Hungary Jews Unify Around Fight With Government Over Holocaust Whitewash

Community Boycotts Grants — Pushes New Alliances

Come Together: After boycotting a $1 million grant for Holocaust commemorations, Hungary’s Jews have launched their own fundraising alliance.
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Come Together: After boycotting a $1 million grant for Holocaust commemorations, Hungary’s Jews have launched their own fundraising alliance.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Published June 11, 2014.

(page 2 of 2)

Also, the Jewish community had demanded the resignation of the director of a government-sponsored research institute who in January had referred to the 1941 deportation to Nazi-controlled territory of thousands of Jews who sought refuge in Hungary as “a police action against aliens.”

The government has not acceded to the Jewish community’s demands despite almost daily protests at the downtown Budapest site where the monument to the German occupation is being built. Protestors have left Holocaust memorabilia, written messages and other material spread out on a wide strip of sidewalk across the street.

Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban rejected a call by 30 Jewish U.S. members of Congress to reconsider constructing the monument “against the wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community.”

It “is not a Holocaust memorial,” Orban said in a statement, but “a freedom-fighting people’s memorial of the pain of having its liberty crushed.”

In general elections in April, Orban’s center-right Fidesz party was re-elected, but one in five voters cast their ballots for the extreme right Jobbik party, notorious for its nationalist, anti-Roma policies and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In May, Fidesz won more than 51 percent of the vote in elections for the European Parliament, with Jobbik finished second with nearly 15 percent. A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 41 percent of Hungarians hold anti-Semitic attitudes.

Still, Heisler suggested, the greatest challenges he faces are not related to the national political situation.

“My biggest problem is not Orban or Jobbik but reorganizing Mazsihisz and dealing with the weakness of the organization,” he said.

As the main Jewish umbrella group, Mazsihisz officially represents the interests of Hungarian Jewry to the government and is responsible for the annual distribution of millions of dollars of government subventions and Holocaust compensation funds to Jewish organizations.

Critics have long accused the group of being undemocratic and unrepresentative, and called for a reform of its financial and administrative operations.

“The level of mistrust of Mazsihisz is high,” Heisler said. “We have to change this.”

Heisler said a recent operational review showed large-scale flaws in in the management of the organization, which employs nearly 1,000 people, and an economic audit revealed “very serious problems.”

He acknowledged, too, that he faced opposition in his hopes to “open the umbrella wider” to allow Hungary’s small Reform Jewish congregations, which are not recognized by Mazsihisz, to join.

“Mazsihisz is a big organization with huge infrastructure,” he said. “If these changes can’t be made, we are on a slippery slope.”

Most of Memento70’s 35 member groups are Jewish community or cultural groups that come under the Mazsihisz umbrella. They include most of the mainstream Jewish organizations that had won the government’s Holocaust commemoration grants.

The Memento70 campaign is raising money for projects including the construction of Holocaust memorials, cleaning up Jewish cemeteries, book publications, educational initiatives, and commemorative performances, exhibitions and concerts.

By early June, Memento70 had amassed more than 3,600 Facebook followers but had collected only $38,400 from 374 donors – just 4 percent of its $957,500 target.

Many of the donations, Memento70 spokeswoman Antonia Szenthe noted, had come from donors with limited means who simply wanted to show support.

“A poor Roma community in a village got together and sent us the equivalent of $25,” she said. “It’s not much money, but it really meant something.”

While the campaign is still far short of its fundraising goals, Szenthe cast the effort in a positive light.

“There has never before been a fundraising alliance like this,” she said. “It is a very new thing. Fundraising as such has never happened here. Begging, yes. But not fundraising.”

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