Growing Anti-Semitism: World Jewish Congress Takes on Hungary

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A supporter of Hungary's far-right party Jobbik at a rally in Budapest in 2009. Zoom
REUTERS

A supporter of Hungary's far-right party Jobbik at a rally in Budapest in 2009.

In symbolic protest of growing anti-Semitism in Hungary, the World Jewish Congress will meet in Budapest this weekend. This has angered Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who plans to address the assembly about the criticism. But no amount of talk can erase the fact that right-wing extremism is on the rise there.

János Lázár has had enough, though usually it's difficult to unsettle the powerful head of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's office. Lázár complained bitterly on Monday at a press conference in Budapest about the international criticism of Hungary, above all that "part of the world labels all of us as anti-Semites." It is "unethical," the 38-year-old said, when "injuries in politics and business life are retaliated against with accusations of supposed anti-Semitism."

For good reason, Lázár didn't name any names. That's because in reality, neither foreign politicians nor serious observers of Hungary are patently accusing Orbán's government of being anti-Semitic or harboring anti-Semites. But Lázár's complaints did have a target -- the World Jewish Congress (WJC), which will meet in Budapest this Sunday.

While WJC assemblies take place mainly in Jerusalem, this time the world's most important representative body of international Jewish organizations and communities will hold its three-day meeting in Hungary to protest growing anti-Semitism in the country and show solidarity with the country's Jews.

'An Attempt to Unify'

Unofficially, this has displeased the government. The country is home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities, and Orbán's conservative-nationalist coalition, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, would have gladly accepted the meeting if the WJC had cited Hungary's rich Jewish life as its reason.

Adding insult to injury, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder harshly criticized the Hungarian government in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung in early April, writing that Orbán had "lost his political compass" and "often tells the right-wing fringes what they want to hear." Hungary, he said, is on a "dangerous wrong path."

Lauder took a "hasty position," Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi told SPIEGEL ONLINE in reaction to the article. "President Lauder will see something radically different in Budapest." Furthermore, Hungary's chief diplomat says, "one needn't predict a permanent departure from modernity just because current Hungarian policies are marked by a clear set of values. Behind this is merely the intention to unify and strengthen a society that has lost its solidarity."

Orbán plans to address these criticisms on Sunday in a speech before the 500 WJC delegates, clearly distancing himself from anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism. He also wants to "very strongly" address the accusations of anti-Semitism in Hungary and its government, according to Lázár.

'Very Uncomfortable Feelings'

It could turn out to be a difficult balancing act for Orbán. In the past, he has repeatedly distanced himself from anti-Semitism and the far-right Jobbik party, which took 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 national election. Additionally, in recent weeks he personally saw to it that three anti-Semitic demonstrations were banned, including an "anti-Zionist mass rally" planned by Jobbik for this Saturday. And this despite criticism from some Hungarian civil liberties organizations who have called it "constitutionally unacceptable" that the prime minister "decides which demonstrations are allowed or not based on his individual tastes," as lawyer Éva Simon from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) says.

But parallel to Orbán's attempts to distance himself from such sentiments, the number of anti-Semitic incidents and right-wing extremist tendencies have grown in recent years -- including within the government coalition of his conservative Fidesz party and their ally, the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP).

Parts of Fidesz are eagerly participating in the hero worship of former far-right leader Miklós Horthy, for example, even though he was among those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Then there was the fact that László Kövér, speaker of the National Assembly, Hungary's parliament, took part in a memorial for blood-and-soil novelist and fascist Arrow Cross Party ideologist József Nyírö.

Meanwhile, Hungary's national school curriculum recommends a number of pre-World War II, anti-Semitic authors for readings. And neither Orbán nor his party have distanced themselves from his friend and Fidesz co-founder Zsolt Bayer, who has penned anti-Semitic, anti-Ziganist articles, and plays a central role in rallying far-right voters. Then, in March, Budapest awarded state honors to a number of people known for their anti-Semitic, far-right extremist tendencies, including János Petrás, the singer of the far-right rock group Kárpátia.

Still, when Péter Feldmájer, president of the Hungarian Jewish Community, takes stock of the current situation, he focuses on nuances. "In our view there are no anti-Semites in the Hungarian government," he says. "But we certainly see anti-Semitic tendencies in the government majority." Most Jews in Hungary don't feel endangered, he says. "However, among most of the members of our community the increasingly intense right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic attacks are creating very uncomfortable feelings."

A Defiant Approach

The fact that the public discourse seems to be moving ever further to the right may have something to do with these feelings. Orbán himself recently called a highly criticized blood-and-country speech he gave last year "excellent." He is also calling for his country to be one of the last "strongholds of Christianity."

"In Europe, prayer and work are hardly held in high regard any longer," he said last Sunday in the western village of Ják at the rededication of an 800-year-old church. "Europe is trapped in an aggressive, secular, internationalist, anti-family vision." Hungary must follow its own Christian and Hungarian path, he said, and won't be cowed by anyone, including Brussels or its own shadow.

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