Good news from Budapest?

We know the bad news.  Jobbik, the right-wing Hungarian party, took 17% of the popular vote in 2010 and have 43 members of parliament.  They continue to espouse virulently anti-Zionist and antisemitic policies which they pursue with the support of black-clad paramilitaries and a slick social media platform.  They are a part of the mainstream of Hungarian political life and we should worry about that.  So should ordinary Hungarians when they go to the polls next April.  If Jobbik’s influence grows, they could yet tip the balance of power in their favor sufficiently to become an even more significant player in Hungarian politics.  It is bad for the Jews, and even worse for the Roma, who are the true scapegoats of Jobbik’s venom. Their efforts will undoubtedly turn out to be more than rhetoric if they ever secure even a small slice of government action.  Jobbik may have seen their glory days come and go, but do not count on that. There is a resentful disenfranchised, mainly rural population, who Jobbik can easily manipulate. They lap up the populist promises, then vote Jobbik.  It is no exaggeration to say the language and ideology of Jobbik have genocidal DNA and need to be stopped right now.

This week I was at Eötvös Loránd University (known as ELTE) the state university in Budapest where the Jobbik party was started.  Earlier this year, in that same university, Jewish professors came to work and found on their office doors stickers placed by students. The stickers instructed them to leave.  One such professor is a Holocaust survivor Laszlo Kiss who gave testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation.  Kiss was in the audience at ELTE  this week in their main theater to celebrate the launch of the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive at the university.  Reaction to the sticker incident had been swift. The university closed down the student body responsible for the offense, and as a counter offensive, brought in the voices of 52,000 Holocaust  testimonies to every computer at the university and launched a comprehensive Holocaust Education program.

Hungarians are proud of their intellectual tradition.  If nothing else the rise of Jobbik is an insult to their intelligence. It is not altogether surprising that the ELTE and the Central European University (CEU) have both now engaged with deep research using testimony with an array of Holocaust-related courses.  John Shattuck, president of CEU, drives his faculty hard on matters of human rights, genocide prevention and Holocaust education.  As a former Under Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration he knows all too well how quickly genocidal ideology can strike.  One might expect that from an institution founded by George Soros and headed by an American trained liberal.  But ELTE is a different story.  It is a state institution: a dyed-in-the-wool barometer of current Hungarian thinking.   András Karácsony, Vice-Rector for Strategic Affairs, Science, Research and Innovation, represents that thinking.

Karácsony is a wild-eyed professor with unkempt hair, thick glasses and an uncontrolled beard.  He was there to do his duty and cut the ribbon of the new program. He did not speak English and my Hungarian consists of a single phrase reserved exclusively for drinking, and so our dialogue was understandably limited.  I suspected  he would provide formal remarks and blur historical reality with carefully placed political language. But Karácsony did not do that.  In fact, it was refreshing to hear a scholar who was not interested in votes or media attention stating that:  ’It is not enough to lament a bit on the occasion of anniversaries over the masses destroyed in concentration camps. The event in question caused a historical division line, and the only way to avoid similar events in the future… is to act.’  Action in his world begins within the university providing access to trusted sources about the Holocaust, courses for students, and public support for the teaching of the Holocaust.  It may seem like a small contribution, but that commitment is the difference between Jobbik having control of the university campus – or not.

It would have been very easy to introduce the archival access with a few polite and appropriate ‘thank yous’, but instead Karácsony took the moment to reassert historical truth, and challenge the Holocaust denial at the foundation of Hungary’s antisemitic rhetoric. ‘If we admit that our compatriots did in fact take part in the deportation of Hungarian Jews – a smaller portion of them actively, the majority passively –then we contribute to the development of an ideal attitude which unfortunately not yet be considered universal [in Hungary].’ He was not fudging.

Faculty member Krisztina Borsfay pointed at a sick society which will not be healed while there is denial of the past.   ‘Society can only find health if they are able to look at their traumas, their shame and their negative feelings, and talk about these things. It may be difficult to say and difficult to listen, but if we do, relationships are born on which we can build.’

The recent movement to shine a light on Hungary’s dark journey into deepening crisis has placed political pressures on the current government.  It is an extremely treacherous path they are on. Every measure should be taken to warn the electorate and reverse the tide. Hungarians themselves will rue the day they become the kingmakers of the far right. April 2014 is the likely date of the next election, so the warning needs to be given clearly and now.

That said, the current government understands that denial is the dark mirror behind the current mindset that Jobbik feeds off.  The collective memory does not have a collective conscience about its complicity in the genocide of the Jews.  Next year, coinciding with the elections, Hungary will commemorate 70 years since the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz. Nothing would be more insulting to the memory of the Jews of Hungary than silence at a time of such political challenge.

One of the ways to turn the tide long term is to invest publicly in the future generation. The Hungarians intend to mark the 70th year of commemoration through a series of events, but as Karácsony said, ‘ It is not enough to lament a bit on the occasion of anniversaries.’  The fact that there is significant investment in education is a good sign, but whatever is planned needs to be highly public and sustainable through the schools system and in higher education and not just for a single year.  This is a matter for hearts and minds in the long term.

For concerned observers of Hungary’s recent trends, there is some good news.  The extremists grab the headlines, but the real news is the courage of Hungarians combatting the hatred  – and there are many of them – working towards sustainable change.  It would be easy to stand on the sidelines and list the many things that are wrong about Hungary.  The more difficult task is finding the right strategies to make scalable change on the ground and getting directly involved. There is nothing to be gained by accusing Hungarians and standing outside the theater of operation.  The best way to help is to build a bridge of trust and support those Hungarians who are working for truth and values for the next generation.  For that, education plays a critical role.

Education may seem like a soft approach at first, it is definitely not cut-and-thrust enough for some who prefer the heat of political battle. But if this war is to be ultimately won, whatever skirmishes take place around the ballot box, the real battleground for hearts and minds is in the classroom.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.