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At a protest that took place in Budapest on January 11, demonstrators burned the Israeli flag. The pretext for the flag burning was not, however, a show of support for Palestinians. Rather, it revolved around a domestic national disagreement in Hungary that essentially had nothing to do with Israel.

The pretext for the demonstration was an inconsequential program carried by a local radio station called "Tilos Radio" (Forbidden Radio) on Christmas Eve, during which the host declared: "I would like to exterminate all Christians." The managers of the pirate station immediately fired the host, who was drunk during the broadcast. After sobering up, he expressed remorse for the statement. But the slip of the tongue generated a wave of condemnation throughout Hungary.

Extremist right-wing groups zeroed in on the flap as if they'd made a great find, in the process pumping it up to the dimensions of a national scandal. In dozens of articles and columns the rightists charged, without any factual foundation, that the host and his coworkers are in fact Jews, and before long all Hungarian Jews were being placed in the defendant's seat. The right-wing groups sought to create the impression that the Christian public in Hungary is facing a risk of annihilation, almost like the risk the Jews of Hungary faced in 1944.

To underscore the dangers, several women taking part in the protest in front of the radio station studio wore yellow crosses on their clothes, intended to evoke the yellow star worn by Jews in the Nazi years. One of the speakers at the demonstration, the journalist Istvan Lovas (who despite his anti-Semitic pronouncements once applied for a permit to immigrate to Israel, and is therefore presumably Jewish) declared that an "aggressive minority in Hungary has for the past 50 years persecuted the Christian and Hungarian majority," and called for showing "zero tolerance" for this minority. The burning of the Israeli flag proved that the hint was well taken.

A direct ideological line links last month's demonstration with a rally that took place this past Saturday, on the eve of the anniversary of Budapest's liberation in World War II. The rally was sponsored by the "Blood and Honor" association (a literal translation of the name of the Nazi German movement, "Blut und Ehre") of Budapest. Unlike Paris, Brussels, Prague and other cities in Europe, the anniversary of Budapest's liberation from Nazi occupation was marked by members of Blood and Honor extolling the "heroic defenders of the city" - meaning the Nazi Germans and the Fascist Hungarians, as well as Fascist Hungarian leader Ferenc Szalasi, who was sentenced to death for war crimes. They also yelled obscenities against Jews.

An article in the right-wing weekly "Magyar Demokrata" described the Fascist fighters in Budapest who fought the "Red gangs" (the Soviet Army) as "successors of the laudable tradition of those who fought against the Turkish occupiers" in the 16th century. Other articles claimed that "the brave defense" of besieged Budapest served Western culture well, as it ostensibly prevented the "advance of the Red army to Paris."

This is the root of Hungary's problem. After the collapse of the Communist regime, while other former communist countries looked for and even found their "pre-communist roots" in the anti-fascist heritage of the World War II period, Hungary never had any bona fide anti-fascist movement, and it too was "tainted" with sympathy for communism. Members of the Hungarian right are therefore harking back to the ideological and political foundations of the period between the world wars: fascist and even anti-Semitic foundations. As proof, one need only consider the intention to erect a statue in Budapest in memory of 1940s-era prime minister Paul Teleki, who instigated and defended Hungary's racist anti-Jewish laws. Only a strident protest by Jewish organizations and liberal men of letters stayed the execution of the plan.

The head of the right-wing party Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats), Viktor Orban, who until two years ago was prime minister, reached the conclusion that his return to power could only be possible if he united all of the forces of the right "in one camp under one flag," as he put it. He set up "civil groups" throughout the country many of which were taken over by members of the fanatic right wing.

The demonstration in front of the radio station was initiated by one such "civil group." Even if Orban wanted to repudiate the civil groups that he himself created, he would have a hard time dissociating himself from the extremist factors within them. For i stance, he warmly recommended reading Magyar Demokrata, and did not retract this recommendation even after the newspaper published a series of anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist articles.

But the burning of the Israeli flag presented a stark caution sign. The act induced a sharp condemnation from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and spokesmen of the member parties of the socialist-liberal coalition, as well as protests from the Israeli embassy in Budapest and the Union of Jewish Communities in Hungary. Even the initiators of the demonstration had to half-heartedly dissociate themselves from it. The uneasiness of the Fidesz party in the aftermath of all these denunciations was most prominently expressed last week, prior to the confrontational Blood and Honor rally, when Fidesz party leaders asked the authorities to prevent the rally from taking place. Until now, they had always justified similar activities, citing freedom of expression.

Given the circumstances, there was particular interest in last week's visit to Israel by Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of the Hungarian parliament's foreign affairs committee and a leader of the Fidesz party. In his conversations with Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Yuval Steinitz, Nemeth expressed sympathy for Israel and its objectives. He noted that all of the parties represented in the Hungarian parliament, both in the coalition and the opposition, supported Israel's right to live in security and the right of the Palestinians to an independent state. Nemeth said that with Hungary's entry into the European Union, it intended to assume an active role in shaping EU policy in the Middle East, in particular this year, when the U.S. is busy with its presidential election campaign and is not disposed to deal effectively with other problems.

In an interview with Haaretz, Nemeth said that no significant differences of opinion became apparent in the course of his conversations in Israel. When Israeli leaders mentioned the flag burning incident, he argued that police incompetence was partly responsible for the incident, and expressed the hope that this was a one-time act that would not be exploited in the inter-party struggle in Hungary.

Nevertheless, when asked his opinion of the journalist Lovas's statement that the Jewish minority in Hungary is repressing the Hungarian and Christian majority, Nemeth evaded a response. One might assume that he rejects the statement, but when the Hungarian political camp is being mustered under "a single flag," it is not at all easy, it seems, to walk away from political bedfellows.