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Protests Rattle Hungarian Jewish Community

The anti-government protests that have rocked the Hungarian capital of Budapest for more than a week are raising alarms in the country’s 100,000-member Jewish community.

From the outset, the protests, which began September 18, have embraced antisemitic terminology and symbols, including the red and white flag employed by Hungary’s fascists during World War II. The Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, though not Jewish, has been condemned by rioters and their sympathizers in veiled, and occasionally not so veiled, antisemitic language.

“We just want an honest government,” said a Budapest cab driver quoted in the London Times, “not one driven by foreign money.” The cabbie was wearing a black sweatshirt that read: “I’m a gentile.” At some of the recent demonstrations, rioters have chanted: “The train for Auschwitz is departing.”

Attendance at Rosh Hashanah services is said to have been more sparse than usual, though there have been no reports of attacks on synagogues or Jewish institutions.

The protests were set into motion by an anonymously leaked audio recording of a speech given in May by Gyurcsány, before a closed-door meeting of his ruling Socialist Party. In the speech, a pep talk of sorts made in coarse, unvarnished language, Gyurcsány reminded the assembled that in order to secure their victory in the preceding month’s elections they had had to lie “morning, noon and night.”

The Socialists had plenty to lie about. Hungary’s economic picture is bleak. The country’s budget deficit is at more than 10% of gross domestic product, the highest in all of Europe. In order to right the economy, Gyurcsány said on the tape, radical austerity measures would need to be implemented, including spending cuts and tax increases.

The reaction to the tape was swift and, in some cases, violent. While calling for an end to Gyurcsány’s government, rioters set cars on fire and stormed the country’s public television headquarters. The street violence is the worst Budapest has seen since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the 50th anniversary of which is to be celebrated next month.

Earlier this week, in Budapest’s Kossuth Square, the epicenter of the protests, a speaker emerged from the throng with what he termed “proof” of the fact that there is no antisemitism in Hungary today: a list of 50 Jewish members of parliament. The list didn’t have quite the punch the speaker had hoped. Upon closer scrutiny, it was revealed that around half of those on it weren’t Jewish at all.

The maneuver was emblematic of the tumult that has consumed the city in recent days. Hungary’s protesters — a motley assemblage of fringe right-wing elements, soccer hooligans and more mainstream right-of-center nationalists — freely invoke the language of antisemitism in their graffiti and stump speeches. But, some observers say, their aims often seem to have very little to do with Hungary’s Jews and more to do with ordinary political realities. “The mob in Hungary generally uses antisemitic slogans,” said András Gero, a professor of history at Budapest’s Central European University. “Everything they do not like is ‘Jewish.’ It can be America. It can be a political course. Anything.”

The tape of the prime minister’s speech appeared just two weeks before a new round of elections, fueling speculation as to just whose interests were served by its release. Theories also abound about how the demonstrations have unfolded.

Many have accused leaders of the right-wing parties of orchestrating protests from the sidelines, giving orders to their minions through mobile phone text messages. Right-wing leaders, meanwhile, have developed conspiracy theories of their own. István Csurka, leader of the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life party, which currently does not hold any seats in parliament, has said that the blame for Hungary’s recent turmoil rests with the CIA and Mossad.

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