams; ‘The danger is about Hungarian democracy, not about anti-Semitism,’ says Rabbi Istvan Darvas.
The debate over anti-Semitism in Hungary has sharpened since the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and anti-Roma (Gypsy) Jobbik movement entered Parliament two years ago as the country’s third largest party.
Seeking scapegoats and channeling paranoia at a time of severe economic, social and political woes, Jobbik’s lawmakers regularly -- and loudly -- spout xenophobic, anti-Roma, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Outbursts in Parliament, in local councils and in the media have demolished taboos and increasingly serve to legitimize hate speech in both private conversation and public discourse.
But for the Jewish community, anxiety over anti-Semitism is only one toxic element of a broader and much more complex national crisis that touches all parts of society two years after the 2010 elections swept the conservative Fidesz party to power.
“The danger is about Hungarian democracy, not about anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Istvan Darvas told JTA.
“Everybody feels the crisis,” said Mircea Cernov, CEO of Haver, a foundation that fights anti-Semitism and teaches schoolchildren about Judaism and the Jewish people. “The financial and economic challenges, unemployment and poverty, social, education and health system crisis, democratic system in turbulence -- there is no difference between people influenced by all this.”
With a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Victor Orban and his government rewrote the constitution and pushed through controversial new laws that sharply polarized the country and also drew tough criticism from the European Union and other international bodies.
These included new legislation regulating the media, changing how judges are appointed and reducing the number of officially recognized religious bodies. Three Jewish streams have such recognition.
Other new laws cut social benefits, nationalized private pension funds and even outlawed homelessness.
The government said the new laws were needed to consolidate the legal and judicial system. But critics claimed they contributed to a “democracy deficit” and undermined democratic rights.
Jobbik and other extremists have capitalized on the economic uncertainly and social and political polarization to push a virulently nationalist message that stigmatizes Jews, Roma, immigrants and other minority groups.
Fidesz is not formally allied with Jobbik and has condemned anti-Semitism.
But a defense of Hungarian national honor is one of Fidesz’s platforms. Many Hungarian Jews, who traditionally have gravitated toward leftist-liberal parties, are deeply troubled by appeals to nationalism, even by mainstream parties.
And there is a perception among Fidesz opponents that some of its members may be sympathetic to Jobbik’s more extreme stance. This month, for example, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary canceled an official visit to the town of Eger after an audio recording came to light in which a Fidesz town councilor slammed a prominent actor as a “filthy Jew” with leftist-liberal sympathies.
“Intolerance is growing, radical narratives and voices are powerful, and many people feel that the risk of a greater conflict is real,” said Cernov.
The country, he said, faces a "moral crisis" along with its other woes.
“There are no real credible voices and opinion-influencing figures,” he said. “No role models and no people who can set positive reference points. The lack of a minimum platform of common understanding among all democratic parties and civil groups is the real weakness of the Hungarian society."
In a recent incident, addressing Parliament just before Passover, a Jobbik lawmaker went so far as to advance the blood libel -- the accusation that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood for ritual purposes.
And in a February interview with the London Jewish Chronicle, Jobbik foreign affairs spokesman Marton Gyongyosi called Israel a "Nazi system based on racial hatred,” accused Jews of “colonizing” Hungary and stressed Jobbik’s support of Iran.
These developments have ratcheted up the anxiety level for Hungary’s 100,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in central Europe.
“The gravity of the situation is unprecedented in the past two decades of Hungarian democracy,” Rabbi Shlomo Koves told The Associatied Press. “Although the safety and well-being of Hungarian Jews in their daily life is not physically in danger -- or no worse than in any other European country -- anti-Semitic public speech has escalated to a point which cannot be ignored by a single decent person.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the representative on anti-Semitism to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it is not simple to gauge the extent and impact of anti-Semitism in Hungary.
“There are real problems and a high degree of uncertainty,” he told JTA after a fact-finding mission to Hungary in April. But, he added, “It is not easy to separate the anxiety that Jews feel together with many other left-of-center Hungarians at current political developments and unease at what are more directly anti-Semitic rumblings.”
Members of the Jewish community said anti-Semitism was widely expressed verbally but there have been few episodes of physical violence.
“Many people are afraid,” said Andras Heisler, a former president of the Federation of Jewish Communities. “But in normal daily life there is not any danger.”
Indeed, unlike in many Western countries, little security is evident at most of Budapest’s 20 or so active synagogues, prayer houses and other Jewish sites.
And Jewish life is lived openly. Budapest may be one of the only capitals where a program linked to this year’s March of the Living was publicized on an advertisement that covered the entire side of a downtown building.
Still, a report released before Passover by the Anti-Defamation League added fuel to alarmist fires.
Based on a telephone survey in which callers asked 500 people in 10 countries four questions regarding anti-Semitic stereotypes, the ADL found that 63 percent of Hungarians held anti-Semitic attitudes.
The report grabbed headlines. But sociologist Andras Kovacs, Hungary’s foremost researcher on anti-Semitism, slammed the report for employing what he called a faulty methodology that favored responses from hard-core anti-Semites, giving a skewed result that fed alarmism.
According to his research, he said, the proportion of anti-Semites in Hungary is 20 to 25 percent.
Cernov called the ADL report “superficial” and “even irresponsible.”
It could, he said, have a negative impact on organizations like Haver that were trying to carry out serious social action and other educational work to combat prejudice and counter extremist trends.
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