Anti-Semitism taboo under threat in Hungary

BUDAPEST Wed May 21, 2014 2:45am EDT

An Orthodox Jewish boy visits a Holocaust memorial at the Danube river in Budapest March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

An Orthodox Jewish boy visits a Holocaust memorial at the Danube river in Budapest March 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Budapest's Jewish community is vibrant, visible and patriotic; and yet seven decades after the Holocaust, the taboo about expressing anti-Semitic views is breaking down among many fellow Hungarians.

Some Jews and academics blame this on the far-right Jobbik party, which has come from nowhere to become the second most popular party as one recession after another has held Hungarians' living standards far below the European average.

Jobbik, which is expected to perform strongly in European Parliament elections this weekend, denies accusations that its rhetoric is allowing open anti-Semitism to become accepted in modern day, democratic Hungary.

But surveys show a remarkably large minority owns up to harboring beliefs - such as that a secret Jewish conspiracy controls political and economic life - that were common in the 1930s and 40s but were supposed to have been banished to the extremes by the horrors of the Holocaust.

This saddens members of Hungary's Jewish community which numbers around 100,000 in a country of 10 million.

"I am deeply disappointed that we have come to this, that society tolerates tough talk again and tough talk spreads," said Gyula Foldes, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor.

"Obviously economic hardship and unemployment help stoke this, but I am disappointed still," said Foldes who as an 11-year-old boy narrowly evaded capture in Budapest - not by German Nazis, but by their Hungarian fascist allies.

Budapest today appears typical of European Union capitals where diverse communities live side by side, including Jews.

On Dohany Street, the intricate domes of the Great Synagogue are a Budapest landmark. The square outside is thronged with tourists, trendy kosher restaurants dot the surrounding streets and Orthodox Jews in fedora hats and black suits walk round the neighborhood.

This year on the March 15 national holiday, people handed out to passers-by Star of David lapel pins fashioned out of ribbons in the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag.

Life seems normal. "On the basic level of safety, feeling safe, I never have second thoughts going out on the street at 11 o'clock at night, coming, going, which is very good," said Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, a child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors.

"On the other hand, anti-Semitic talk is a serious problem. We're talking first of all about the Jobbik party in parliament. They never miss a chance of making provocation and headlines," said Oberlander, who left his native New York after communism fell in 1989 to establish an orthodox community in Budapest.

HUNGARIANS FIRST

Jobbik is one of several anti-establishment parties across the continent which are expected to win votes in the European Parliament elections from people disillusioned with mainstream politicians. Opinion polls put its support at around 15 percent of all respondents, including don't knows, and the party took 21 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in April.

A report in March by the World Jewish Congress also grouped Jobbik with parties in Greece and Germany which it says have a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic nature.

Jobbik Chairman Gabor Vona had already rebutted such allegations during a party rally in February held at a former synagogue in Esztergom, north of Budapest. "I came to this synagogue because I am not an anti-Semite or a Nazi," he said.

"What did Jobbik ever do against Jews? Has it taken anything away from Jews, physically, financially, or any other way? We have taken nothing. We have no responsibility for the Holocaust. It is none of our business. Why do we need to keep coming back to this issue then?"

Many of those who study Jobbik believe its rise is linked to economic dissatisfaction. Hungary has had two recessions in the past six years and living standards have been stuck at just 66 percent of the European average since 2010.

The party espouses a Hungarians-first policy, largely directed at the Roma minority, also victims of the Holocaust. In recent years, Jobbik leaders have softened their anti-Jewish rhetoric and now avoid expressing such sentiments explicitly.

However, comments by some party members still alarm Jews. In late 2012, Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi called for lists to be compiled of Jewish members of parliament to establish if they were a national security risk.

Amid an uproar, he later apologized and said he had been misunderstood. But such commentary by elected members of parliament has made some Hungarians believe it is acceptable to express anti-Semitic thoughts, said Andras Kovacs, a sociology professor at the Central European University.

