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Hungarian Leader is Questioned About Recent Anti-semitism There

October 24, 1990
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Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall was pressed repeatedly during his state visit here last week about continuing reports of anti-Semitic activity in his country.

Antall, whose father is memorialized at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem for his work in saving Jews during the Holocaust, came out forcefully against all forms of anti-Semitism and said reports of such activity were exaggerated.

“I am glad to tell you that there is no wave of anti-Semitism in Hungary that could present any kind of danger, and we have always taken action whenever we saw a current of anti-Semitism,” he told a select group of Jewish leaders here Oct. 16 at a meeting hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

Likewise at a news conference last Friday in Washington, the prime minister said, “We are deeply concerned by any form of anti-Semitism” and have “always taken any necessary measures” to combat it.

In his meeting with Jewish leaders, Antall also stressed Hungary’s strong ties with Israel and pledged to ensure the safety and promote the vitality of his country’s small Jewish population, which is estimated to number 100,000 out of a general population of 10 million.

But the prime minister hinted that Hungary’s growing economic problems could lead to social unrest, which could translate into anger against the Jews. He said his country potentially faces enormous difficulties if there is no injection of foreign economic aid soon.

Hungary’s economic problems, stemming from the high cost of democratization and exacerbated by the Persian Gulf crisis, later were given a boost by President Bush, who announced Oct. 18 that the United States would urge the International Monetary Fund to increase its lending to Eastern European countries.


Although Antall was forceful in his denunciation of anti-Semitism, Jewish leaders pressed the prime minister to disassociate his ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum from anti-Semitic statements made by some of the party’s members.

Over the past few months, anti-Semitic statements by prominent supporters of the Democratic Forum have appeared in some Budapest journals, drawing angry retorts from mainly Jewish intellectuals.

After one Jewish man responded in print to an offensive article, he received death threats, his apartment was broken into and his wife was beaten.

During the recent regional elections, swastikas were scrawled on campaign posters for the opposition Alliance of Free Democrats, whose leadership includes several Jews.

Antall promised the Jewish leaders here that while the Democratic Forum remains in power, anti-Semitism will not take root in Hungary. But the Jewish leaders pressed the prime minister to make that pledge public.

“We explained to him his government clearly has to take a stand and say anti-Semitism is unacceptable within the party,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue. Schneier recently visited Hungary as president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an organization that monitors religious freedom worldwide.

Observers of the Hungarian scene attribute the recent outbreak of popular anti-Semitism to the lifting of restrictions on speech that accompanied democratization.

“During the Communist years, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted underground, but still strong. Now, with free speech, these feelings can be expressed freely, but this doesn’t mean there’s been an increase in these feelings,” said Agnes Heller, a Hungarian Jewish philosopher now living in New York.


But Schneier and others are quick to point out that Jewish life has also been allowed to flourish since the ending of Communist rule about a year ago, and flourish it has.

A handful of trendy kosher restaurants dot the streets in the old Jewish quarter, a cultural federation holds over a dozen special-interest study groups, and the Raoul Wallenberg Association was formed to combat racism and discrimination against minorities.

Both the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee maintain offices in Budapest that function openly, as does Israel’s Embassy, reopened a year ago after a 22-year break in relations.

“Most definitely, there has been an upsurge in religious interest,” said Schneier. “The government feels today that they need the religious communities as allies in rebuilding a society that is not just economically and socially and culturally bankrupt, but morally as well.”

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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