A Growing Tolerance for Anti-Semitism

Political Background

In recent months many Jews and international observers have noticed a change in the environment in Hungary that is more tolerant of racism and anti-Semitism. Part of this change is due to entry of the high-profile, media-savvy, extreme nationalist István Csurka into the Hungarian Parliament. The government of Viktor Orbán has remained silent in the face of Csurka's xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Gypsy and racist proclamations.

Just before general elections in May 1998, the Socialist-led government looked unbeatable. Hungary's then-Prime Minister Gyula Horn, a Communist-turned-Socialist, had pulled the economy out of the doldrums, pushed down inflation considerably and won the country invitations to join the EU and NATO. But the Socialists lost. Few people had felt any benefits from these spectacular achievements, and austerity measures had hit living standards hard.

The center-right FIDESZ Hungarian Civic Party capitalized on this dissatisfaction and defeated the Socialists by a very small margin. With promises to cut taxes, increase welfare and pensions, crack down on organized crime and boost economic growth the rhetorically brilliant and charismatic 35-year-old Viktor Orbán became Europe's youngest Prime Minister. Because of his close win, Orbán had no choice but to link up with the right-wing, rural-based Smallholders Party and its firebrand leader József Tórgyan and the small, conservative MDF Hungarian Democratic Forum. The three parties have a combined 213 seats or 55 percent of the total 386 seats in Parliament. The main opposition, the ex-Communist Socialist Party, holds 134 seats ­ 35 percent.

Istvan Csurka and the MIEP Party

While the Jewish community waited to see what the swing to the right would mean for them following the general elections, they had no illusions about what the entry of István Csurka, leader of the MIEP Hungarian Justice and Life Party, would mean. The winning of 14 seats made this group the first far-right party to enter Parliament since World War II.

Csurka, a playwright-turned-politician, has a long history of activism in Hungary, and his anti-Jewish, anti-Gypsy and racist attitudes are well known. He proudly boasts of his friendship and cooperation with French extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. He has labeled a number of enemies as working against "real Magyar interest" including New York, Tel Aviv, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and routinely blames "global financial circles" and "cosmopolitans" for undermining Hungarian interests. His newspaper, Magyar Forum, promotes conspiracy theories about Jewish plans for world domination, attacks Jews as Communists, and accuses "non-Hungarian elements" (a code word for Jews) of controlling the Hungarian media and as outside forces "destabilizing Hungary." According to Anti-Semitism Worldwide 1997/98, in September 1997, Magyar Forum claimed that since Israel would be unable to meet the challenge of absorbing Jewish immigrants and the Palestinian conflict, Jews were beginning to implement a secret plan to invade Hungary and make it into a new safe haven for Jews.

In 1993, Csurka headed a group of hardline nationalist dissidents who had left the then-ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and formed MIEP. In the 1994 elections, Csurka and the MIEP did not meet the 5 percent threshold necessary to enter Parliament. In 1998, he ran on an anti-Europe platform, urging Hungarian independence from international financial institutions. In the election, MIEP's major support reportedly came from rural poor and uneducated voters, as well as from old-time aristocrats.

The MIEP enjoys power that vastly outweighs its representation in Parliament. The parliamentary rule of 1990 permits only parties with at least 15 members of Parliament to form a caucus. Even though the MIEP held only 14 of the legislature's 286 seats, however, Hungary's Constitutional Court allowed the party to form a caucus. This gave MIEP representatives the right to be elected to committees, and have financial advantages, continual presence in the media and greater influence in Parliament. The most recent "generosity" of Orbán's ruling coalition in Parliament towards Csurka: Although two MPs left MIEP, the 12 remaining representatives are still allowed to operate and benefit as a caucus.

Failure to Challenge Anti-Semitism and Racism

Since assuming office, Orbán has been reluctant to react to István Csurka's coded or overt anti-Semitic remarks. One current example is the recent propaganda war waged by Csurka against the choice of Hungarian writers featured at the Frankfurt book fair. In his party newspaper, Magyar Forum, Csurka criticized the government for doing nothing about the fact that Hungary is represented by mostly Jewish authors or topics with Jewish themes at the Frankfurt fair. Csurka denounced a "Jewish occupation of literature," "a swamp where non-Jewish writers have no chance to present their works" and "the dollar-influence of a Lauder-Bronfman-group which directs all." Neither Orbán nor any spokesman of his government came out with a statement condemning Csurka's comments.

In another recent incident, after the infamous anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Hungary, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary presented a lecture by the Israeli author and jurist Hadassah Ben-Itto which refuted the tract. Csurka lashed out at the effort in the media, saying it was an "obstacle to cleaning up and putting things in order and continues to engage in deception ŕ la Goebbels." Again, only the Free Democrat Opposition Party (SZDSZ) reacted to Csurka's comments.

Orbán, who is not believed to be personally anti-Semitic, has said nothing to denounce anti-Semitic incidents or distance himself from comments made by the far right, or even by members of his own coalition. His deputy Prime Minister caused a commotion recently with a strange comment on the "Jewish Question." Orbán knows he would alienate some of his supporters by speaking out and therefore he and members of his ruling coalition defend themselves against criticism for not denouncing extremists by playing the "democracy" card ­ everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and freedom of speech, etc.

