How Bad Is Anti-Semitism In Hungary?


My mother’s favorite story: Two Jews in post-Anschluss Vienna are walking through an anti-Semitic neighborhood. They see that they are being followed by two Nazi thugs. One of the Jews says to his friend, “We’d better make a run for it; there are two of them, and we are all alone.”

Thus the purple rhetoric that characterizes much of the discussion of Jewish security in Central and Eastern Europe.

What, in fact, is the reality of Jewish security in Eastern Europe? Is it a catastrophic near-past of Auschwitz that is finding its way into the future, indeed into the present, with danger signals that are blinking red in a way we have not seen in years? Or is the reality rather different: troubled, perhaps, indeed problematic, but at bottom relatively secure?

The current situation in Hungary is the source of much of the gevalt, including a front-page story in The New York Times this week. A neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, party, Jobbik, founded in 2002, has become the third largest in the Hungarian parliament. Jobbik’s leaders are frankly anti-Semitic: “Given our current situation, anti-Semitism is not just our right, but it is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and we must prepare for armed battle against the Jews.” Thus said Judi Szima, a Jobbik candidate for the European Parliament. And a Jobbik member of the Hungarian Parliament, Marton Gyongyosi, has demanded the creation of a list of Jewish politicians to identify potential “national security risks.”

But Hungary’s serious political problems need to be put into context. The larger picture? According to Michael Miller, chairman of Jewish studies at the Open University in Budapest, “Yes, there are political problems — even serious problems. But to say that these problems are leading to rampant anti-Semitism in Hungary, where Jews are endangered — well, that’s plain crazy.”

So what is going on? Why hysteria on Hungary?

We are a “gevaltist” people. We know that. In the United States, I have for many years reported that even as the levels of behavioral and attitudinal anti-Semitism drop — and drop dramatically — higher percentages of American Jews assert that anti-Semitism is a “serious” problem. Whatever the explanations for this “perception gap,” the gap between perception and reality is significant, and informs much of the gevaltism of American Jews on Europe. (This is not to say that European Jews do not have problems; 2002 and the first half of 2004 were terrible times in France, and elsewhere.)

But the issue goes beyond gevaltism. As is almost always the case, it’s all about the money.

Part of what is going on has less to do with the reality of anti-Semitism and Jewish security in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, and everything to do with internal changes in the American Jewish community. 

There has been a shift in the American Jewish “center of gravity” from national to local, with local federations having increased impact in public affairs. Federations woke up, and saw that the big ticket in fundraising was no longer the soup kitchen, or the old lady living alone on the Lower East Side; it was Israel. And it was, increasingly, anti-Semitism. These issues are in public-affairs arenas that heretofore had been the province of the national “defense” agencies and the local community-relations councils. The agreement that had been hammered out in the 1944 CJF General Assembly that assigned a division of labor to the public-affairs agencies and to the federations — community-relations councils and national agencies would address public-affairs, including anti-Semitism; federations would take care of the social-service and social-welfare agenda — was increasingly violated as the federations moved aggressively into the areas of Israel and anti-Semitism — cash-cow issues for fundraising. 

It’s all about the money, and Eastern European capitals — regular stops on the trail for federation missions — are naturals for sensitizing federation leadership to exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism in Hungary and elsewhere. My conversations with federation and other organizational lay leadership participating in missions to Hungary (most recently in August) reinforce the suggestion that leadership is being sensitized, not to serious problems in Hungary — entirely legitimate — but to exaggerated claims of an anti-Semitism that is pervasive, a new dispensation in which Jews are not secure in that land. Federation professional and lay leadership have been, for some time, stirring the anti-Semitism pot; it may be beginning to boil over — but not necessarily as a result of increased anti-Semitism in Europe. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), however, which plays a leadership role in monitoring anti-Semitism domestically and around the world, has taken an entirely responsible stance on what is going on in Hungary. While expressing deep concern over the rise of right-wing political rhetoric, including anti-Semitic expression, the ADL’s response has to date been sober and balanced.

Bottom line for Hungary: There are problems in Hungary, no question, serious problems. But in Hungary — as is the case everywhere else — the central criterion for Jewish security is the ability of Jews to participate in the society on a day-to-day basis, individually and communally. In Hungary in 2013, there are few Jews who cannot participate in society because of fear of anti-Semitic animus. Jewish institutions (including synagogues) are strong, day schools are thriving. The ability to participate in society is the best measure of security of Jews in any land, and that ability is strong in Hungary. 

Unlike the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Semitism in Hungary is not embedded in the institutions of society, in the institutions of power. Hungary is not Germany. Indeed, the government in Hungary did speak out against Jobbik — belatedly, but the government did speak out against anti-Semitism.

Finally, Jews are not leaving Hungary, which is what one would expect were there to be serious threats to Jewish security. Hungarians are not running — they are not going to Israel or to the United States or to Canada. 

One has only to recall my mother’s second favorite story — “What’s a Jewish telegram? ‘Start worrying. Details to follow.’”  That’s what’s going on in Hungary.

Jerome Chanes, a regular contributor, is the author or editor of four books on Jewish history and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, CUNY Graduate Center.

Jerome A. Chanes is editor of the “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).