Hungary Jews Emigrate Amid Anti-Semitism and Economic Recession

Greener Pastures Beckon in Vienna and Further Afield

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By JTA

Published February 20, 2013.
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Three years ago, Fanni moved to Vienna from her native Hungary with her husband. Now she is pregnant.

Though the couple would prefer to raise their child near their Jewish families in Budapest, rising nationalism and an economic recession are leading them to stay in Austria.

“I don’t want to cut my roots, but I see no good future for a child growing up in an increasingly xenophobic environment,” said Fanni, a lawyer, who along with others interviewed for this article asked that their full names not be published.

As many as 1,000 Hungarian Jews are believed to be leaving the country each year, spurring fears among Jewish leaders about the future of Central Europe’s largest Jewish community – some 80,000 to 100,000 people. Immigration to Israel has tripled in the past three years, to 170 in 2012. And many others have sought new lives in Berlin, London and Vienna, the Austrian capital just a two-hour train ride away.

“Had my law firm been hugely successful in Hungary, I would have stayed despite the negative atmosphere,” Fanni said. “And if the atmosphere was good but business was slow, I would’ve also stayed. But now the negative aspects outweigh the positive.”

The migration is part of a wider movement of Hungarians, some 300,000 of whom have sought employment in Western Europe over the past four years, according to government estimates. They are leaving behind a stunted economy with a contracting gross domestic product, an annual inflation rate of more than 5 percent and an unemployment rate above 10 percent.

But it also comes at a time of mounting anti-Semitism in Hungary, a development epitomized by the rise of Jobbik, a far-right political party that now occupies 47 of 386 seats in the Hungarian parliament. The party won 16.7 percent of the popular vote in the 2010 elections, a massive improvement over the 2.2 percent it claimed in 2006.

Still, Hungarian Jewish leaders dispute that anti-Semitism is at the root of the emigration.

Peter Feldmajer, president of the Mazsihisz Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, told JTA that the Jewish percentage of Hungarian emigrants perfectly matches the Jewish percentage of the larger population.

“Jews are leaving due to the economy, not anti-Semitism,” Feldmajer said. “This worries me not only for Jews but the whole of Hungary.”

Other prominent Hungarian Jews, however, allow that anti-Semitism may play a role, if not the definitive one, in encouraging Jews to leave.

“The Hungarian Jewish community is vibrant and strong, but many are leaving,” said Zsuzsa Fritz, director of Budapest’s Balint Jewish Community Center. “It’s mostly because of the financial situation, together with the fact that the climate is not very nice for Jews if Judaism plays an important part in their lives.”

The Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, a Chabad-affiliated body, said in statement that it “could not rule out that the increasingly anti-Semitic sentiment may factor heavily in the minds of those who leave,” though Jewish emigration from Hungary was “by no means massive.”

Massive or not, the emigration has piqued the interest of Viennese Jewish leaders, who long have hoped that an influx of foreign Jews would revive the community’s sagging numbers and enable it to sustain an extensive communal infrastructure of schools, synagogues and old-age homes.

Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish community of Vienna – known locally as IKG – said last month that Hungarian anti-Semitism was driving Jewish immigration to Vienna. The community has set up a program to help assimilate – and lure – the newcomers, including language courses, help in finding employment, housing and Jewish education.

IKG is prepared to extend such help to 150 families annually from different countries, including Hungary. Deutsch’s predecessor, Ariel Muzicant, told JTA in December that 20 Hungarian families were preparing to leave or had recently arrived in Vienna.

“We believe, and our statistics show this, that our Jewish community will cease to exist if we do not have Jewish immigration in the coming years,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch declined further comment on the subject, possibly because of the consternation his statements caused across the border, where Hungarian Jewish leaders criticized him for “sowing panic” and giving “false” data. But in talks with about a dozen Hungarian immigrants to Austria, most cited professional reasons as the primary driver of their emigration, even if the anti-Semitic rhetoric increasingly common in Hungary is never far from their thoughts.

“In every election, my parents would say that if a party like Jobbik entered the government, we would pack our suitcases and go,” said Gabor, a recent arrival to Vienna from Budapest. “The whole atmosphere is of things getting worse, not only for Jews. It can be a driving force for people to get the hell out.”

Founded a decade ago, Jobbik has grown to become Hungary’s third-largest party. The party drew international attention in November when Matron Gyongyosi, a Jobbik lawmaker, said that lists of Hungarian Jews should be drawn up as they represented a “security risk.”

Jobbik will likely remain out of the government coalition at least until the 2014 elections, but its growth has shaken the sense of security for many Hungarian Jews and offers added encouragement to leave.

“In planning my future and in terms of employment options, coming to Vienna made the most sense,” Gabor said. “It’s very near. You can still see your family and friends on the weekends.”

For young professionals like Gabor, Vienna offers a number of advantages over other places aside from the distance. For one, work permit requirements were waived in 2011 between the two countries.

But for some Hungarian Jews, the destination is less important. One middle-aged woman from Budapest, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, is hoping to depart for Australia.

“I would most definitely like to leave Hungary but still haven’t heard from the authorities,” she said. “I am impatiently waiting for an answer and am really hoping for a positive one.”

Such cases make Adam Fischer, a Hungarian Jewish conductor who now lives in the United Kingdom and has studied in Vienna, an unequivocal supporter of the Vienna community’s initiative to bring over Jews.

“It’s better if Jews immigrate to Vienna,” he said. “That way they stay nearby and the thread is not broken. Plus, there’s always a chance of them returning if things improve.”


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