News Analysis: Hungarian Jews Watch Warily As Anti-semites Score at Polls
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News Analysis: Hungarian Jews Watch Warily As Anti-semites Score at Polls

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Hungarians have voted for change — despite the uncertainties it will bring.

And nowhere are the uncertainties more acute than within the country’s Jewish community.

For Hungary’s approximately 100,000 Jews, far more stunning than the ouster of the Socialist-led ruling coalition in Sunday’s second round of parliamentary elections was the sudden re-emergence of the anti-Semitic far right.

As a result of the elections, a small fraction of the incoming Parliament – – just 14 of 386 seats — will be controlled by the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party.

The party is led by Istvan Csurka, who has made numerous anti-Semitic speeches in the past. In 1993, he was kicked out of Hungary’s first democratically elected government for being too extremist.

Hungary’s Jews are believed to have backed the governing Socialists, whose austerity program strengthened the overall economy, but left many of the country’s citizens facing a continued decline in their standard of living.

A widespread sense of betrayal over pocketbook issues played a large role in Sunday’s voting.

The Socialists, who won 134 seats, were defeated by the center-right Young Democrats, who won 148 seats and now must form a coalition government, likely with the right-wing Smallholders Party.

How the new coalition will respond to Csurka’s inevitable anti-Jewish slurs will be a litmus test for Hungary’s progress in democratization.

As for daily life in the capital of Budapest, it’s too early to tell how the new government will affect the Jewish community.

While the Jewish Agency for Israel office in Budapest reported receiving more than a dozen calls inquiring about emigration during the past two weeks, Jewish leaders are cautioning the community not to overreact.

The Young Democrats’ prime minister-elect, Viktor Orban, has vowed to follow through on an earlier agreement to provide monthly compensation payments to Hungary’s approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors.

And last week he visited Jewish officials to assure them he would not cooperate with Csurka, despite Csurka’s pledge to support an Orban-led government.

But Jews are already bracing for parliamentary “zsidozas” — loosely translated as “talking about Jews.”

Parliamentary discussions of “Jewish issues” initiated by Csurka and his colleagues could embolden other anti-Semites to pipe up, creating tension between Jews and non-Jews.

“We’re used to hearing someone say `dirty Jew’ in the street,” said Zsuzsa Fritz, a teacher of Jewish education. “Now they’ll be saying the same things in Parliament, only hidden in other expressions.”

Indeed, Csurka has quickly made his presence felt.

Just one week ago, the once-respected playwright, in an interview on Hungarian Radio, alluded to Jewish favoritism in hiring in financial and media circles.

“The higher we look, the more it appears that origin is one of the aspects of selection,” Csurka said. “This situation is no good, results in counter- selection, deteriorates the nation’s mental state and does not encourage work. Nothing will come of Hungary.”

He also repeated his charge that an agent of either the KGB or Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, would be the next president of Hungarian Television.

Both remarks were immediately condemned by the current governing coalition partners, the Socialists and Free Democrats.

Jewish leaders, true to form, kept quiet.

These officials, holdovers from the Communist era, seem unaware of the Catch-22 in which they’re trapped: They believe that to denounce anti-Semitism publicly only encourages one’s enemies and draws the spotlight onto a deeply assimilated community. Silence, on the other hand, may mean the unfettered spread of anti- Semitism.

Symptomatic of the desire to keep a low profile, one Jewish leader advised a reporter on the day after the voting, “You have to be careful not to cause us problems.”

Even confronted with someone of Csurka’s ilk, they prefer lobbying behind the scenes to speaking out against the Jewish community’s avowed enemies.

“We have nothing to be afraid of. We are living in a democratic Europe,” said Gusztav Zoltai, the executive director of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

“We are a religious community. Until now, we have not been involved in political struggles, and we want to avoid them in the future.”

Some observers, though, are quick to note that during World War II, the silence of Jewish leaders was partly responsible for the destruction of three-quarters of Hungarian Jewry — some 600,000 victims.

In light of Csurka’s success, many in the community are demanding that their leaders speak up against anti-Semitism.

“We have to take responsibility for being Jews,” said Aniko Sagi, a 25-year-old bookkeeper. “If we don’t, they’ll feel they can push us more.”

The Jewish community will certainly have fewer allies in Parliament to defend them.

Both the Socialists and their liberal Free Democrat coalition partners — each with a number of high-profile Jews — suffered serious setbacks in Sunday’s vote. This despite having transformed Hungary into the frontrunner among all the formerly Communist countries of Central Europe to join NATO and the European Union.

But the coalition — and even most observers — underestimated how unpopular its austere economic policies had made it with the average Hungarian on the street.

In addition, a vast number of Hungarians simply refuse to forgive the Socialists — the heirs to the country’s old Communist Party — for their past sins.

But Csurka’s Hungarian Justice and Life Party did not just rely on the support of the poor and uneducated from the countryside who were victims of the hard transition to a free-market economy.

The party received its greatest support from voters in the affluent hills overlooking Budapest.

That’s where the pre-war aristocratic elite continue to live, say Hungarian Jews. They lent their support to Hungarian fascists during the war. Today, they and their children are nationalist, anti-West and anti-Semitic.

But Csurka is not the only worrisome politician for Hungarian Jews.

Jozsef Torgyan, leader of the Smallholders — a likely coalition partner in the new government — also has a number of supporters with anti-Semitic sympathies.

And though Torgyan distances himself from Csurka, he praises the Justice and Life Party’s “intellectual base.”

In what is expected to be a concerted effort by liberals and moderates to neutralize Csurka, no one will play a more pivotal role than Hungary’s left- leaning media.

During Csurka’s four years in the political wilderness, he was only heard through the newspaper he owns.

Yet in their embrace of democracy over the past few years, the mainstream print and electronic media have adopted a policy under which each parliamentary faction is given space to air its reaction to government decisions.

Covering Csurka involves another Catch-22.

If members of the media stick a microphone in his face every day, say journalists, Csurka will get more exposure and presumably, more followers. If they ignore him, he’ll cry conspiracy.

It seems many media outlets will opt for the latter path, believing that much of what Csurka says straddles Hungarian statutes outlawing hate speech.

“He will never be on the front page, and we will not ask his opinions too often. But if he says something in the Parliament, of course we will report it,” says Janos Desi, a Jew who heads the domestic news section of the daily newspaper Nepszava.

“I’m not happy about it, but he is a member of Parliament and we have to recognize it.”

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