Is financial crisis fueling Europe’s far right?

European Jews are concerned that the global financial meltdown could fuel antipathy against Jews and demonstrations like this one in Berlin in January 2009. (Toby Axelrod)

European Jews are concerned that the global financial meltdown could fuel antipathy against Jews and demonstrations like this one in Berlin in January 2009. (Toby Axelrod)

PRAGUE (JTA) — In early March, a captain of the far-right Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, addressed his followers about the worsening worldwide financial crisis that had brought Hungary to the brink of bankruptcy.

“Jews run the world,” Draskovics Andras said in remarks that were recorded by a camera crew from Hungarian state TV. Jews “need only 2 billion people for their tricks, and the rest of the mankind will be executed,” he said, according to a Hungarian news Web site, Hvg.hu.

Soon after, on a national holiday in mid-March, the Hungarian Guard inducted 600 new members, who marched with insignias resembling those of its Nazi-era predecessors in Budapest’s largest square.

As the global financial crisis deepens, hitting some Eastern European countries particularly hard, Jews in Europe are watching closely to see whether far-right movements will rekindle old stereotypes about Jews and money, and fuel antipathy toward Jews.

The concern comes as Jews in Europe continue to reel from a sharp spike in anti-Semitic attacks during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, including several arson attempts on synagogues.

“The German neo-Nazis never fail to mention that Jews are to blame for the economic downturn at demonstrations when they think the authorities are not monitoring them,” said Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “Over the last six months their supporters have used slanders like ‘greedy Jews.’

“There is constant talk of Bernard Madoff and how he is Jewish,” he said. “We are worried about this trend of connecting Jews to the crisis within the whole society.”

Many Jewish leaders, however, say they have seen no fallout from the global financial meltdown, and that foreign workers and minorities are taking the brunt of any xenophobia stirred up by extremists.

“The British National Party has generally forsaken its anti-Jewish rhetoric for anti-Muslim rhetoric, and even courts Jews to that cause,” said Michael Whines of the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism in Britain.

The same has happened in Belgium. The far-right Flemish Interest party, which received 21.4 percent of the vote in 2007 parliamentary elections, has sought support from Orthodox Jews in its efforts to limit Muslim immigration.

Jewish leaders in Belgium, Austria and Poland all told JTA they saw no specific anti-Semitism resulting from the financial crisis, nor did they see any strengthening of far-right groups in their countries.

In France, the political beneficiary of the crisis has been the far left, said Roger Cukierman, a former president of the CRIF French Jewish community umbrella organization.

“There is a dangerous growth of the anti-capitalist party led by an extreme anti-Zionist who marched with the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah during the war in Gaza,” he said. “But there has been no mention of Jewish financiers.”

Some 31 percent of Europeans polled by the Anti-Defamation League in December and January blamed Jews in the financial industry for the economic meltdown, while 58 percent of respondents said their opinion of Jews had worsened due to events in Israel. The survey polled 3,500 adults in Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Spain and Britain.

In Germany, Kramer said, anger over Israel’s operation in Gaza, along with severe unemployment in eastern regions, help explain a rise in support for the far right there.

A study released earlier this month by Lower Saxony’s criminal research institute showed that roughly one in 20 15-year-old German males is a member of a neo-Nazi group — a higher proportion than are involved in mainstream politics

In February, the extreme right National Democratic Party, which German state intelligence says is a thinly veiled Nazi group, held its biggest demonstration since 1990. More than 8,000 neo-Nazis gathered in the eastern city of Dresden to mark the 64th anniversary of the destruction of the city by Allied bombing raids.

In Eastern Europe, civil unrest is spreading in places crippled by the economic crisis such as Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

In Hungary, which is saddled with massive debt and has the fastest falling currency in Eastern Europe, social tensions have been running high, according to Janos Gado, the editor of the Hungarian Jewish magazine Szombat. He said Jews are nervous about the growing strength of the Hungarian Guard even though the group has only a few thousand members.

Most of the far-right wrath in Central and Eastern Europe is aimed at Roma — Gypsies that live largely in squalor and are a frequent target of the extreme right. The Hungarian Guard, for instance, claims to protect Hungarians against alleged criminality among the country’s estimated 600,000 Roma.

“There is a feeling in society that the Roma have been getting handouts from the government for too long,” Gado said. “And who always speaks up for the Roma? The left, the intellectuals. Here in Hungary, that often means Jews, so it all runs together.”

Coming elections across Europe, including those for the European Parliament in June, may be an indicator of how much the far right is able to capitalize on public discontent.

In Hungary, the far-right party that spurred the Hungarian Guard’s establishment, Jobbik, did not win enough votes in 2006 elections to meet the 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament. But new polls show that in 2010, the group may capture enough votes to qualify for the parliament.

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