Orbán's own precarious political situation has made any strong statement against anti-Semitism unlikely. A year after ousting the Horn government, his popularity has dramatically declined: He is far from fulfilling his election promises and therefore the electorate has become disillusioned with him. Moreover, the feeling prevails that he is more concerned with "bashing the Socialists" than working for the general good of the country. If there were elections today, the running gag is that Orbán would win elections anywhere other than at home. Furthermore, there are rumors of corruption and nepotism connected to Orbán in the country's privatization effort. He has also brutally dismissed and appointed diplomats, cultural attachés and high-ranking media people to fit his political agenda.

Despite the current poor press, Orbán believes he can win the 2002 elections by uniting the right bloc in Hungary (FIDESZ leading a conservative right group consisting of MDF, the Smallholders of Torgyan and, eventually, splinters of Csurka's MIEP). The complicated Hungarian election system may bring him close to this goal: Already in 1998, he could only gain votes in decisive regions because Torgyan and Csurka struck a deal and recommended FIDESZ. To ensure this support, Orbán cannot afford to alienate the right.

Jewish Community Reaction & Recent Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community has often been conflicted as to how best to combat anti-Semitism in Hungary. Many of the community's "old guard" have long believed that protesting anti-Semitic comments by Csurka and others would only serve to give these individuals greater national exposure. Under the newly elected head of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities, Peter Tordai, the community has become more active. Tordai has had several meetings with the Prime Minister voicing the concern of the Federation regarding the surging of verbal anti-Semitism in daily life, especially as manifested by Csurka. Orbán repeatedly appeased Tordai, claiming that he had everything under control.

Meanwhile, the community is assembling legislation that would provide a benchmark for what constitutes hate crimes and anti-minority incitement as well as criminalizing Holocaust denial and crimes against humanity. This proposal was submitted to Parliament on October 15.

Recent Anti-Semitic Incidents:

February 1999: Neo-Nazis again commemorated the "Day of Pride." Eight skinheads attacked policemen with pieces of furniture while shouting Nazi slogans such as "Sieg Heil." These eight skinheads were arrested; 30 others were expelled. As a reaction to this incident, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised to crack down on "neo-fascist rowdyism."

March 1999: On March 15, the Hungarian National Bank Holiday, the "Association for the Welfare of the Hungarian People" (Verband der ungarischen Volkswohlfahrt) held a public rally under the supervision of the police. Their leader, Albert Szabo, publicly destroyed a Star of David as well as a NATO emblem, which he referred to as symbols "for misanthropic inhuman actions enforced under the banner of Zionism." He also wished the Iraqi people well in their fight against "those Zionistic pigs."

On the very same day, skinheads, as well as fans of the Ferencvaros soccer team, yelled anti-Semitic slogans during a football match while the leader of the Smallholders Party, Joszef Torgyan, and the Minister of Sports, Tamas Deutsch, watched the match calmly in the grandstand.

July 1999: A major Jewish cemetery in the Hungarian town of Szombathely was desecrated. Nazi swastikas, the Star of David hanging from gallows and obscene drawings were smeared onto gravestones. The Hungarian President, Arpad Goencz, condemned the incident in an unusually clear comment to the press:

First, the desecration of a cemetery is a police affair. The perpetrators must be found and must be taken to court. Secondly, this is a moral issue. This was carefully planned, rude sacrilege which is being rejected by a vast majority of the Hungarian public. Thirdly, it is a social issue we must honestly face and examine in a wider context. In the fourth place, it is an international issue: How can the European public, which tends to generalize, harmonize such doings with the picture of a Hungary which wants to join Europe and wants to accomplish social democracy? Fifth, it automatically raises the question of how we can avoid such insinuation phenomena. They can only be avoided if they meet with clear and open rejection from both the state and the society, the entire range of the media which shape public opinion and from both political sides. Otherwise, we all universally have to take responsibility in front of the world and what is worse in front of ourselves.

August 1999: The Jewish community filed a court challenge following the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They are still awaiting the results of the police investigation into whether the publisher is in fact violating Hungarian law by "inciting hatred" against a community.

September 1999: The Council of Europe branded two of the six parties in Hungary's Parliament ­ including the junior coalition partner, the Smallholders ­ as "extremist."

The National Police submitted an indictment to the Capital Prosecutor General's Office against Aron Mónus for publishing Hitler's Mein Kampf without permission. The Federation of Jewish Religious Communities in Hungary reported Mónus to the authorities two years ago for publishing the book.

Plans to revamp a Hungarian-sponsored exhibit at Auschwitz came under attack for failing to document Hungarian compliance with the Nazi murder of 600,000 Hungarian Jews. In solely blaming the Nazis for Jewish deportations and extermination, Jewish leaders accused Hungary of failing to confront its history. The Orbán government had originally planned to revamp the exhibit ­ installed in 1965 ­ because of its focus on the Communist victory over the Third Reich.

October 1999: István Csurka was the lone politician in Central Europe to praise Joerg Haider for his anti-immigrant Freedom Party's stunning performance in the Austrian elections.

In another affront to the 100,000 or so Jews still living in Hungary, right-wing politicians unveiled a plaque dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian royal police who died during the two world wars. However, the plaque made no mention that it was mainly these police who, after the German occupation on March 19, 1944, efficiently carried out orders to round up Hungarian Jews from the countryside. In seven weeks, they herded 437,000 Jews into ghettoes and then deported them to various death camps. Hungarian Jews are especially sensitive about the issue of war memorials because no administration here has ever built a monument to its murdered Jews.

© 1999 Anti-Defamation League