BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — A lone heckler tried to disrupt him, but Hungarian lawmaker Janos Hargitai was undeterred as he spoke earlier this month at a memorial day gathering in Hungary commemorating the 1848 revolution there.
The holiday marks Hungary’s attempt to break free from the Austrian Empire, and Hargitai, sandwiched between two Hungarian flags, was celebrating his nation’s independence and the full exercise of its sovereignty.
But in so doing, Hargitai employed a trope about foreign financial interests that has been gaining traction here and which critics regard as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
“They give us dictates,” Hargitai said at the Budapest event. “In 1848, it was the Rothschilds and now it’s the International Monetary Fund. Hungarian independence compromises the Rothschilds’ interests.”
Such statements from elected officials have become commonplace here since the ultranationalist Jobbik party entered parliament in 2010, despite — and arguably because of — its antagonism toward Jews. Infamously, a Jobbik parliamentarian in 2012 called for registering Hungarian Jews as threats to national security.
But Hargitai is no Jobbik man. He is a lawmaker for the ruling Fidesz party, and his statements are reflective of what political analysts say is the party’s creeping nationalism and increasing aggression toward the Jewish community as it scrambles to maintain its lead over Jobbik ahead of next month’s general elections.
“Fidesz increasingly has been using Jobbik rhetoric as a direct response to Jobbik’s growing popularity in an attempt to weaken Jobbik and take over their voters by first taking over their programs,” said Eva Balogh, a historian and author of the Hungarian Spectrum blog.
Recent polls predict Jobbik will remain the third largest party in the April 6 election, taking anywhere from 14 to 19 percent of the vote — a handsome increase over the 11 percent of parliamentary seats it currently holds.
The same polls predict Fidesz, a center-right party, will take 36-38 percent of the vote — enough to remain the country’s ruling force, but still a substantial loss from 2010, when it garnered approximately half the ballots cast.
As Fidesz’s popularity wanes, party bosses have become increasingly inclined to abandon efforts to present a moderate face and have indulged in the sort of nationalistic bravado that has fueled Jobbik’s ascent.
The shift was evident last year in the decision to display photos of classic anti-Semitic texts at a Fidesz-sponsored cultural festival and in a plan by the mayor of Budapest, Fidesz member Istvan Tarlos, to name a street after an anti-Semitic author.
More recently, analysts have seen evidence of a rightward tilt in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s clash with Hungarian Jewry over commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.
The conflict erupted last month when the Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella group said it would boycott some government-led events because of a planned memorial statue that was seen as glossing over the pro-Nazi Hungarian government’s prominent role in the murder of 568,000 Jews toward the end of World War II. The statue depicted Hungary as an angel attacked by an eagle.
One senior party figure accused Mazsihisz of aligning with the left, while Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, voiced a warning at a news conference.
“They issued an ultimatum to the government, and this is causing more anxiety than a positive impact on the coexistence of Jews and Hungarians,” Lazar said.
Lazar’s statement, which some saw as threatening the Jewish community and implying that Jews are not Hungarians, was met with condemnation this week from Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler.
“We have learned that nowhere in the Diaspora should Jews, or any other minority, blindly trust the prevailing power,” Heisler said.
On Sunday, a crowd of 200, mostly Jews, stood for two hours in the rain and lit candles for the dead at a rally at Freedom Square protesting the monument.
Matyas Eorsi, a Jewish former lawmaker for the SZDSZ liberal democratic party, told JTA that Lazar’s comments were “scandalous” and denied that Jews were meddling in the elections.
“The allegation that Mazsihisz is meddling in campaign politics is absurd,” Eorsi said. “The government, not Mazsihisz, decided to unveil a revisionist monument during an election year.”
The Hungarian government denies the statue reflects any antipathy toward Jews. Officials repeatedly have acknowledged their country’s complicity with the Nazis, most recently in January, when Hungary’s U.N. ambassador, Csaba Korosi, apologized for “the Hungarian state’s guilt during the Holocaust.” In October, Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, also a Fidesz member, acknowledged his country’s “responsibility” for the wartime deaths of Hungarian Jews.
The government insisted on the monument because “respect has to be expressed for all victims,” said Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman. “This is a question of humanity, and not one of politics or party affiliation.”
Kumin denied that Fidesz was trying to court right-wing voters with its rhetoric.
“Even if this desire existed, doing so would be counterproductive because whatever we would gain on the right flanks we would lose much more from the center,” he told JTA. He also cited new laws against hate speech and promised the government would prevent any attempt to limit Jewish religious freedoms in Hungary.
But Istvan Rev, a professor of history and political science at the Central European University, said the government resisted requests from Mazsihisz to consider alternatives for the monument that would have more clearly acknowledged Hungarian complicity.
“This is an election year,” Rev said, “and the government does not want to be seen as backing down before those bloody Jews.”
Mindful of its clash with the government, Mazsihisz criticized the decision by the Chabad-affiliated Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, or EMIH, to hold a conference in Budapest this week of hundreds of members of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe. A Mazsihisz spokesman told JTA that his organization feared Fidesz would use the event to downplay Jewish concerns.
But EMIH head Rabbi Shlomo Koves, who credits the Orban government for its efforts to curb extremism, dismissed the concern, saying the event was nonpartisan and unconnected to the monument affair.