The Quarrel in Herzel's Homeland

Hungarian Jews demand government recognition as a minority group.

Gabor Deak, a 33-year-old Hungarian Jew, recently filed a petition along with three other Jews his age to the central election committee in Hungary requesting that Jews be added to the list of recognized national minorities, which, according to the constitution, now enumerates 13 groups. If at least 1,000 signatures are added to the petition, the application has a good chance of being accepted, since the constitution gives the election committee no choice but to accept it.

The question of identity among Jews living in Hungary is hardly a new issue; assimilation has been perceptible since the mid-19th century. During the national Hungarian revolt in 1848-49, the Hungarian National Assembly granted equal rights to Jewish citizens, as a reward for their role in the liberation struggle. The Jews repaid Hungary with unqualified and demonstrative loyalty. They stressed that they were "Hungarians of the Mosaic faith"; in other words, religion - and not nationality - was the only thing that distinguished them from other Hungarians.

The loyalty factor

Loyalty to Hungary was a factor in the late-19th-century rupture within the Jewish community: Fervently Orthodox Jews objected to the introduction of Hungarian-language prayers in the synagogues and to the mass abandonment of the traditional sartorial style among Hungarian Jews. The vast majority of Hungarian Jews were affiliated from the end of the 19th century with the "neological" movement, which emphasized its Hungarian roots. The Orthodox had important footholds, mainly in northeastern Hungary, next to Galicia.

Loyalty to Hungary remained unchanged even in the aftermath of World War I, when the country was the first state in Europe to introduce anti-Jewish law, including restrictions on the number of Jewish students in the country's universities. Because they were above all Hungarians - and although Theodor Herzl was born in Hungary - the leaders of Hungarian Jewry largely dissociated themselves from Zionism, and some of them even harbored hostile attitudes toward the Zionist organizations.

Practically until the last moment, the Jewish leaders did not believe the ruler of Hungary between the world wars, Miklos Horthy, would abandon "his Jews" and allow them to be expelled to the concentration camps. Later on, during Communist rule, the activity of the Zionist movement was outlawed, and the existence of a Jewish national movement of any type was not even on the agenda. Religion remained the only outlet for Jewish identity.

With the collapse of Communist rule in 1989-90, a significant shift occurred in Jewish awareness, mainly among the young people. Now they could publicly express their sympathy for Israel and also develop cultural and literary pursuits bearing a Jewish-national character. Nevertheless, when the new Hungarian constitution was drafted in the early 1990s, in which rights of the national minorities were defined, a proposal was tabled in parliament to add the Jews to the list of 13 recognized minorities (the largest of which is the Roma [Gypsy] minority, which numbers some 200,000 to 300,000).

The proposal was vigorously and heatedly rejected by the Jewish leadership and by a majority of the Jews, for several reasons. Holocaust survivors, recalling their own tragic past, objected to their being registered as Jews on a government document, as they were afraid it might serve as a basis for renewed persecution in the future. In addition, many young people expressed a concern that definition of the Jews as a national minority would incite anti-Semitic feelings, which the far-right circles were making efforts to inflame even without the Jews being defined as a national minority.

There were also more prosaic reasons for the objections: Jewish leaders were afraid such a classification might jeopardize the status of the organization of Jewish religious communities as one of the four "traditional religious communities" and as the exclusive representative of the Jews in Hungary - and thereby also risk the government allocations granted to these religious communities.

In 1990, the issue of a "national Jewish minority" was removed from the agenda, but it was raised once more not too long ago, at the initiative of Deak and his colleagues. The quarrel now divides Hungarian Jewry (which according to various estimates numbers 100,000-120,000) with almost the same severity as in the 19th century, between the two world wars or during the 1990s: Is Judaism only a religion, or is it perhaps only a nationality and cultural heritage?

"We want to create an opportunity in which Jews in Hungary who are not connected to religion will be able to maintain their links to Judaism," says Deak. He reports that since the 1990s, the situation has changed completely. The status of the Jewish community and the financial support it receives from the state are no longer at risk, since state support for religious communities as well as the national minorities is now allocated through all together different budgetary pipelines. Registration of the Jews as a national minority would earn the Jewish federation the type of support that is granted to national minorities, without affecting the support given to the Jewish community.

Fear of anti-Semitism

Similarly, the fear of anti-Semitic responses seems groundless. On the contrary, says Deak, a national Jewish federation could fight expressions of anti-Semitism with greater effectiveness than does the official religious community organization. Registration with the national federation is not obligatory, and anyone who feels themselves to be a national-Jew would not have to become a member, and his nationality would not be recorded on any official document. "I myself," says Deak, "feel 100 percent Hungarian and also 100 percent Jewish."

In the opinion of Peter Feldmeier, the chairman of the Jewish community organization, "The religious connection is the decisive link for the majority of Jews." The young people who initiated the petition for registering the Jews as a national minority disagree. They point to the fact that in the most recent national census, only about 15,000 people listed themselves as "Jewish" when asked what religion they practiced (even though the census did not note the names of respondents, and the declaration of religious identification remained incognito). Deak says the Jews predominantly or exclusively maintain a cultural or historic link to Judaism, and it is only right that they be permitted to do so without dependence on the organization of religious communities.

Feldmeier states that as opposed to the opinion held by the community organization, it will not be possible to register the Jews among the national minorities, and in any event, it is unfathomable that the petition to register the Jews as a national minority would be submitted over the objections of the community leadership and the majority of the country's Jews.

Conversely, sponsors of the petition say they are determined to continue collecting signatures and that the constitutional situation is clear: If at least 1,000 signatures are gathered for the petition, and this is a near-certainty, according to the constitution, the central election committee will have no choice but to approve the request framed in the petition.