News Analysis: Anti-semitic Rhetoric Arises Ahead of Hungarian Elections
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News Analysis: Anti-semitic Rhetoric Arises Ahead of Hungarian Elections

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Parliament may have moved on, but not Hungary’s Jews. Jewish communal leaders are still upset by the Hungarian Parliament’s lack of action against a prominent right-wing politician who recently called attention to the Jewish origins of a former Communist prime minister.

In a speech before lawmakers in late March, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Agnes Nagy Maczo recalled Matyas Rakosi’s crimes against society — his rule of the party and country was brutal — and casually referred to him as “Roth Mano.”

Rakosi, who headed the Communist Party, served as prime minister from 1952 to 1953.

The term “Roth Mano” literally means “red dwarf,” but is widely interpreted here as anti-Semitic code language for “red Jewish dwarf.”

This week, Jewish leaders met with Parliament Speaker Zoltan Gal to voice their displeasure that the comment had gone unpunished. “It’s a shame for Hungarian democracy and has left a cloud over the Parliament,” said Peter Feldmayer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary.

“In 1920’s Germany, they divided people by their origin, Jews from non-Jews. Now it’s becoming acceptable to do it here.”

Jews here fear that the Maczo incident sets a dangerous precedent, and gives the green light to fringe politicians to use thinly veiled, scapegoating rhetoric during the upcoming campaign for next year’s national elections.

The liberal Free Democrats — the ruling coalition’s junior partner and the party of a number of high-profile Jews — denounced Maczo and pushed for her immediate removal.

Several other major parties joined in criticizing Maczo, who is a vice president of the populist Smallholders Party.

But in the clash of politics and principles, politics won handily.

The Free Democrats stood alone in their crusade to remove Maczo from Parliament. Nobody, not even their coalition partner, the Socialists, backed them.

At the same time, Smallholders President Jozsef Torgyan — who polls say is the front-runner to be Hungary’s next prime minister — shrewdly flipped the argument upside down.

He brushed aside the allegations of anti-Semitism and accused the Free Democrats of defending the former Communist regime.

Soon after, the anti-Maczo motion fizzled.

The scapegoating rhetoric Maczo employs goes over well in some corners, particularly in the poorer, rural provinces.

As Hungary continues its painful transition to a free market economy, extremists repeatedly pin the blame on the Communists, the Free Democrats or on “international financial circles.”

In each case — as communicated in read-between-the-lines code — the clear reference is to Jews, who number anywhere between 80,000 and 130,000 in a country of 10 million.

The former Communist era provides hatemongers with plenty of ammunition.

Shortly after some 600,000 of Hungary’s pre-war population of 800,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, several survivors played key roles in ushering Communist rule into Hungary.

In fact, during the brutal oppression of the early 1950s, the regime’s top five leaders were Jews.

At the time, noting this publicly could have landed one in jail.

Not surprisingly, it is a sensitive subject today.

“We know Rakosi was a terrible dictator, but so what?” said Feldmayer. “He wasn’t acting as a Jew.”

But this is irrelevant in the current politics of the ultraright.

Just the same, local Jewish leaders say anti-Semitism today is less than it was earlier this decade.

This appears to be a direct result of the absence from Parliament of one man: Istvan Csurka.

As a member of the country’s first post-Communist, democratically elected government, Csurka tarnished the country’s image abroad by routinely playing the race and nationalist cards.

Csurka was ultimately forced out of Parliament and formed his own party, the Hungarian Truth and Justice Party. It won just over 1 percent in the 1994 elections.

But today those same policies have an influential new mouthpiece, albeit from another party: Maczo.

Now, Maczo, who is regarded as something of a loose cannon, appears to be challenging Torgyan for the Smallholders Party leadership.

And she is popular enough with the party faithful that he cannot afford to dump her.

Torgyan, according to analysts, is not personally anti-Semitic. But he also is not above benefiting from anti-Semitism to reel in voters.

He is believed to be vying with Csurka for the extreme right, even as he positions himself as a premier who would be palatable to the West.

Within the Smallholders Party, Maczo’s “Roth Mano” comment sparked sharp internal debate, said Gyorgy Timar, another party vice president.

Timar, who has been criticized by Feldmayer as a “house Jew” for the Smallholders, said he “couldn’t look in the mirror” unless he personally chastized Maczo.

He believes, though, that she made “a mistake.”

Torgyan may have considered the comment anti-Semitic, Timar said, but added, “You have to distinguish between what Torgyan thinks and what he has to say to protect the party.”

Conversely, the Free Democrats opted to react loudly to Maczo, regardless of the no-win situation it faced.

The party is a staunch defender of minority rights, said one member, but it must pick and choose its fights carefully.

Just the same, “there are certain issues where you can’t be over-tactical,” said Matyas Eorsi, the Jewish chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“It’s a matter of principle and values. You should fight against anti-Semitism or any kind of discrimination when it occurs in Parliament.”

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