The World Jewish Congress’s upcoming quadrennial assembly, scheduled for May 5 in Budapest, Hungary, promises to be a complicated affair. It arrives just one month after WJC President Ronald Lauder’s public condemnation of his host country’s prime minister for presiding over “a xenophobic and increasingly anti-Semitic country.”
In fact, Lauder says proudly, this is precisely why he has decided to hold his group’s annual gathering in Hungary. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s acceptance of the WJC’s invitation to address its opening dinner will only add to the anticipated high drama.
WJC spokesman Michael Thaidigsmann said Lauder’s condemnation of Orban was not meant as a “slap in the face” and that the WJC looks forward to hearing “what [Orban] has to say.”
But for all the stagecraft the WJC has devoted to delivering a message to Hungary’s government, many others involved, including key Jewish leaders, say that Lauder’s depiction of Orban’s government as pandering to anti-Semitism is simplistic. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward, “We’re encouraged that the Orban government is showing greater awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism in Hungary and has begun to improve its responsiveness.”
It was on April 4 that Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, former ambassador to Austria and longtime Jewish leader, published an opinion piece lashing out at Orban. In the jeremiad, which appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung , a German newspaper, Lauder accused the Hungarian leader of having “lost his political compass” and of transforming himself from a once “dynamic, but pragmatic conservative” into “an ideologue for Hungarian nationalism.”
“The number of anti-Semitic or anti-Roma [Gypsy] statements increased dramatically in recent years, and some of them have come from senior members of the prime minister’s party or his government,” Lauder wrote.
A Hungarian government official, who did not wish to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the matter, said that Lauder’s statement was a shock, particularly because it came shortly after Orban had accepted Lauder’s invitation to address his group’s dinner, which kicks off the two-day conference.
“This is how life treats you very well if you are an NGO,” the Hungarian official said, referring to the WJC’s status as a nongovernmental organization. “You can say what you want, and don’t have to bother with facts.”
The official said Lauder mischaracterized the situation in Hungary. He directed the Forward to testimony delivered before a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on anti-Semitism in February, in which a former Hungarian government minister rejected the idea that the Orban government was anti-Semitic.
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.”
Baker said Orban has spoken out against anti-Semitism. “That’s important and shouldn’t be discounted,” he said. But, he added, “I think they’re more interested in doing PR than getting some of these issues addressed.”
In some cases, Fidesz has appeared to support nationalist sentiment. This year, anti-Semitic Hungarian writers such as Jozsef Nyiro, who was a pro-Nazi member of Hungary’s World War II-era parliament, and Albert Wass have been introduced into Hungary’s new national curriculum . In March, Hungary’s minister of human resources was forced to apologize after his ministry awarded a national honor to Ferenc Szaniszlo, a TV journalist who has a record of making anti-Roma and anti-Semitic statements.
Gyorgy Szabo, who leads a government-financed organization that administers Holocaust restitution funds to the Jewish community, said he knows the human resources minister personally and that he is not an anti-Semite. “It was a mistake,” Szabo said.
Szabo said that since the fall of communism in Hungary in 1990, a succession of governments have failed to quell anti-Semitism. He said hate speech is only worse now because of Hungary’s economy, which took a beating during the global recession. A recent report from the International Monetary Fund noted that “Hungary has been plagued by low growth and high debt for much of the last decade.” Unemployment is at about 11% .
Peter Feldmajer, head of Hungary’s Jewish community, echoed Szabo, saying that the Fidesz government is not anti-Semitic. Feldmajer said the real problem in Hungary is at the local level, where several municipalities have begun to erect statues of Miklos Horthy, a military dictator who ruled Hungary from the end of World War I through most of World War II. Horthy is an incendiary figure in Hungarian-Jewish history because more than 500,000 Jews were murdered or sent to death camps while Horthy remained nominally in power during the German occupation.
Feldmajer compared the present Jewish situation in Hungary favorably with that of nearby countries — particularly France, where physical assault, even murder, has become a real threat. But while most of the active animosity being directed at Jews in countries such as France comes from Arab and Muslim communities, in Hungary hate emanates from ethnic Hungarians who make up 92% of the population .
So far, the Roma have borne the brunt of the bigotry. Paramilitary groups allied with Jobbik have terrorized Roma communities since 2006, according to a report by the European Roma Rights Center. In recent years, seven Roma have been killed, including a 5-year-old boy, in 22 known cases of anti-Roma violence cataloged by the ERRC.
Hungarian Jews said they do not feel physically threatened. But they agreed that racial discourse has become poisonous. “The most problematic thing is the atmosphere, what is in the air,” Feldmajer said. “It’s a bad feeling for Jews, for Romas, because the hate speech is so strong in Hungary.”
Shlomo Koves, a Chabad rabbi, said that he suffered more physical attacks during a couple of years living in Paris during the late 1990s than he has experienced during the past decade in Budapest. But Koves said that in Budapest, “the verbal anti-Semitism is becoming really bad.” He said that in the past couple of years he has been spat at and people have screamed at him “Dirty Jew!” or “Hungary belongs to Hungarians.”