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Eager to Dispel Bad Image, Officials in Hungary Meet with Jewish Groups

December 12, 2002
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Eight months after Hungary’s right-wing government was ousted, the new leadership is trying to rehabilitate the image of a country suffering from an upsurge in anti-Semitic rhetoric and incidents.

A top police official was dismissed soon after a Dec. 4 incident in which some 100 skinheads were given permission to demonstrate in a Budapest square where Jews were to celebrate the sixth night of Chanukah.

The youths chanted “Hungary is Ours” and prevented the Jews, led by members of Chabad, from lighting a huge outdoor menorah.

The dismissal of the police official marks a break with recent government behavior: Former Prime Minister Viktor Orban often was criticized for keeping silent and not condemning the anti-Jewish provocations of some of his closest colleagues and allies.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Jewish community Central Europe’s largest, with 80,000 to 100,000 members — and visiting Jewish delegations have held several meetings with officials close to Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy. Such meetings were rare under Orban.

Among the topics discussed is the need to curb anti-Jewish propaganda by tightening Hungarian laws against incitement. Current laws blandly refer to racism, but do not specify Jew-hatred or — a growing phenomenon in Hungary — Holocaust denial. Roughly 550,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Not only do such laws need to spell out anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice and bigotry, but the authorities must demonstrate a commitment to enforcing the law, says Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.

Beker led a delegation of foreign and local Jews who met with officials of Hungary’s Justice Ministry on Nov. 21.

WJC officials also met with Medgyessy on his first official visit to the United States last month.

The police official’s dismissal, and the Jewish leaders’ meetings with Hungarian authorities, “are really encouraging and a change from the previous government,” Beker told JTA on Tuesday.

“They need to single out anti-Semitism because of the history of Europe, the history of Hungary and the attempt to revive anti-Semitism in Hungary,” he said. “It’s not enough to treat it under racism. From an educational standpoint, you have to call the sickness by its very name, otherwise you can’t immunize the social system.”

With Hungary trying to join the European Union, it’s not only Jews in Hungary and abroad who have criticized the government: The Council of Europe’s Commission Against Racism and Intolerance also warned Budapest about “latent anti-Semitism” and “coded” anti-Semitic statements in Hungarian political circles and media.

Hungarian officials long have declined to crack down on the Hungarian translation and widespread distribution of “Mein Kampf,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Henry Ford’s “The International Jew,” claiming it would violate democracy.

There also have been a number of efforts to whitewash Hungary’s role in the Holocaust and commemorate various war-time figures as heroes.

Several high-profile Hungarian politicians also have hinted in recent years occasionally on the floor of Parliament that Jews are to blame for the crimes of communism, that Jews cause anti-Semitism, that they wield too much power in the media and that they are destroying Hungarian culture.

For example, when Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz recently was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, many Hungarians lined up to meet him at book signings.

But some in the right-wing press complained that a “real Hungarian” hadn’t won the prize. Others reportedly emailed messages to the Nobel committee in Stockholm, chastising it for being duped by an international Jewish conspiracy.

“Free speech is an important asset for every democracy, but it should not be used or abused for the sake of incitement,” Beker said. “Legislation is also very important in every society. But if there is no enforcement of the law and no education of those basic laws, even at the high school level, then the law is meaningless.”

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