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The former minister, Tamas Fellegi, admitted that racism was on the rise in Hungary, but he told the hearing committee that the Orban government had done more than any previous administration to curtail hate speech and to promote and support the “rebirth of Jewish culture.”
Critics accuse Orban’s center-right party, Fidesz, of pandering to extreme nationalist sentiment in order to win the 2010 general election. Although Fidesz won comfortably, with 53% of the vote, the other big winner of the election was the far-right party, Jobbik, which won 17% of the vote. Today, Jobbik is the third-largest party in Hungary’s parliament.
Jobbik ran on a populist platform that attacked incompetent and corrupt Hungarian officials, Roma “criminals” and nefarious Israeli businessmen, who were accused of buying up Hungary.
The rise of Jobbik in recent years has coincided with a sharp increase in anti-Roma and anti-Semitic discourse in Hungary. Andras Kovacs, a professor at Budapest’s Central European University and an expert on anti-Semitism, published a recent study noting that about 28% of the Hungarian population displayed anti-Semitic attitudes in 2010 compared with about 12.5% in 1990.
The Anti-Defamation League paints an even bleaker picture. It said that anti-Semitic attitudes in Hungary rose to 63% of the population in 2012 from 47% in 2009.
Yet the ADL is careful when discussing Hungary’s problems. Michael Salberg, the ADL’s director of international affairs, said that a few years ago Fidesz politicians were slow to react to anti-Semitism, but today they have begun to act more swiftly. “We are seeing a greater sensitivity [to anti-Semitism], a greater willingness [to speak out],” Salberg said.
As examples, Salberg pointed to the government’s recent ban on an anti-Semitic rally organized by far-right bikers to coincide with a Holocaust memorial march. He also noted the adoption of a constitutional amendment to curtail hate speech.
That amendment was proposed following a couple of anti-Semitic statements made by Jobbik politicians in the Hungarian parliament last year. On the eve of Passover, a Jobbik lawmaker gave a speech resurrecting a 19th-century blood libel. In the fall, another MP called for a list of Jews to be drawn up, including politicians who have Jewish roots and “represent a certain national security risk for Hungary.”
Although Fidesz has tried to distance itself from Jobbik, it is still blamed by some for pandering to far-right sentiments. Fidesz “often presents itself as a bulwark against Jobbik when it comes to issues of anti-Semitism,” said Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs. “But you have a leader in Viktor Orban, who still flirts with Jobbik voters.”