Hungarians are rightly proud of their rich, complex, language. The Magyar tongue is so unique, it even has a verb – zsidozni – which means to “go on about Jews” in a pejorative sense.
Lately there has been quite a lot of zsidozas. Anti-Semitic hate speech is increasingly common and public. Zsolt Barath, an MP for the far-right Jobbik party, last month used Parliament to revive a 19th century blood libel. Barath spoke at length about the death of Eszter Solyomosi, a 14 year old girl who was killed in a village in north-east Hungary in 1882. A group of local Jews were blamed for the girl’s death and the press was full of lurid false claims of how they drew her blood. Those charged were eventually acquitted but, claimed Barath, the not guilty verdict was due to outside pressure and Hungarian Jewry was implicated in the case. The murder case has spawned a cult in Eszter’s memory and the young girl’s grave has now become a place of pilgrimage for the far-right.
Barath’s speech was subtly timed- just a few days before the Passover festival, for centuries a time of anti-Semitic attacks. Doubtless encouraged by Barath, a councillor from the ruling right-wing Fidesz party in Eger felt no shame in describing a well-known Jewish actor as a “filthy Jew”. Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, cancelled a visit to Eger in protest.
These are the incidents that made the news as they involve public figures. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that anti-Jewish sentiment is rising, together with hatred of Roma (Gypsies) and general xenophobia. A friend of mine who is married to a Rabbi says that whenever they go for a stroll downtown it is virtually guaranteed that they will hear remarks and snide comments within an hour or two. Any discussion among Jews and their friends about anti-Semitism will spark similar anecdotes.
Much of the rise in anti-Semitism has been blamed on Jobbik. The far-right party came from nowhere to win 47 seats in the 2010 election. At first Jobbik MPs denied the party was anti-Semitic. They claimed it was only opposed to Israeli investors, pointing to a speech by Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, in which he said that Israel was “buying up Manhattan, Hungary, Romania and Poland”. Few believed them but in any case Barath’s speech settled that debate.
Jobbik’s presence in parliament certainly helps to legitimise hate-speech. But it is too simplistic to lay all the blame at the party’s door. Jobbik taps into an increasingly self-confident sector of Hungarian society: young nationalist radicals, many of whom are far from the cliché of the skinhead football fan. A report by Demos, a British think-tank, and Political Capital, a Budapest consultancy, revealed that 22 per cent of Jobbik supporters have a university or college education and are less likely to be unemployed than the national average.
But are they Hungary’s future? Not necessarily. The rise of Jobbik and the far-right is only part of the picture.
There is no relationship more fraught, complicated and prone to political exploitation by both right and left than that between Hungary and its Jews. More than half a million Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust – forced onto the trains by Hungarian gendarmes and sent to the camps in the spring and summer of 1944, even as Allied troops fought their way through Normandy.
Admiral Horthy, Hungary’s wartime leader, stood by and said nothing as the countryside Jews were sent to their deaths. But in July 1944 he finally stirred and stopped the planned deportation of the Jews of Budapest. They were safe, but only until October, when the Arrow Cross, the fanatical Hungarian Nazis, toppled Horthy with the help of the SS. A reign of terror ensued. Tens of thousands of Budapest Jews perished, shot into the Danube or forced on death marches to the Austrian border. Jewish mothers posed as Christians and taught their children the Lord’s Prayer, forcing them to recite it over and over, for a mistake was a death sentence.
Over 100,000 survived, mainly in Budapest, thanks in part to Horthy’s belated show of courage, to neutral diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg, who placed Hungarian Jews under diplomatic protection – and the Red Army which smashed its way through the Nazi lines and liberated the city’s ghettos.
Nowadays Hungary is home to between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews, the third largest community on mainland Europe, after Paris and Berlin. And while many French and German Jews are immigrants – from north Africa and Russia – Hungary’s Jews, most of whom live in the capital Budapest, are native-born, part of a continuum stretching back to Roman times, long before the Magyars settled in the Carpathian basin a millennium ago.
All of which makes for a much more complicated and optimistic picture than first appears. Yes, there is more zsidozas in public life than there used to be. But there is almost much more Jewish public life than ever before. The city is home to a unique revival. Budapest boasts a dozen working synagogues, a kosher butcher, kosher restaurants and cafes. There is even a kosher pizzeria. The old Jewish quarter in district VII, the site of the wartime ghetto, is now the hippest part of town, packed every night with party-goers flitting from bar to bar.
Every summer Budapest plays host to the Jewish Summer Festival, which is advertised with large hoardings across the city.
Each winter District VII and neighbouring district VI host an ever-growing Channukah festival and this year launched a spring festival.
The young generation share little, if anything of their parents’ and grandparents’ understandable wariness about public expressions of Jewish identity. They are out, proud and increasingly loud about their heritage. Young Hungarians of all faiths are increasingly curious about the country’s Jewish history.
The reactions to Jobbik and the far-right are also getting louder. Zsolt Barath’s speech caused outrage and disgust across the political spectrum. Even some of his colleagues privately questioned the wisdom of such rhetoric. As soon as Barath finished speaking in Parliament, he was ferociously denounced by Janos Fonagy, a Fidesz MP, himself of Jewish origin. The Ministry of Justice quickly issued a strong denunciation of Barath’s speech, condemning both ‘oblique’ and direct slurs http://www.politics.hu/20120405/govt-slams-jobbik-mps-anti-semitic-blood-libel-in-parliament/
The Catholic, Reform and Lutheran Churches quickly followed. The churches published a statement in Szombat, a Jewish monthly magazine, saying “It is our duty to protest against incitement of hatred”. Viktor Orban, the prime minister, then invited Shlomo Koves, a prominent Budapest Rabbi, to Parliament, where he pledged the government’s support for the Jewish community and wished it a Happy Passover. Cynics dismissed this as gesture politics. But they are wrong – such gestures have a powerful resonance and send a message to wider society. All these were widely covered in the Hungarian media.
In fact, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, Jobbik, and Zsolt Barath, arguably worked their own Easter and Passover miracle . They united Hungary’s usually fractious and divided politicians in a rare consensus: a powerful condemnation of anti-Semitism and a strong statement of public support for Hungarian Jewry.
Adam LeBor is an author and journalist based in Budapest. His thriller, ‘The Budapest Protocol’, is published by Beautiful Books.