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Hungarians debate hate speech


Janos Desi, deputy editor in chief of Nepszava. (Courtesy of Janos Desi)

Janos Desi, deputy editor in chief of Nepszava. (Courtesy of Janos Desi)

BUDAPEST, Nov. 17 (JTA) — United in their abhorrence of anti-Semitic and racist views, Hungarian liberals increasingly are at odds over the issue of hate speech and the wisdom of seeking to eliminate it through strict laws. Such a step would move Hungary closer to stringent European standards and away from the country’s American-oriented approach to free speech. The latest round of the dispute was set off by a fringe neo-Nazi group that dominated news headlines for much of September and October through provocations carried out by its eccentric leader, a 26-year-old-woman named Diana Bacsfi. After plastering Budapest streets in late August with posters hailing Hungarian war criminal Ferenc Szalasi, Bacsfi told journalists that her group was a reincarnation of Szalasi’s notorious Arrow Cross party, which came to power in a German-assisted coup on Oct. 15, 1944. During the six months of their reign, Arrow Cross militia members rounded up thousands of Jews from the Budapest ghetto and shot them into the icy Danube River. The dam of public outrage burst with Bacsfi’s announcement that her plan to honor the Arrow Cross coup with a demonstration in front of Budapest’s famed Terror House museum had received police permission. It also brought renewed calls to tighten the penal code’s provisions against hate speech, especially anti-Semitic incitement. Nepszava, one of Hungary’s four political daily newspapers, harnessed the liberal public’s widespread discontent with a strongly worded petition that garnered thousands of signatures. Appearing on Sept. 10, it called on the police to revisit their decision to allow the demonstration and on political parties to pass legislation making it easier to ban extremist demonstrations. “It’s not a simple issue 15 years after the transition” to democracy, Nepszava’s editor, Janos Desi, told JTA. “Full freedom of speech was one of the great achievements of that transition, and it would be a shame to sacrifice it because of a handful of idiots and political troublemakers.” But Desi said his paper’s petition showed that there was wide public support for legal solutions. “In a country where 600,000 people were murdered because of their religion or ethnicity, there must be legal ways to stop neo-Nazis from parading in the streets without endangering free speech, as they have done in France or Germany,” he said. Other liberals also support tougher legislation. In an Op-Ed column, Maria Vasarhelyi — a well-known sociologist whose recent study showed high levels of racism and anti-Semitism among students in university history departments — railed against the “seemingly rational arguments” that liberals line up in defense of free speech even when it upsets the sensitivities of many people, including elderly Holocaust survivors. It’s exactly those sensitivities that should be appreciated more, she argued. In the mid-1990s, many liberals opposed the introduction of stricter laws against hate speech and incitement, believing that extremist ideology and behavior would recede as democratic institutions became more stable. “In reality, the opposite has happened: Political support for the far-right, discriminatory attitudes and public utterances of Nazi speech all grew,” Vasarhelyi wrote. “While on a purely theoretical level I accept that stricter laws prohibiting hate speech or curbing the freedoms of extremists might not solve the core problem, I also feel it immensely unjust to test the sensitivities of those who have suffered so enormously in the 20th century.” But adopting stricter laws might prove difficult because of judicial precedents and strong opposition from many prominent liberals. Earlier this year, Hungary’s constitutional court struck down a law that passed Parliament by a slim majority. It would have made it easier to prosecute cases involving hateful or racist language — which in Hungary usually are anti-Semitic — by doing away with the “clear and present danger” standard. Based on the U.S. model, that standard requires prosecutors to prove beyond doubt that verbal or written attacks directed at a specific group lead directly to physical danger for the group’s members. The court found the new law unconstitutional and argued that free speech must enjoy wide leeway, even if it hurts some people’s sensitivities. Many prominent liberals, from Cabinet ministers to leading Jewish intellectuals, agree with the court’s position and oppose stricter laws. “As a liberal politician, I don’t believe in curbing freedom of speech,” Education Minister Balint Magyar told JTA. Magyar, whose Jewish mother survived World War II in hiding while dozens of her relatives were sent to Auschwitz, said he believes extremism must be fought not with legal means but through political steps and public policies. His views find broad support in the liberal intelligentsia, as evidenced by a statement drafted by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, signed by 120 prominent Hungarian intellectuals and published in the weekly that carried Vasarhelyi’s Op-Ed. The statement concluded, “Discriminative and extremist views can and should be fought, but not by limiting basic democratic rights, but rather by broad social consensus and the power of example.” The in-house debate between liberals appears even more complex against the background of another long-standing rift. This one separates the governing socialist-liberal coalition and the conservative opposition, led by populist former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and centers on the latter’s controversial attitude to openly anti-Semitic sentiments expressed by some of his followers. Orban and his Fidesz Party got plenty of bad publicity for pandering to anti-Semites during their stint in government in 1998-2002. In recent years, Orban has tried to maintain a precarious balance between finding public occasions to denounce anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi extremists and staying on message with his more radical voters. A few months ago, a prominent Fidesz member, former Education Minister Zoltan Pokorni, attended the 10-year anniversary party of the weekly magazine Demokrata, which has hailed Hungary’s German occupiers and questioned the Holocaust. Orban also endorsed the magazine and called on his followers to subscribe to it. At the same time, however, Orban and other Fidesz luminaries gathered supporters on Oct. 15 to lay wreaths at a Budapest plaque commemorating evangelical minister Gabor Sztehlo, who saved 2,000 Jewish orphans from almost certain death under the Arrow Cross. Orban, Pokorni and other party leaders called for the creation of a “Memorial Wall” where victims’ names would appear alongside the names of those, like Sztehlo, who tried to save them. For some in the Jewish community, such mainstream duplicity poses a greater danger than the extremist fringe represented by Bacsfi’s group. “The reappearance of the Arrow Cross was very convenient for the mainstream political right, which was able to distance itself and point at it saying, ‘They are the extremists!’ ” the Jewish monthly Szombat wrote in its most recent editorial. Government politicians are similarly blunt. The conservative “right exists in a political symbiosis with the far-right,” said Peter Gusztos, a Parliament member from a smaller coalition party, Free Democratic Alliance. Others — like Andras Schiffer, an executive board member of the civil liberties union — find fault with both sides of the political aisle. Writing in Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s largest daily, Schiffer criticized Orban and Fidesz for cynically tolerating anti-Semitism to gain a few extra votes. But he also criticized members of the ruling Socialist party for using the specter of fascism to unite their political base, build opposition to the conservatives and shift attention away from an underperforming government. People close to the Socialist party “were just as cynical as Fidesz by creating a media-star out of Diana Bacsfi,” Schiffer wrote. “While one side disregards the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors, the other abuses it without qualms.”