What Drew an Anti-Semitic Catholic Bishop to Zionism?

Although he is virtually unknown outside of Hungary, many people will recognise even today the name of Ottokár Prohászka in his small Eastern European country of origin. Prohászka, a Catholic bishop influential during the first decades of the past century, still has a number of public places dedicated to his memory along with a few busts and statues. His admirers see in him a Catholic leader sensitive to social issues and dedicated to easing the suffering of working class Hungarians. His opponents point out Prohászka’s blatant anti-Semitism: he once wrote of “the Jewish blight that tore off all the flesh from the Hungarian bones.” His anti-Semitic essays and speeches are almost too numerous to count.

With all this in mind, I was certainly surprised to find an interview with bishop Prohászka in a 1921 Zionist journal. “Zsidó Szemle” – meaning “Jewish Review” in the Hungarian – conducted the interview with Prohászka on the occasion of one of his highly anti-Semitic speeches in the Hungarian Parliament. Prohászka was a highly skilled orator and his support for a proposed piece of anti-Semitic legislation (one that was meant to reduce the number of Jewish students at universities) was seen as a great blow to Jewry’s equality before the law.

Yet, in this very same speech, Prohászka also argued that the “unassimilable character” of Jewry called for Gentile support for Zionism. If Jews, he argued, were indeed a separate nation as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 saw it, then non-Jews had to support the reestablishment of a Jewish state to “get rid” of the foreign elements. This reasoning was in itself highly illiberal at the time – denying Jews the right to pick their own identity -, but the Zionist journal nevertheless offered space for Prohászka, partly out of curiosity for the bishop’s support for Zionism.

In his interview he slightly changed his tone: while calling perfect assimilation to Hungarians possible, he also declared that those Jews who were not up to this task – “who wanted to remain Jews” – had to choose Zionism instead. He continued in the following terms: “I believe that it is impossible for a good Jew not to be a Zionist. The statement that Jewry is not a nation, but merely a denomination, is perfectly ridiculous… According to oriental tradition… religion and nationality stand in inseparable unity… Therefore there are two ways for Jews to choose. If they want to remain Jewish, then Zionism; but if they do not, then complete assimilation. I admit that under ‘complete assimilation’ I mean baptism.”

Did he also believe that Jews “who wanted to remain Jews” should leave Hungary? Such a stance would not have been surprising, seeing how contemporary anti-Semites regularly wanted to relocate European Jews to various locations – including the Holy Land. Apparently, the bishop did leave some space to voluntary action in this regard: Zionism, according to him, “does not mean that ‘now all the Jews have to leave for Palestine.’ How and why? Palestine still needs houses, progress, roads, public transport, a lot of things related to everyday life that cultured people cannot exist without. And the Jewish nation must not close itself to Hungarian public life. We should not severe all contacts with each other.”

While a number of good-willing Christians saw the restoration of the historic Jewish State as an idea worth propagating, Prohászka’s proposal hardly counts as one made in good faith. Nevertheless, Prohászka defended himself as follows: “All I can say is had I been born a Jew, I would be a Zionist… And yet they accuse me of anti-Semitism. Why would I be anti-Semitic? It has never occurred to me to be so. Just because I stand for [the proposed anti-Semitic law]? I am a Hungarian man of the Christian faith: obviously I have to stand for the interests of Christian Hungarians.”

These lines, of course, hardly require any comment. This was not the Zionism that Jews professed at the time. It is more interesting to see whether the Zionist newspaper accepted Prohászka’s apologetic lines about not being an anti-Semite and merely trying to “protect Christian interests.” In short, the Zionist organ did not. The newspaper made it clear that “we could not be any further opposed to giving up on our Jewish youth who are being banned from higher education.”

Aside from this interview, all references to the bishop in the Zionist journal were explicitly negative. The newspaper dedicated a number of articles to attacking Prohászka, and when one month later the bishop claimed that his anti-Semitism was merely “pro-Christianism,” the newspaper was quick to condemn his statement: “The result is all the same. Whether anti or pro, it ends with ‘crush the Jews!’”

The newspaper probably referred to the regular anti-Semitic catch-phrase of the times: “Off to Palestine with the Jews!” A record has even been preserved of a 1920 nationalist gathering at which Prohászka held a speech: his audience interrupted him, yelling that it was time the Jews left for Palestine. This is highly ironic, seeing how anti-Semites today demand the exact opposite: they want the Jews out of Palestine. But such is the case with anti-Semites: they will never be happy with anything the Jews do.

About the Author
The author is a Hungarian historian holding an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He is also a regular contributor to Szombat, the journal of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association and Tett és Védelem Alapítvány, a Jewish NGO monitoring antisemitism.
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