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Around the Jewish World: Hungary’s Jews Grow Nervous with Political Anti- Semitism Rising

February 24, 2000
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When a leading Hungarian politician spices his speech with ominous references to “cosmopolitans” and “Communist Jews” it is not taken lightly.

Similar rhetoric half a century ago spurred a genocide that killed more than half a million Hungarian Jews. But speeches like Deputy Prime Minister Laszlo Kover’s on Jan. 29 and assorted anti-Jewish provocations have become more common in Hungary over the past year. Which makes many in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community jittery once again.

“I have a huge bottle of pills ready, just in case history repeats itself,” said one 67-year-old woman, who survived the Budapest Ghetto. “I swear I’ll never go through that twice.”

Jewish observers says the increasing use of “political anti-Semitism” is more than a hatemongering fringe at work. Instead, they contend, it is a cynical ploy by Hungary’s crafty prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his advisers. Orban, 36, seems intent on carving out a future for himself as the Man of the Right.

No one suggests that Orban personally is an anti-Semite, but on his behalf some of his allies are skillfully employing nationalist Christian-conservative symbols and Holocaust revisionism.

“These are deeply coded messages to the far right to show that this is where their hearts beat,” says writer Miklos Haraszti, a former dissident and liberal parliamentarian. “They want these voters, even if they lose some sympathy from moderates and earn contempt from journalists and liberal opinion-makers.”

Since last summer, a number of Jewish-related issues have grabbed the spotlight here, though the country’s 100,000 or so Jews constitute just 1 percent of the population. First came a government attempt — dropped after Jewish experts protested — to rewrite the text of the Hungarian exhibit at Auschwitz, which was installed in 1965.

The new version would have shifted all blame for the Hungarian Holocaust onto Germany, which occupied the country on March 19, 1944, and made no mention of Hungary’s role.

A second incident occurred last autumn, when the officials unveiled a plaque to commemorate the Hungarian gendarmerie.

It ignored the fact that these same police, for seven weeks in the spring of 1944, enthusiastically carried out Nazi orders to round up and deport 437,000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside.

Hungarian Jews assail these moves as an orchestrated campaign to whitewash Hungary’s past.

But Maria Schmidt, a key adviser to Orban and oft-criticized as one of Hungary’s leading revisionists, argues that after four decades of communism – – during which historical documentation was indeed ideologically skewed – – there’s a need to relate history from a new perspective.

“For 40 years, they were lying about everything,” Schmidt told JTA. “I’m glad that now there’s competition in the telling of history, because no one should have a privileged position or monopoly. We all live in this country; we all have our own history and our own point of view.”

Schmidt said she backs the unrestricted publication and distribution of “Mein Kampf,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and other anti-Semitic tracts, which now populate many Budapest bookstores in new Hungarian editions.

More troublesome for Hungarian Jews, said Haraszti, is that Orban appears to welcome the parliamentary support of Istvan Csurka and his far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party, or MIEP. Csurka was kicked out of the first post- Communist government in 1993 for his xenophobic views.

He returned to Parliament in July 1998, when MIEP squeaked past the 5 percent threshold, winning 14 seats out of 386.

Csurka and his minions are notorious for conspiratorial talk about “alien elements” and “liberal traitors.” They also have questioned the “disproportionate” number of Jews in the media, the leading symphony orchestras and the delegation of Hungarian authors to last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.

Last September the Council of Europe branded Csurka’s party as “extremist.”

As if to reinforce that judgment, Csurka is practically the only Central European politician to hail the stunning rise of Jorg Haider in Austria. Some 500 MIEP supporters demonstrated recently in front of the Austrian Embassy in Budapest, at times chanting “Long Live Haider!”

Orban himself has said the European Union assault on Austria “surprised” him, as it “forces us all to think harder than usual about the deeper meaning of democracy.”

He was also quoted as saying Haider’s emergence was like “a stone being thrown into an intellectually and politically stagnant pond.”

Ironically, while many of Hungary’s Jews find the political climate increasingly stifling, some of them suggest that left-leaning Jewish intellectuals may be exacerbating it. The left is sometimes too quick to decry right-wing rivals as “anti-Semites,” said Gabor Szanto, editor of the Jewish magazine Szombat, or Sabbath.

The right then spins this claim into the countercharge that Jews are using anti-Semitism as a shield to deflect all criticism, even when it’s legitimate. “If you repeatedly accuse someone of being an anti-Semite and they really aren’t, they grow angry and then they do become anti-Semites,” Szanto said. “Each side is using anti-Semitism to discredit the other.”

Orban, meanwhile, remains mum and above the fray. After all, Hungary is clamoring for full integration into the West.

Analysts suspect that Orban is searching for the fine line between how far rightward Hungarian society is willing to move and how much Hungary’s Western partners are willing to tolerate.

At this point, compared to some of its neighbors — Austria, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine — Hungary seems an oasis of economic and political stability.

So the West does not trouble itself with Hungarian domestic politics. But international pressure — such as a scathing report by the Anti-Defamation League in December — may force Orban to change his ways.

Already the government announced in December that it would fund a Holocaust museum and documentation center. And on Jan. 18, in a ceremony to commemorate the Soviet liberation of the Budapest Ghetto, Education Minister Zoltan Pokorni suggested that Hungary hold a Holocaust remembrance day every year.

Still, Hungarian Jews generally view these gestures as half-hearted attempts at damage control and public relations. Many Jews were among the few thousand Hungarians who attended an anti-fascist demonstration in Budapest on Feb. 13.

“You won’t be any better off by hiding or avoiding conflict; to them you’ll still be the `budos zsido’ [stinking Jew],” said Balint Molnar, 25, who attended the rally and has just completed a degree in international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“My grandfather, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, curses and swears and sometimes spits at the television set. But I think we should deal with anti- Semitism more dynamically. We should confront these people and make more noise about it.”

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