World Jewish Congress

Budapest Jews fear violent attack only ‘a matter of time’

With anti-Semitic events on the rise and the WJC in town, community members warn intensifying verbal assaults could be a sign of worse to come

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Jobbik party supporters burning an EU flag at a rally in Budapest in 2012. (screen capture/YouTube)
Jobbik party supporters burning an EU flag at a rally in Budapest in 2012. (screen capture/YouTube)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Denes Ban was wearing a kipa and walking through the small Jewish area of the Hungarian capital one day recently when he overheard two younger people talking about him.

“One said to the other, in Hungarian, ‘Look at this guy… what’s on his head? He’s a Jew! Thank God the new government will make sure these type of people won’t walk on the streets.’ I was shocked,” the Budapest native told The Times of Israel, saying the incident was one of the scariest he has experienced.

With the World Jewish Congress holding its assembly in Budapest as a show of support this week, Jews in the Hungarian capital said that anti-Semitism is still alive and well on both banks of the Danube.

Ban said the incident was not the only in which he was threatened, insulted, spat at, or cursed.

“It happens from time to time,” he said.

When he retorted at someone who was taunting him outside a synagogue, the man stuttered and lost his confidence. “They’re used to Jews not replying, just accepting,” Ban said.

Jews have felt at home and prospered in Hungary since the fall of the Communist regime, but “over the past decade, things have changed” and fear has returned, Dr. Peter Feldmajer, president of the Hungarian Jewish community, told the congress on Sunday. The 59-year-old said recent attacks against Jews and attempts to pass anti-Semitic legislation were “warning bells” that cannot be ignored.

Chief among Jewish concerns in Hungary is the rise of the ultra-rightist Jobbik party, which openly espouses anti-Semitic views and won 12 percent of parliamentary seats in 2010 elections.

Today Budapest is “where an elderly rabbi is attacked in the street … where fascists are heard … where anti-Semite authors are added to the school curriculum,” Feldmajer said.

Anti-Semitic graffiti (illustrative photo: CC BY zeeweez, Flickr)
Anti-Semitic graffiti (illustrative photo: CC BY zeeweez, Flickr)

Members of the extreme right, led by the Jobbik, have already killed people from the Roma minority; the Jews fear they’re next in line, a member of the community said. “The question isn’t if, it’s when,” he said, noting the boosted security — which includes surveillance and policemen — around various community establishments.

While many local Jews were willing to speak openly, some feared having their name mentioned in this article. Others were reluctant to even be interviewed.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone is hurt,” Oren Glick, who oversees the kosher certification of the community’s restaurants, said after morning prayers in one of the capital’s synagogues. The Israeli-born, ultra-Orthodox Glick said that anti-Semitism, though not yet life threatening, is visible and present every day, near every Jewish establishment in town.

“One of the school teachers has a neighbor who spits when he walks by. It happens on his way to work, every single day,” Glick explained, adding that the level of security — both by the police and the community — “is extremely high, more than before, because curses and spitting will eventually turn into physical assaults.”

Yitzhak, a community member who wished to avoid having his full Hungarian name in print, bemoaned that he had little hope in the World Jewish Congress meeting or its statements. “What difference will it make?” he asked, noting that the Jobbik party was gaining power in parliament.

“People can talk, and maybe draw attention to the matter,” he said. But, he added, some of the security precautions for the conference — such as the closing of streets and the positioning of policemen on street corners, meant to protect the hundreds of WJC delegates — are counterproductive and only cause antagonism. “At the end of the day [the delegates] will leave Budapest and we’ll have to deal with reality.”

A similar opinion was voiced by a member of the Hungarian delegation to the congress, who said that the problem can be solved only if there is dialogue between the Jewish community and the Hungarian political leadership. “If it takes the WJC to draw attention [to the issue], it shows just how bad the situation is,” he said.

Dr. Peter Feldmajer (photo credit: screen capture/WJC)
Dr. Peter Feldmajer (photo credit: screen capture/WJC)

The delegate explained how the Jobbik party, infamous for calling to start a registry of Jews in the country, has grown stronger in recent years, due to the combination of the global financial crisis and internal Hungarian politics. “People see problems that aren’t being solved, and they try to make their own solution,” he stated. “Blaming Jews, Roma and others is a way of venting one’s anger and frustration.”

Budapest’s Jewish community “is once again under threat,” community leader Feldmajer said, shortly after keynote speakers — including WJC President Ronald Lauder and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — likened the situation today to that of the 1930s.

“I don’t see an incident like [the 1938] Kristallnacht happening in the near future, but I do worry individuals might start to commit more serious acts,” Ban replied when asked whether the situation would grow worse. “People are frustrated and are taking it out on the Jews. Orban says the acts are bad, but he isn’t speaking out against the Jobbik party because he needs votes,” he charged.

“I don’t think Orban is an anti-Semite … rather, he wants power” — and he made some questionable decisions to achieve it, Ban said, adding that 20 years ago the Hungarian prime minister was one of his favorite politicians. “He was brave, charismatic. He represented real liberal values.”

Denes Ban (photo credit: Aaron Kalman)
Denes Ban (photo credit: Aaron Kalman/Times of Israel)

Businessman Ban said one of the biggest problems is the lack of initiative when it comes to combating anti-Semitism in Hungary. “We respond, but we don’t create dialogue or educate people before this happens,” he elaborated, adding that “using the Holocaust card” to guilt-trip the other side was problematic and couldn’t be done forever.

Recounting the tale that in ancient China a doctor who got sick was considered a bad doctor — since his job was to prevent diseases, not cure them — Ban drew parallels with fighting anti-Semitism. “The goal is also to fight anti-Semitic acts when they happen, but it’s more important to prevent them,” he stated. “The best analogy is cancer. Once someone has it, it’s very hard to cure.”

read more: