The other side of the Hungarian Jewish question

What is the bottom-line of Hungarian anti-Semitism?

Ignorance. Hungarian anti-Semitism is not mainly against the Jews themselves. As with anywhere, as the economical crisis in Hungary grows radicalism grows.

The government of Hungary is led by Fidesz, who won the last elections in 2010 by 51%. This party maintains their power using demagogue speeches, convincing everyday people that their life has been better since Fidesz came to power (when, in fact, there have been major decreases in all areas of quality of life. For example the building industry’s production has fallen by 60% compared to 3 years ago).

Officially, in terms of their mission statements and all formal documents, Fidesz condemns all kinds of extremism, yet in truth they are acutely inconsistent with this as seen through their actions. For example, it was the Fidesz government that introduced National Holocaust Day (16 April – in 1944 ghettoisation of the Jews started on this day) and thus established the Holocaust Museum, but at the same time the speeches of Fidesz politicians often contain hidden anti-Semitic comments such as references to “genetics”, or the guilt of the government of “bankers” during the economic crisis. An open racist can receive a state award under them. Books of anti-Semitic writers have been recommended as additions to the public school syllabus. In order to maintain their support, they feel that they need the support of the right to far-right voters on the political specturm, and thus they attempt to balance empty gestures with speeches and statements that echo well among far-right voters.

The people of Hungary are becoming more and more nervous, distracted and hungry. Fidesz literally works against the Hungarian people, using machiavellian tactics in order to gain more power. Anti-Semitism is one of the forms in which their hunger for power manifests.

The most recent act of the Hungarian Government is an intentional falsification of history in order to justify the Hungarian participation alongside the Nazi regime by claiming that Hungary did not act by according to its free will by announcing the significant act of Statute 565 – the execution of a Memorial of the German occupation of Hungary. The memory of victims – all Hungarian victims – is indeed of extraordinary significance, and it must be creditably commemorated. However, the Hungarian Government intends to commemorate the German occupation, rather than memorialize the victims on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. The Federation of the Jewish communities and a number of Jewish organizations have been protesting against Statute 565. The case is still in process.

Is the Hungarian government against Israel?


Then why doesn’t the government stop the rise of anti-Semitism?

In order to stay in power during the upcoming elections in April 2014, the government is building their support from right and far-right voters. Their competition on the far-right, Jobbik, is an openly racist and ethnicist party that feigns being offended when they are referred to as Neo Nazis. In order to win over the sympathy of Jobbik’s potential voters, Fidesz has a tendency of overlooking their anti-Semitic moves. As such, public expressions of anti-Semitism are growing to become more acceptable, and in some circles even trendy. Thus latent anti-Semitism – already triggered by the economic crisis – surfaces more and more often.

Is the Muslim community dangerous to the Jews in Hungary?

No. There is only a small Muslim community in Hungary, and it does not represent a real threat to the Jews.

Is anti-Semitism the only form of racism on the rise in Hungary, or are there other forms?

The most horrific problem, with significant verbal and physical abuse and discrimination, is racism against Gypsies.

Is there any organization in Hungary that fights against anti-Semitism?

Yes. There is a broad range of short and long-term methods (from flash-mobs to formal and informal education) implemented by very well prepared people, who mostly sacrifice their free time as volunteers. These manage to reach, and sometimes even mobilize a significant amount of people.

One of the most visible and successful such event is the March of the Living (Az Élet Menete). In 2013, 30,000 people participated in the Budapest March of the Living, regardless of their religion, political opinion and ethnic/national origin, in order to remember the 600,000 Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and to remind the next generation that it should never happen again. Besides the yearly March of the Living, MOTL Hungary also runs a unique Railcar Exhibition, which is an original cattle-wagon from the time of the deportations. This exhibition travels to railway stations across Hungary functioning as a mobile exhibition unit that may be visited by students free of charge.

The Zachor Foundation endorses Holocaust education in Hungarian schools, holds teacher training courses, organizes tours for teenagers of Jewish Budapest.

The B’nai B’rith Budapest Lodge strives to improve the reputation of Hungarian Judaism.

Music Against Racism (ZARE) holds concerts with ethnic bands against everyday racism.

The Kurt Lewin Foundation spreads the idea of democracy and tolerance in the frame of company trainings.

“You can act!” (TETT) brings Roma and Jewish youth together.

