BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A week after a leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party called for lists of prominent Jews to be drawn up to protect national security, Janos Fonagy stepped forward.
“My mother and father were Jewish, and so am I, whether you like it or not,” the state secretary of the Development Ministry told parliament, explaining he did not have dual citizenship with Israel and was not religious.
“I cannot choose, I was born into this. But you can choose, and you have chosen this path,” he said, addressing Jobbik deputies. “Bear history’s judgement.”
It is only relatively recently that Hungary’s Jews have celebrated their identity as openly as they did when Europe’s largest synagogue was built in Budapest in the 1850s.
Now they are determined not to allow a political climate in which they have to defend that identity or even suppress it.
More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust after Hungary sided with the Nazis in World War Two and those left in Budapest were forced into two ghettos.
When the Soviet Red Army moved in and liberated the ghettos in 1945 about 100,000 Jews remained, living reminders of a collaboration with fascism many Hungarians wanted to forget.
“Even 15 years ago, using ‘Jewish’ as a brand required quite some bravery,” said Vera Vadas, the director of the Jewish Summer Festival, launched in 1998. “Now the word just describes our culture and it draws artists and audiences alike.”
From an initial crowd of about 3,000, the number of visitors at the festival was around 120,000 this year, filling the cobblestone alleys and courtyards of the city wall to wall.
The biggest of the two wartime ghettos is now a thriving Jewish quarter, a year-round highlight on Budapest’s tourist map with the huge Dohany street synagogue — the model for New York’s Central Synagogue — at its heart.
Around it are more synagogues, museums, businesses, schools and restaurants, and sometimes a mix of those things, such as a Talmud class that is taught regularly at one of the famous Budapest “ruin pubs” - run-down buildings converted into bars.
Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, the young leader of a small, modern synagogue in southwestern Budapest, said his generation was the first to be confident of its heritage after their traumatized grandparents taught their children to play it down.
“My parents’ generation, the one born immediately after the war, was protected so much they never got to experience their Jewishness,” said Radnoti. “They assimilated almost completely.”
“Now, my children take their Jewishness naturally, they have no doubts about their roots. They are kids who live in Hungary, speak Hungarian and follow the Jewish faith. The vast majority of young Jewish parents can and do choose this tradition.”
Besides religious freedom, the end of Communism in 1989 also brought a freedom of speech and politics that quickly gave birth to openly anti-Semitic political forces.
The Jobbik party, the third biggest in parliament, has used anti-semitic slurs to boost its standing before elections in 2014, drawing international scorn.
The strongest yet greeted last month’s call by Marton Gyongyosi, who runs Jobbik’s foreign policy cabinet, for Jewish members of government and parliament to be listed in the wake of Israel’s recent military campaign to stop rocket fire from Gaza.
“I think such a conflict makes it 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,” he told parliament.
Hungary’s centre-right government condemned the remarks, for which Gyongyosi later apologized, and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest called them “outrageous”.
Although anti-Semitism has not yet led to serious physical confrontations, hate crimes have included desecration of Jewish cemeteries and a verbal attack in Budapest on 90-year-old former Chief Rabbi Joseph Schweitzer.
“I don’t think all people who vote for Jobbik are anti-Semites,” said Slomo Koves, the chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation.
“But if Jobbik brings it into the public discourse, even people who were not anti-Semites before, they feel like it’s a way to show your frustration... The problem is that this has an effect on the state of mind of all Hungarians.”
Andras Heisler, a leader of Mazsihisz, the Association of Jewish Communes in Hungary, said Jobbik was a danger to Hungary.
“I think this is real racism and inciting hatred. A bad economic situation, recession, usually flames tempers and this is the case now as well.”
Laden with debt and hit hard by the wider debt crisis in Europe, the country is struggling to end recession and sort out its finances, and a series of austerity measures have increased tensions on the street.
Anti-Semitism has made some Jews more determined to stand up for their heritage, said Zoltan Jakal, a 36-year-old financial analyst and part-time cantor.
“I have several friends who have strengthened their Jewish identity because of a few incidents with anti-Semites,” Jakal said. “When there’s peace people tend to forget they are Jews. If nobody else reminds them of this, anti-Semites will.”
Hungary’s political elite showed a rare gesture of unity at a big rally on December 2, where ruling and opposition party leaders expressed their disdain for Jobbik’s politics.
So far, polls suggest Jobbik has retained its voter base. Among young voters its support is nearly 20 percent, making it the strongest party in the age group below 30, according to a Republikon Institute poll earlier this year.
But unlike its hugely successful anti-Roma rhetoric, anti-Semitism may end up working against Jobbik on the long run, Republikon Institute Director Csaba Toth told Reuters, because it will put off potential coalition partners.
“Anti-Semitism gets far fewer votes,” he said.
Additional reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by Philippa Fletcher