Mária Schmidt’s new book Nyelv és Szabadság (Language and Liberty) is a fascinating work bringing more color into the already vibrant and diverse Hungarian cultural and political scene. Schmidt, director of the House of Terror – a Budapest museum depicting the atrocities of the Arrow Cross and Communist regimes – is a well-known Hungarian historian whose previous works mostly focusing on Jewish history include important and widely cited books and studies. Venturing into the realm of political essays, her latest work is a collection of opinion pieces and feuilletons covering a number of subjects: borders and illegal migration, foreign policy and Israel, liberalism and most importantly, language and political correctness.
Schmidt is a self-declared critic of all manners of control imposed upon common sense: her book is a courageous and non-compromising work that refuses to pander up to PC or divert from a realistic assessment of current European events. In her essay titled Válságkezelés (Dealing with Crisis) she convincingly cites examples of German journalists openly admitting their habit of misquotations and misreporting during the 2015 European refugee crisis. Die Welt even went as far as lauding the general lack of discussion regarding migration in Germany, and openly rebuked Hungary for its “liberal spectrum of opinions”. “Readers pose the greatest threat to freedom of press”, the paper asserted. Debating issues, apparently, has become an enemy of democracy, and Schmidt is quick to point out that much of the state-controlled Communist press in Socialist Hungary behaved in a similar way.
A number of left-leaning Hungarian organs remained shamefully silent about antisemitism present among third world immigrants. I wrote about this myself for the Jewish journal Szombat last year: during a pro-migration protest in Budapest a Palestinian refugee went onstage and accused Israel of the murder of thousands of children. He then read a poem of Mahmud Darwish. This modern form of blood-libel and the veneration of a poet who openly incited for violence against Jews was completely absent from liberal reports about the event. Antisemitism coming from the downtrodden and the fleeing is an antisemitism that should be tolerated – this was their message. But the message of Mária Schmidt is very different. In her 2015 essay on how Europe’s Leaders Have Become the Harbingers of Multiculturalism she cited the example of Reem Sahwil, a Palestinian girl who was on German TV talking to Angela Merkel. Sahwil later called for the destruction of Israel and interpreted freedom of expression as her right “to speak about it”. Schmidt calls such a discussion unacceptable, and the European elite allowing for it “bankrupt”. “Our European civilization represents a huge value for us, inspires pride in many with a good reason and it is our responsibility to protect it”. Schmidt does not hide her opinion that defending European Jewish communities is certainly among our current responsibilities.
Lauding evil and presenting the conquerors as liberators was a habit practiced by the Communist elite, Schmidt recalls. Such a behavior is repellent and tedious for Eastern Europeans today. According to her, oppressor and oppressed cannot be confused for the sake of any type of misinterpreted tolerance or political correctness. Much of the European press today would depict Israel as a country of collective oppressors and the Palestinians as a group of collectively oppressed people – including the terrorists and their supporters. Schmidt sees this clearly and specifies her views on the subject in her 2016 essay The Israelization of Europe. “When I first visited Israel, before the first intifada, I could walk around alone in the Old City of Jerusalem in spite of being a blonde woman. Then during my later visits I could see the situation becoming tenser and tenser with each passing decade, the sense of security becoming an ever scarcer commodity . . . Jewry, once liberated from the confines of the ghetto, was forced to surround the Palestinian territories with a wall today, as painful a decision as it may have been. Thus they hoped to control the terrorists whose determination and cunning grows by the day, who threaten Jews with knives, swords, bombs and guns, who believe that earthy lives constitute no value, and who view their own evil deeds only as tickets to paradise”.
Comparing the attacks against Israelis to the recent attacks against Europeans, Schmidt concluded that “we are on a road towards Europe’s Israelization. This is obvious for everyone except for the Western European left-liberal elite”. Schmidt called attention to Hungary’s own past of Islamic bondage – during which, according to her, the Hungarian population of 4,5 million people was reduced to 1,5 million -, concluding that Europe’s sense of security is rightly lost today, and that Europe would soon have to adapt the strict security measures that Israel was forced to invent decades ago. Such a deep and compassionate understanding of Israel’s situation and struggle for her security is certainly rare not just among European intellectuals, but also among Hungarian authors as well.
It is important to see how the Hungarian progressive press reacted to her essay when it was published. Characteristic was the reply written by László Szily, a journalist initially affiliated with the now defunct Gawker, and today an author for the deeply anti-Israel news portal 444. Szily mocked Schmidt’s citing of Palestinian mufti Mohammed Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with Hitler and the recent examples of anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe. Lacking any proper response to the situation, he asked his readers if they understood any of Schmidt’s reasoning (“I certainly hope not”), and on the antisemitism of the European left he had this to say: “I did not read the rest of the article because I did not want to fall asleep”. Such is the reply of the modern progressive European left to the subject of anti-Jewish violence today. This of course should not come as a surprise from a news portal which openly had an interviewee compare Israel to Nazi Germany on the International Remembrance Day for the Holocaust last year.
Schmidt’s book is certainly an intriguing new addition to the public discourse that has been going on about freedom of speech, immigration and last but not least Israeli-Hungarian relations. While public debate in Western Europe seems to be mired in the ever deeper swamp of political correctness, Hungarian academy and the press has been enjoying a freedom to discuss the merits or downsides of immigration that would be considered luxurious in most European countries. In fact we can see that the Visegrad 4 alliance (that is Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, V4 for short) has been adhering to classical European values of freedom of debate and academic inquiry to a larger extent than much of Western Europe. In an interesting turn of events, post-Soviet bloc Eastern Europe has found its voice and courage to express its interests and no-nonsense views – be it about immigration, traditional values or the area’s attachment to its Jewish history and recent support for Israel.
The book’s afterword, written by historian and director of research for the House of Terror Márton Békés, highlights the differences between the values professed by Western and Eastern Europe today. It is important to see here that Békés does not berate the classical tenets of liberalism – in fact he cites the name of J. S. Mill, Tocqueville and Hungarian liberal József Eötvös approvingly. Yet he believes that today’s liberalism has spawned “a dictatorship of snowflakes covering within their safe spaces”, against which “the reclamation of our language is needed”. “Political liberty is thus dependent on our freedom to express ourselves”.
Békés similarly expresses an optimistic view of Eastern Europe’s and the V4’s future, casting aside the pessimism and aimlessness of the decades following the fall of Communism. Of contemporary Western Europe his opinion is rather low: there “decades of consumerist materialism and multiculturalism have eroded any sense of self-protection”. Yet in Central and Eastern Europe “the life and liberty of our peoples were constantly in danger, and therefore our desire to live was in constant need of expression”. This is no longer the voice of a confused, bashful and weak Eastern Europe, constantly apologizing for its mere existence. According to Békés, more connects the peoples of Eastern Europe than what divides them, and now that “the tides of history have shifted”, “change begins where there is a will for change. Our time has come”.