BUDAPEST - Less than a month ago, the Hungarian parliament passed an anti-transgender bill introduced by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, ostensibly as part of COVID-19 emergency legislation. The new law, passed by 134 to 56, stipulates that gender can only be defined based on one’s biological sex at birth. Under this new law, trans people can no longer change their gender or names on official documents.
The new law is in line with previous government policies, such as the October 2018 government decree banning gender studies at all Hungarian universities: "The government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes," an official spokesman said. The speaker of the Hungarian parliament has compared gay adoption to "moral pedophilia."
These measures come as no surprise. To a large extent, they reflect the plurality of public opinion on matters related to gender and the LGBTQ community. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Eurobarometer, most Hungarians hold negative views toward the LGBTQ community. This animosity has grown in the past several years as a result of persistent campaigning by Fidesz, the governing party.
Only 46 percent of Hungarians support equal rights for the LGBTQ community, whereas 96 percent of Swedes and 59 percent of Czechs hold that view. The overall support for equal rights across Europe is 76 percent.
Homophobic legislation is clearly only one example of the Hungarian intolerance of otherness.
Based on a Spring 2016 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, one of the most respectable U.S. public opinion research organizations, Hungarians fare very poorly in comparison with other Europeans in their attitudes toward Muslims, Roma and Jews.
- 72 percent of Hungarians, compared to 43 percent of all Europeans, hold negative views of Muslims.
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- 64 percent of Hungarians, compared to 48 percent of all Europeans, hold negative views of Roma.
- 32 percent of Hungarians, compared to 16 percent of all Europeans, hold negative views of Jews.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been nurtured by the massive anti-migrant campaign pursued by the Orban government. The Roma population of about 800,000 people, constitutes approximately 8 percent of Hungary’s population. They are the largest minority in the country and clearly suffer from multiple discriminations in nearly every walk of life.
The history of antisemitism in Hungary is long and complex More than 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Religion, socio-economic envy, and bitterness toward the many Jews who played an active role in the Communist take-over of the country have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment. Today there are approximately 100,000 Jews in Hungary, living mostly in Budapest. As the Pew survey indicates, a substantial portion of the Hungarian population explicitly identifies with antisemitism.
Israel and Hungary, however, have sustained close ties over the years. This was true even after 1967, when all Eastern bloc countries severed diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. The cozy relationship with Israel is used by Budapest as a fig leaf to fend off critics who claim that antisemitism is alive and well in Hungary.
Prime Minister Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have developed a close rapport, as has Fidesz with Netanyahu’s Likud party. Both parties uphold super-nationalist policies, share a disdain towards migrants and are suspicious of the European Union’s liberal, pro-human rights policies.
Hungary provides Israel with a diplomatic shield against anti-Israeli resolutions by the European Union which often require a consensus by all members. In turn, Netanyahu opened doors for Orban in Washington, D.C. when he visited President Trump in May 2019.
Explanations abound as to the origins of Hungarian nationalism, chauvinism, and xenophobia. History certainly plays a significant role in shaping Hungarian attitudes. However, the Hungarian language is also one of the principal roots of Magyar nationalism and self-declared exceptionalism.
Hungarian is part of the Finno-Ugric language tree and shares some grammatical structures with Finnish and Estonian. A Finn or an Estonian, however, cannot understand Hungarian, and vice versa. This means that Hungary constitutes a distinct linguistic island in the heart of Europe with significant cultural and political implications.
Since no other country in the world speaks its language, apprehension of otherness is structurally embedded in each individual’s worldview and informs society as a whole, setting Hungarians apart from their European neighbors.
Given this linguistic peculiarity, the next question would be about how many Hungarians have acquired a second language as a bridge to the outside world.
According to a 2016 Eurostat survey, only 42.4 percent of Hungarians between 25 and 64 speak another language. In Poland, by comparison, 67 percent of the population has acquired at least one additional language.
Lack of a second language not only holds cultural implications but, more importantly, political ones as well.
Given the Orban government’s tight control of the media, the majority of the population has to rely exclusively on official news and propaganda provided by pro-regime media outlets without the ability to verify its accuracy or to access alternative information disseminated in other languages.
Consider this: The Hungarian independent investigative outlet Atlatszo reported that in the last eight years, the government has spent 216 million euros on spreading propaganda and fear-mongering campaigns. Two noteworthy examples are the ongoing anti-migration campaign as well as the crusade against Hungarian-born financier George Soros whom Orban views as his arch nemesis.
The unique and outlier Hungarian language, the lack of a second language by most Hungarians, and the historical legacies of conquest and servitude of Hungary by Ottomans, Austrians and the Soviet Union have all left their deep scars on the Hungarian psyche and society, fueling Hungary’s unfortunate positioning as one of the most inward-looking societies in Europe.
It must be added that Hungary is experiencing a serious negative migration by the mostly young people who are likely to speak a second language. Portfolio.hu estimated that that approximately 600,000 of them emigrated from Hungary between 2006 and 2019 to Western Europe mainly in search of job opportunities.
The absence of these young and mobile Hungarians has left a significant void in the opposition to Orban’s policies. Although these emigres are eligible to vote in national elections by mail, the government placed severe restrictions including limited hours and few available locations, so the number of actual ballots cast by Hungarians abroad has been limited.
On the other hand, ethnic Hungarians who live in the neighboring countries of Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine - part of Greater Hungary before the 1920 Trianon Treaty that reduced Hungary’s territory by two-thirds - are allowed to vote.
The Trianon Treaty is still seen by most Hungarians as a "stab in the back by the West." In an effort to strengthen the ethno-national identity of these trans-border Hungarians, Orban’s government offered them citizenship and approximately one million were naturalized and became dual citizens.
In gratitude, these ethnic Hungarians voted in the 2018 elections overwhelmingly (96.2 percent) for Fidesz, thus providing Orban’s party with a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Viktor Orban has been in power for the past ten years. His populist authoritarianism is neither an anomaly nor an accident. He has been successful in reinforcing Hungarians' suspicions and mistrust of the other by conducting a massive indoctrination campaign.
But his Kulturkampf falls on fertile ground. Orban’s nativist Hungary embodies the types of political, social and cultural landscapes that many Hungarians welcome.
Yehuda Lukacs is Associate Professor Emeritus of Global Affairs, George Mason University