There are other major organizations fighting for tolerance: The Alliance of the Hungarian Resistants and Anti-fascists (MEASZ), Association of the Persecuted by the Nazis (NÜB), the Hungarian Association of Inmates of Labor Camps (MOE), the Carl Lutz Foundation, the Wallenberg Foundation, the Foundation for Subjective Values (SZÉA), the Congregation of the Faith (Hit Gyülekezete), Exclamation Point Student Association (Kiáltójel Diákegyesület), Act and Shielding Foundation (Tett és Védelem Alapítvány), the Alliance of Christian Intellectuals (Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége), the Christian–Jewish Society (Keresztény–Zsidó Társaság). And this list is far from complete.

How can we help the fight against anti-Semitism in Hungary?

Anyone can help the aforementioned organizations in gaining new tools and channels to use in their fight against anti-Semitism. However, fighting against anti-Semitism is not a task that can be left to individual Jews and civil organizations, in the end the political establishment must be dealt with.

Should we be concerned for Hungarian Jewry?

Yes. People seem to not be aware that Jewish life in Hungary is alive, more than anywhere else in Central-Eastern Europe. It has it’s own rich Jewish culture, for example it has the Hungarian Neolog which is a unique branch of Judaism. Such a vibrant community needs to be protected, or so much can be lost to the Jewish people.

What is the ‘Neolog’?

The majority of Hungarian Jewry belongs to it’s own distinct ”stream” of Judaism, the Neolog. The Neolog movement was formed in the second half of the 19th century, back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a result of the Enlightenment. When established, it could be considered the Hungarian branch of the Reform movement, with similar, if not identical goals, practices and ideology, including their stance on secular education, liturgical reforms, and changes in synagogue architecture. The Neolog synagogues were built to represent the openness towards other religions, several of them – including the famous Dohány, the Great Synagogue in Dohány Street – are built in a Moorish–eclectic style. Later on, and especially after the Holocaust, Neolog Judaism did not follow the same path as the other Enlightenment-era movements, deciding not to adopt the reforms of the Reform and Conservative movements (such as their stance regarding egalitarianism for women and homosexuals in liturgy, for the rabbinate, etc.). Furthermore, in the last few decades the movement – and especially its younger generation of rabbis – has seen a tendency of becoming more traditionalist and conservative. Thus, the traditional stream within Hungarian Judaism is still apparent. In the Neolog movement, there are separate women’s sections in synagogues, women are not included in the minyan, nor do they function as cantors or rabbis, while men do shave, married women only cover their heads in the synagogue(if at all), and, although rabbis tend to be traditionally observant, the observance level of the communities is rather lax. Beside the Neolog movement, there are Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Chabad communities as well in Hungary, with their own community infrastructures.

What is Jewish life like for the Jewish community in Hungary?

The number of Jews in Hungary is somewhere between 60.000 and 100.000. There are countless Jewish organizations, an Israeli Cultural Institute (unique in the world), the Balint Jewish community center and a a number of other Jewish cultural centers, more than 48 active synagogues, almost all existing Zionist youth movements can be found there, old age homes, a Jewish hospital, soup kitchens, a Rabbinate of the National Defense, a Jewish Museum, there is the Haver Foundation that teaches students about Judaism in public schools, with the goal to prevent preconceptions and prejudice, a Holocaust Documentation Center, a Family tree research center, Jewish archives, a Jewish resort, kosher butchers, mikvah, sport clubs, Judaica shops, Jewish papers and websites, a Jewish program in the national television, a Jewish University with a Rabbinical Seminary, Jewish private schools (secular, Neolog, Orthodox and Chabad), various kindergartens, kosher restaurants, kosher stores. There are Jewish weddings, bar and bat mitzvah-s, brith mila-s. In Budapest, there is a vibrant Jewish life. Certain synagogues in Budapest are full on Shabbat, with more people than they were originally built for, others are full on High Holidays. On the other hand, in the Hungarian countryside, in major cities as Szeged, Debrecen, Miskolc, Győr, the minyan does need serious support. In Budapest, at least one Jewish cultural event happens a day. Many among them are Holocaust remembrance events. There are six various Jewish cultural festivals in the course of the year. The International Jewish Summer Camp in Szarvas is very popular, and plays a significant role in forming and preserving Jewish identity. Children and their young leaders join the two weeks sessions from Europe, the USA, UK, Israel and India.

Why does the Israeli media connect Hungary to anti-Semitism?

Because Hungary has traditionally been a right-wing country that willingly chose to work alongside the Nazis during the Second World War. Racism is a major issue in Hungary right now, and when anti-Semitic incidents occur the government is unable to handle. This leaves civil organizations to clean up the mess, which for good reasons does bode no good to outsiders.


About the Author
Eva Vadasz is from Budapest. Before making aliya, she finished the Year Program at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.