BUDAPEST — Seventy years ago, János Fónagy would be a dead man for calling out the anti-Semitic virulence of his detractors in the Hungarian Parliament. Modern Hungary is a very different beast.
“We must not fear them; fear is their political capital,” Fónagy (pronounced fone-adge) — a Jewish Hungarian politician who survived the tyrannical Fascist and Communist regimes that ruled his country for decades — said of the extreme right-wing Jobbik party.
Days after Israel’s November campaign against terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, Jobbik politician Marton Gyöngyösi said it was “timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary.”
Fónagy, who currently serves as the parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of National Development, responded in parliament: “My mother and father were Jewish, and so am I, whether you like it or not. I cannot choose, I was born into this.” Turning to the Jobbik party he said, “But you can choose, and you have chosen this path [of anti-Semitism]. Bear history’s judgment.”
Jobbik, The Movement for a Better Hungary, describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party.” It won nearly 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 national elections, making it the third largest party in parliament with 47 of the 386 seats. Its purpose is “protecting Hungarian values and interests,” but the party stands accused of anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic sentiments reminiscent of the country’s World War II-era Fascist Arrow Cross party.
Party leader Gábor Vona, at an anti-Israel rally outside the Israeli Embassy in Budapest during Pillar of Defense, charged that Israel and the United States are operating the world’s largest concentration camp in Gaza and that Hungary “is under oppression as well, oppressed by the Jewish lobby.”
Born in 1942 and raised in Budapest, Fónagy, an avuncular septuagenarian with the FIDESZ party and the parliament’s last Holocaust survivor, spoke with The Times of Israel shortly after his denouncement of the far-right party.
Although he said he is decidedly not religious or Zionist, he nonetheless wears a gold Star of David amulet around his neck. He recounted that he adopted the habit two decades ago after an anti-Semitic intellectual’s articles gained popularity in the papers when the country gained freedom of the press.
“I started wearing [the Star of David] davka because of it,” he said, mixing a Yiddish expression into his Hungarian.
His excoriation of Jobbik came as a gut reaction to a personal affront, something he could not let slide, even though it was not the first anti-Semitic proclamation by his parliamentary opponents, nor his first denunciation of them.
Though outraged by their statements, Fónagy said the racist and anti-Semitic opinions voiced by Gyöngyösi belonged to a small but vocal segment of society whose rights are guaranteed by Hungary’s democratic freedoms.
“Hungarian society is no better or worse than the rest of Europe,” he said, pointing out that parties with ideologies akin to Jobbik’s exist in the United Kingdom, Russia, and elsewhere on the continent. Parallels are often drawn between Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and the UK’s British National Party.
The primary target of Jobbik’s ire is not the country’s approximately 100,000 Jews, most of whom live in Budapest; rather it’s the country’s growing Roma population. The Roma, or Gypsies, make up around 8-10% of Hungary’s population, approximately 80% of whom were unemployed as of 2008. Unemployment stood at 11% in 2011 for the country as a whole.
The party’s racist attitude towards Hungary’s impoverished Roma bodes ill, said Zsuzsi Ligeti, a Budapesti who recently moved to Israel and works at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. She quoted one of her grandmother’s maxims: “If something bad is said about the Gypsies, the Jews are next.”
She said that in the few years since Jobbik’s emergence from obscurity to power there has been a noted rise in both anti-Semitic and anti-Roma literature in the Hungarian press and little denunciation of it by senior politicians.
“Incitement and attacks against Gypsies, Jews and other minorities happen daily, and legal action is only superficially being taken against them,” Éva Vadász, a Jewish-Hungarian educator and activist currently studying in Jerusalem, concurred.
Another Budapest native (or Budapesti) who preferred anonymity said Hungary has witnessed “a rise in the level of tolerance toward intolerant anti-Semitic and anti-Roma speech, remarks, and activities in Hungarian society.”
“With the country’s increasingly difficult economic situation, the far-right has gained more and more political influence,” the Budapesti said.
(Despite repeated attempts to receive a comment from Jobbik, and Gyöngyösi in particular, regarding allegations of racism and anti-Semtism leveled against them, Gyöngyösi said to “feel free to write whatever you wish.”)
Hungarian political analyst Gábor Takács indicated that Jobbik’s voter base in the last elections were from impoverished Socialist strongholds in Eastern Hungary with large Roma populations, and the typical Jobbik voter is male, relatively young, and resides outside Budapest.
“Part of its appeal was its radical voice and its focus on public security” and speaking out against perceived Roma criminality, he said.
“The question is how the society handles this issue” of vocal racist factions, Fónagy said, noting that the majority of Hungarian lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — oppose Jobbik members’ statements. Shortly before the interview, thousands — including members of parliament from opposition and government parties– took to the streets of Budapest to demonstrate against Gyöngyösi’s statement.
