Mean streets?'Observant Jews in Hungary rarely get hostile treatment'

Was Israeli diplomat cynical when he praised Hungary for fighting anti-Semitism?

Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ has cracked down, leading to record low numbers on hate crimes — but residents say the Jew-hatred is far from gone

Cnaan Liphshiz is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks at a campaign really in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 6, 2018. (Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images/via JTA)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks at a campaign really in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, on April 6, 2018. (Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images/via JTA)

JTA — In the fight against Europe’s anti-Semitism problem, Hungary’s government is rarely thought of as part of the solution.

Reviled by the European Union for the populist rhetoric and policies of its right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, the government is accused by foreign and domestic critics of stoking racism — including against Jews.

That is why some may have thought it odd when Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, thanked Orban for a “zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism.” As reported in Haaretz Monday, Dermer made the remark while hosting the Hungarian foreign minister at an event last week in Washington.

Chemi Shalev, a senior columnist for the left-leaning Israeli daily, was blunt on Twitter: “Cynicism goes wild: Israeli ambassador to US praises Hungary for ‘zero tolerance to anti-Semitism.’”

But according to Hungarian Jewry’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, TEV, Hungary does deserve at least some credit for making Jews feel safe — partly because of robust enforcement and legislation against hate crimes.

Orban himself provides ammunition both for Jewish supporters and critics. He is one of Israel’s staunchest allies in the European Union. At the same time, Orban’s rhetoric — in March he spoke about a crafty and stateless “enemy” that “speculates with money” — has seemed to many like anti-Semitic dog whistling.

In 2012, 50 members of the US Congress called on Orban to take firmer action against anti-Semitism. The following year, the State Department’s former envoy on the fight against anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, said Orban’s government should “do more” on this front.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer speaks at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington, DC, June 9, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Then there’s the state-sponsored campaign against the policies of the Jewish billionaire George Soros, who finances left-wing organizations and causes in Hungary. The government rejects Soros’s calls on the European Union to let in immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Some Jewish critics of the anti-Soros campaign said it encourages anti-Semitism, though other communal leaders disputed it, saying that Soros has plenty of critics among Jews.

“The campaign against Soros is ugly, it is not quite our taste,” Kalman Szalai, TEV’s secretary-general, said in reference to billboards of the Holocaust survivor smiling, reading: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”

But, Szalai added, “we do not see anti-Semitic motivation behind of it and we don’t see it increasing incidents.”

Notwithstanding, Hungary deserves some credit for tolerance, according to TEV.

In Hungary, where some 100,000 Jews live, TEV has recorded only 37 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, of which 24 were hate speech cases. TEV, which was founded in 2013 and has representatives from Reform and Orthodox Jewish communities, recorded no physical attacks on people in 2017.

Hungarian Holocaust survivor, Katalin Sommer, lights a candle at the Victims’ Memorial Wall bearing names of victims during a commemoration marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, January 26, 2018, (Tibor Illyes/MTI via AP)

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, where 250,000 Jews live, the Jewish community’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, CST, recorded 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, including 145 physical assaults on people.

In other words, Jews in Britain in 2017 were 15 times likelier to experience an incident than a coreligionist in Hungary.

Hungary’s tally of anti-Semitic incidents was dramatically lower than its neighbors. Austria, where only 9,000 Jews live, had 503 documented cases of anti-Semitic attacks last year. In Poland, where about 20,000 Jews live, police recorded 112 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017.

Of course, such statistics only partially reflect reality. Often, they are indicative of victims’ willingness to report incidents rather than their prevalence, as Petra Bárd, a professor at Central European University, noted in a 2017 paper, “What Is Behind the Low Number of Hate Crimes in Hungary?” (Soros founded Central European University but stepped down as its chairman in 2007.)

But Szalai, who wears a kippah and has a beard, is among many Hungarian Jews who say that walking the streets with recognizably Jewish symbols is not dangerous.

“Observant Jews in Hungary like me rarely if ever get hostile treatment. I never have,” he said.

In the five years that he has headed TEV, Szalai, 49, says he experienced only one racist incident: During a conference in Brussels, three men whom he described as Arabs asked him why he was wearing “this rag on the head” and whether he had come to “kill Palestinians,” he recalled.

Rabbi Slomo Koves, right, and a participant at Chabad Hungary’s 2015 Hanukkah on Ice event take selfies at Budapest’s City Park Ice Rink, December 6, 2015. (Courtesy of EMIH/via JTA)

Armed guards are found less frequently in front of Hungarian synagogues than they are in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. Each year on Hanukkah, hundreds of Jews gather at a Budapest skating rink for a holiday event. And in summer, thousands attend the Judafest Jewish street festival in Budapest under minimal security.

In the last five years, there have been reported only two blatantly anti-Semitic assaults in Hungary.

Zoltan Radnoti, a senior leader of the Mazsihisz umbrella group of Hungarian Jews, said last year the anti-Soros campaign was not rooted in anti-Semitism. But he also faulted Orban for not stopping the campaign even after it appeared that the rhetoric “may have a possible anti-Semitic interpretation.”

Orban “should have known that this campaign of hatred and scapegoating would increase anti-Semitic feelings,” Radnoti said.

Separately, the judiciary and police have in recent years overhauled their handling of hate crimes.

In 2014, the Hungarian civil code was amended to allow prosecution for offending “communities or religious minorities,” leading to dozens of hate speech indictments, Szalai said.

Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, the chairman of the rabbinical council of the Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella group in Hungary, speaks on a television show on January 20, 2017. (screen capture: YouTube)

“It was a big step forward,” he added, saying it fixed a judicial reality that for years had frustrated attempts to prosecute offenders.

A number of cases involving hate speech and racist violence against Jews have been handled in an “expedited procedure.” In 2013, one man was sentenced to three years in jail for verbally abusing Jews, and two accomplices were given suspended sentences. In 2012, a man who punched a rabbi was jailed for two years.

Mazsihisz and other groups have sparred with Orban’s government over monuments they feel whitewash Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust. But it seems to have little impact on the daily lives of Hungarian Jews.

Still, in a 2013 survey of perceptions on anti-Semitism by Jews from nine European countries, Hungary stood out as a trouble spot. Of the 517 respondents from Hungary to the Fundamental Rights Agency’s report, 48 percent said they are considering emigrating due to anti-Semitism – the highest proportion of all countries surveyed.

And in another record, 30% of the people surveyed said that they had witnessed an anti-Semitic incident or assault in the 12 months that preceded the poll.

But TEV said the survey in Hungary was flawed because of the relatively small sample. TEV is preparing to publish this month a new survey among 1,800 respondents compiled by the leading sociologist Andras Kovacs — an outspoken critic of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.

“It’s not that Hungary doesn’t have anti-Semitism,” Szalai said. “It does, and it should be acknowledged. But it also has little to no anti-Semitic violence, and responsive authorities in the judiciary, the police force and also in government. This also needs to be recognized.”

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