Kovacs, who has devoted much of his career to measuring anti-Semitism, said his surveys showed the proportion of respondents expressing anti-Jewish views had remained steady at around 10 percent in the 1990s and 2000s. Then Jobbik won seats in the European Parliament in 2009, followed by the Hungarian national parliament in 2010, and things changed.

The surveys conducted by polling agencies between those two elections found that the proportion of anti-Semites - which the Kovacs studies define as people who say they resent Jews - shot up to 28 percent, and never fell below 20 percent again.

"I put that big jump down to the Jobbik effect," Kovacs told Reuters. "People who had once hidden their anti-Semitism looked around and said, if others can speak their minds in parliament, if they can do it on the street, then why can't I do the same?"

In a survey published in April, Kovacs's team found a third of Hungarians believe a Jewish conspiracy controls political and economic life, a quarter thinks Jews have undue influence, and 15 percent say it would be best if they left the country.

"About 35-40 percent of participants accept the anti-Semitic stereotype to some extent, and about 7 percent are extreme anti-Semites," the study said in summary.

In everyday life, this translates into occasional anti-Jewish incidents. This month a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Szikszo, eastern Hungary, in an area where Jobbik is strong. Gravestones were overturned and smashed, although no Jews have lived nearby since the Holocaust and the cemetery is closed.

HISTORY'S SHADOW

Hungary is not alone, according to the Anti-Defamation League which has campaigned against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry for more than a century. It says a global survey it commissioned found that 41 percent of Hungarian respondents had anti-Semitic attitudes. The figure for Poland was 45 percent and for France 37 percent.

While Hungary has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors, some people feel that society has still not fully confronted the darkest episodes of the past. An estimated 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust, often transported to the Nazis' death camps with the help of their local allies. Out of the 100,000 Jews who survived, many emigrated after the war.

Foldes and his family hid with hundreds of others in an apartment building on Budapest's Jokai Street under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews and later vanished while in Soviet custody.

After the building's manager denounced the Jews, men with guns arrived on Jan. 8, 1945, shooting some on the spot and others over the following days. They were Hungarians from the Arrow Cross, a fascist group installed in power by the Nazis.

Foldes and his mother survived but his father, uncle and older male relatives disappeared, their deaths never confirmed.

The post-war parliament accepted responsibility for Hungarians' part in the Holocaust; Arrow Cross leaders were tried and some executed. But there was little soul-searching in society. Communists were now in power, asserting that unwilling Hungarians had come under the control of a Nazi dictatorship.

Foldes returned to Jokai Street with his mother, grew up and became a pediatrician. There they lived for 40 years, alongside some neighbors who had stood by and watched the family's ordeal in 1945. "Where else should we have gone?" Foldes said. "We lived through it. One must live."

SWOOPING ON THE ARCHANGEL

The World Jewish Congress says Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his conservative Fidesz party bear some responsibility for the rise of anti-Semitism.

Orban has condemned Gyongyosi, and denounced anti-Semitism at a WJC meeting in Budapest last year. But in its March report, the WJC criticized the way Fidesz deals with the past. For example, the government plans a memorial to the 1944 Nazi takeover featuring an eagle, symbolizing Hitler's Germany, swooping upon the archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary.

Jewish groups say the statue, by portraying the country as a victim, will obscure the role played by Hungarians in deporting and killing Jews during the war.

"The Jewish community has had cause to be distressed at recent actions by the government in relation to World War II and Hungary's attitude to the Holocaust," the WJC report said.

In a letter in April to one of his critics, Orban acknowledged Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis without attempts at resistance, but rejected overall blame.

"I think we Hungarians did what we could," Orban wrote. "We know that collaboration in a genocide is inexcusable. We gave reparations even though what happened was beyond repair. But we cannot accept undue blame."

"Let us be straight: without German occupation there would have been no deportations, no death trains, and no hundreds of thousands of lives lost. If we don't see that, it is hard to imagine an honest and confident coexistence in the future."

(Editing by David Stamp)

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