Why does Hungary still nurture the ancient prejudice of anti-Semitism?

It isn’t often that opponents of anti-Semitism quote Adolf Hitler to back up their arguments. Last week, though, while in Hungary reporting on the rise of the far-Right Jobbik Party, I met a man at Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Centre who felt the Führer had something relevant to say.

“It was Adolf Hitler who claimed that the cruel goddess of poverty was one of his great allies,” Dr Csosz Laszlo, a historian at the centre, told me. “He was very right on that. And in extreme Right-wing thinking, Jews are the still the masterminds of the international financial world.”

In reality, of course, they aren’t. Today, the only financial masterminds who have any say over the Hungarian economy are not moneylenders of the Shylock variety, but those from the International Monetary Fund – and only then because they gave the country a $25 million bail-out when the global recession hit in 2008.

An induction ceremony of the Magya Garda, the uniformed wing of Hungary’s far-Right Jobbik Party (Photo: AFP)

Yet that has not stopped Jobbik becoming the third biggest party in Hungarian politics in recent years, campaigning on a joint ticket to cut down on Roma crime and reduce the “Zionist” influence. As we reported last week, Jobbik controlled-councils have even established twinning arrangements with towns in Iran, much to the bemusement of most local townsfolk, many of whom have little idea where Iran is, much less about its ideological hatred of Israel. Other acts of far-Right gesture politics,  though, have made their point rather less subtly, such as the Jobbik-supporting bikers’ groups with their “step on the gas” rallies. Geddit?

It was no great surprise, therefore, that the World Jewish Congress, which normally meets in Jerusalem, chose to hold its annual congress in Budapest last weekend, to highlight what it says is a worrying rise in anti-Semitism in Hungary. It ended yesterday by calling on Hungarians “to recognise that Jobbik and its subsidiaries pose a fundamental threat to Hungary’s democracy”. For anyone who thought they were exaggerating, a noisy counter-protest by a pro-Jobbik militia, dressed in black paramilitary gear and boots, helped make the Congress’s point for them.

Yet while Jobbik’s success has outstripped that of other far-Right parties in Europe, it is unusual today in targeting Jews, rather than Muslims, as bogeymen. When I’ve interviewed members of far-Right parties elsewhere, such as the Swiss People’s Party and the Austrian Freedom Party, the recurring concern is always immigration from Islamic countries and fears of terrorism. Jews, by contrast, are hardly ever mentioned, and seem very much a prejudice of yesteryear.

Listening to some of Jobbik’s wilder rants last week, though, I was reminded of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat, the notoriously anti-Semitic TV reporter from time-warped Kazakhstan. Jews, I was told, controlled everything from the economy to the media, and many points in between. Indeed, some of Jobbik’s anti-Jewish hysteria has a Boratesque black comedy to it. Take, for example, the tale of the Jobbik MP, Csanad Szegedi, who was told recently that his grandmother was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz.  So distraught was he that he apparently offered people money to keep quiet about it.

But question the average Jobbik supporter in more detail, and few offer any real substance to back their anti-Jewish gripes. For a start, unlike Hungary’s half-million-strong Roma community, who live on the outskirts of many towns, Hungary’s Jewish community is all barely visible outside of the small Jewish quarter in central Budapest. Even there, only a tiny fraction dress in identifiably Jewish clothing, and nationwide, most Jews still opt to keep their identity a very private matter. As such, while Hungary has one of the largest remaining communities of Jews in central Europe – an estimated 100,000 – the numbers of “self-identified” Jews are estimated at only a tenth of that.

The Jobbik-controlled town of Tiszavasvari in eastern Hungary is twinned with the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran.

A similarly opaque picture emerged when I asked Jobbik supporters to prove their claims that Jews controlled the Hungarian economy. So which Jews exactly, and which businesses? The answer was normally just a shrug. At best, I got vague references to a speech by the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, in 2007, in which he highlighted Israel’s business success in Hungary and elsewhere.

That such anti-Semitism still exists is all the more worrying given Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. In the early summer of 1944, it saw one of the most intensive Jewish extermination campaigns of the war, when more than 400,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in just eight weeks. True, it happened at the instigation of the Nazis during Hungary’s period of German occupation. Yet as staff at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Centre point out, the relatively small force of 150 Germans under Adolf Eichmann could not have done it without a lot of enthusiastic local help.

So why, exactly, does Hungary have such a problem with anti-Semitism now? One explanation is that in the absence of immigration since communism collapsed, the country has simply stuck to the prejudices it knows and loves. Another is that the very reluctance of many Hungarian Jews to publicly identify themselves has been a boon for conspiracy theorists seeking to detect a “hidden” hand.

The success of Jobbik as a party, though, probably owes more to its hardline stand on the Roma and its appeal to Hungarian nationalism than its anti-Semitic agenda. Indeed, many Jobbik supporters I met described themselves not as gas-stepping bikers but ordinary people, worried about crime, jobs and immigration, and angry at being branded racists for their sense of patriotism. In the transition from communism to capitalism, and from Eastern Bloc to Brussels Bloc, they said, simply not enough attention had been paid to preserving their own national identity.

Nonetheless, what now manifests itself as anti-Semitism may soon find new targets as the Third World immigration that has taken place elsewhere across the EU eventually reaches Hungary. But while it might take the flak off Hungarian Jews, I suspect it may give Jobbik even more votes than before.


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