He identified part of the problem in the general ignorance among Jobbik supporters of the Holocaust and Jewish history in Hungary. Archaeological evidence points to Jewish inhabitance in Hungary dating to at least the 3rd century CE, predating the Magyar invasion that brought ethnic Hungarians to their modern homeland by several centuries. The population grew over the millennia and reached 825,000 before World War II.
In the 10-month German occupation of Hungary starting in March 1944, 69% of Hungary’s Jews — 569,000 people — were killed, most carted off to death camps.
Holocaust education was only implemented after the fall of Hungarian Communism in 1989 and only entered the curriculum a few years afterwards, Fónagy said. The subject of Hungary’s murdered Jews, and their government’s complicity in their deaths, “remained taboo.”
Despite its official introduction to the public curriculum, Holocaust education remains “pretty minimal,” Dora, a Jewish Budapesti, told The Times of Israel. Having left Hungarian public school after 11th grade, she virtually missed it altogether.
Ligeti said Holocaust education is integrated into the 20th century history curriculum taught in 8th and 12th grades in public schools. Because of the Holocaust’s proximity to modern history, it tended to get passed over, even in Ligeti’s public school, which she said had many Jewish staff members and students.
“We were usually behind with the course of study, so we always hurried through those parts,” she said. How the subject matter would be addressed in less sympathetic educational environments would likely be even briefer, she added.
Dora also mentioned the sentiment among some Hungarians, echoed by the Jobbik party, who feel “annoyed when there’s a public discussion or mention of the Holocaust. They feel it’s an old record, and that there’s too much emphasis on it.”
Jobbik party spokeswoman Dóra Dúró said the same week that “the greatest tragedy for Hungarians was not the so-called Holocaust but the Trianon peace treaty” in which the country lost 72 percent of its territories to Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after World War I, according to the Budapest Times.
“They would rather see more remembrance of the victims of Communism,” Ligeti said.
Gábor Tatai, who grew up in the Hungarian city of Hatvan, 60 kilometers outside Budapest, described the deplorable state of Holocaust education. In the countryside, which he said is far more conservative than the metropolis, there are virtually no Jews, and locals are generally far more anti-Semitic.
(Tatai’s father, a pastor of the Reformed Church in Hungary, instilled in him a sense of appreciation for the People of the Book. Tatai came to work and volunteer in Jerusalem for children with special needs — a devotion, he said, that helps Hungary by helping Israel.)
“Most students are totally ignorant of Hungary’s role in the second World War,” he said. Many regard the repressive communist regime that dominated the country for decades as Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, a misconception aided by a number of unfortunate coincidences. For example, the House of Terror museum in Budapest, which chronicles the tyranny of Hungarian fascism and communism, notes that “a significant number of [Communist] Party leaders and members of its terrorist organizations were of Jewish origin.”
“Hungary is a country desperate for some kind of hope,” Tatai said, and many young, disadvantaged Hungarians blame Jews for their misfortunes. Despite this, there is a great public interest in Judaism and the Holocaust, but unfortunately Jobbik supporters are dominating the conversation.
Vadász, who staffed the Hungarian March of the Living, said that participation in the Holocaust education program was growing, and that there was increased interest in bringing its workshops to public schools in order to better educate Hungarian youth. Through these traveling Holocaust education programs, she’s seen the change from hostility to understanding in teen participants.
Nonetheless, the portrait painted in the press, and the parallels drawn with Nazi Germany, aren’t wholly accurate. Whereas French Jews fear for their lives and require heightened security, Fónagy noted — alluding to last year’s massacre in Toulouse — Budapest’s main synagogue has one security guard and its Jews do not fear for their safety.
In spite of intolerant elements, Hungary’s 80,000 to 120,000 Jews have witnessed a “Hungarian Jewish Renaissance” since the fall of Communism in 1989, he said. Theodor Herzl’s hometown has witnessed the revival of Jewish schools, kindergartens, summer camps, and youth and women’s organizations that were banned under Fascism and Communism. Kosher restaurants have sprung up in Budapest’s historically Jewish 5th, 6th, and 7th districts alongside outwardly “Jewish” eateries like Yiddishe Mamma Mia and Rosenstein, whose menus do not strictly abide by rabbinic standards. Synagogues that lay dormant and disused for decades have undergone colossal renovations. The jewel in the crown is the Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the largest in the world.
The Birthright program — which brings Jewish youth to Israel for a weeklong visit — launched 13 years ago has also helped develop “a vibrant, colorful Jewish cultural scene” and the rising generation is “slowly taking over some of the community’s leadership posts,” the anonymous Budapesti said.
Though Jobbik’s anti-Semitic virulence is cause for concern and its prevalence in the press is worrying, it may not be here to stay. Educational programs aimed at informing Hungarian youth about their country’s Jewish history are on the rise, and support for the radical party is waning.
“Since the elections, polls show that [Jobbik’s] support is stagnating around 10-12%,” political analyst Takács pointed out. “Part of the problem for Jobbik is that through ideology, they are unable to attract more voters than before.”
He predicts that Jobbik will shrink after the 2014 elections, and, with it, its fringe anti-Semitic opinions.