I had dozens of conversations last week with Hungarian Jews on anti-Semitism. The overwhelming majority of those I met in Budapest are convinced that Prime Minister Viktor Orban, visiting Israel this week, has been appealing to the anti-Semitic instincts of Hungarian nationalist voters.
They see it in the way his government has sanitized and venerated the record of the fascist Horthy regime and in the nation-wide smear campaign against the "global capitalist" Holocaust survivor George Soros which has been going for nearly three years.
But at the same time they have been at pains to emphasize that "personally" they feel perfectly safe as Jews in Hungary. Anti-Semitic incidents are down and the media, regulated by the government, has largely been cleansed from the once prevalent negative references to Jews. The only overt anti-Semitism they encounter is usually in the shape of non-politically-correct and ignorant remarks.
But the majority of Jews in Hungary, and the official leadership of the community, still believes that the government-funded anti-Soros campaign blatantly uses anti-Semitic imagery and their requests that it be stopped have been repeatedly ignored. So has anti-Semitism under Orban got worse or better?
I constantly find myself asking the same question about Britain, the country of my birth. These things weren’t measured when I was a kid there in the late 1970s and early 80s, but I remember a great deal of anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism, even in the Jewish neighborhood where we lived, and across the country there was more violence from the fascist hard-right, and anti-Semitic chants were the norm at football matches. It hasn’t disappeared - but it’s no where near as bad nowadays.
But in the last three years, since Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader of the Labour Party, barely a week goes by without another anti-Semitic scandal at the heart of Britain’s largest (in terms of numbers of paid-up members) political party.
There have been two kinds of scandals. Either it has been party members, of all levels, coming out with the most odious statements about Jews, sometimes only barely veiled by using the words "Zionists," "bankers" and "the lobby." There was one thing all those members had in common - they were all diehard supporters of Corbyn.
The other kind of incident were the periodic revelations of Corbyn’s own participation in events with Jew-haters and Holocaust-revisionists, his support of them (sometimes tempered with his excuse that "I knew they did good work, I wasn’t aware of other things they said,") and his membership of real-life and online groups where anti-Semitic statements were routinely aired.
I’ve never quite been able to work out whether Corbyn is an anti-Semite himself. But this week, Margaret Hodge, a veteran Labour parliamentarian and party member of fifty years’ standing called him "a fucking anti-Semite and racist" to his face. The normally mild-mannered Hodge has known Corbyn as a colleague throughout his political career, so I think we should maybe take her word for it.
The reason for Hodge’s outburst was the decision by Labour’s National Executive Council, dominated by Corbyn and his supporters, to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Authority’s (IHRA) official definition of anti-Semitism and adopt instead guidelines favored by the hard-left of the party.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of defining anti-Semitism. I think I know what it is when I see it. You can go online and read elsewhere about the various merits and flaws of the IHRA definition.
But what you need to know right now is that the IHRA definition has been adopted by successive British governments, and more important, the British legal system and the overwhelming majority of British Jewish organizations and communities.
This week, an unprecedented list of 68 prominent British rabbis, spanning the range from female progressives to Hasidic ultra-Orthodox, signed a letter beseeching Labour to adopt the IHRA definition. But Corbyn’s team refused.
So the British Labour Party now officially allows within its ranks anti-Semites who could be prosecuted by the authorities. And it is now the second major political party in Europe, along with Orban’s Fidesz, to reject the definition of anti-Semitism as understood by the very people it is directed against, the local Jewish community.
I’m really not sure how best to define anti-Semitism. It’s the most ancient hatred which has proved extremely adept in evolving to life in the feverish conspiracy theory marshes of the internet. It’s the template for all hatred towards minorities but also unique in the way it sees Jews as both inferior and all-powerful.
Anti-Semitism is both the socialism of fools and the most evil form of nationalism. Which is why those on the both the far-left and far-right are particularly susceptible to it. And it can masquerade equally as being, "Just criticism of Israel" and as, "How can you call me an anti-Semite, I love Israel?"
Supporters of Orban, including some Jews like Netanyahu, strenuously deny he is anti-Semite. They point to his support for Israel (not exactly Israel, more like Netanyahu’s policies) and insist that Soros, while being Jewish, is a malicious influence on global politics and that there is nothing anti-Semitic about the campaign against him.
Similarly, Corbyn has his Jewish supporters, who are convinced that a man who claims to have fought racism all his life (racism for Corbyn has usually consisted of the policies of western and western-supported governments; he’s blind to racism in regimes with which he’s more sympathetic), can not be considered an anti-Semite.
As a journalist and freedom-of-speech fanatic, I don’t want anyone else defining for me what is or isn’t anti-Semitism. But political leaders and parties need to be held to definitions and the one rule they have to abide by is anti-Semitism-is-whatever-most-of-its-potential-targets-and-victims-say-it-is. Orban and Corbyn refuse to do so.
Who is worse? Orban or Corbyn? I don’t know what either of them actually feel in their heart and mind towards Jews, but both are certainly enablers of anti-Semitism.
From all available evidence, Corbyn is a stupid anti-Semite. Blinkered by his outdated dogma from perceiving it among his allies, and within the hateful environment in which he has been immersed his entire adult life. He has convinced himself it is all legitimate anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism.
Orban, on the other hand, is a clever anti-Semite. He has a keen understanding of European history and politics, and knows exactly which buttons to push, how far to go and how to cover himself.
Who is worse? The devious or the deluded? History proves that both sorts of anti-Semite can cause terrible damage.
Only one thing I can say for certain about anti-Semitism is that the best antidote to it is liberal democracy, moderate politics, and - for all the derision it now attracts from young firebrands and aging ideologues alike - centrism.
Orban’s nationalist government has engendered hatred towards Muslims and migrants. The diehard supporters of Corbyn’s radical socialism are now focusing their hatred on Jews, but two years ago, when a lesbian parliamentarian led the challenge to his leadership, there was an outbreak of misogyny and homophobia.
Hatred, both overt and latent, not just of Jews, but of all minorities, of women and members of the LGBT community is always more prevalent on both the far-left and far-right fringes of politics. That is where hate and anger rule.
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