By BEN COHEN
(JNS) – Is it possible for a country to be the locus of widespread antipathy towards Jews while simultaneously maintaining relatively low levels of anti-Semitic hate crime? A newly published report by the Jewish community in Hungary demonstrates that it is.
Reading the report published by Maszihisz, which represents the 100,000-strong Jewish community in Hungary, I was struck by how it echoed an observation of George Orwell’s regarding anti-Semitism in Britain in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Jew-hatred there, Orwell wrote, did “not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough, and in favorable circumstances it could have political results.” I will not make any similar comment about the general disposition of Hungarians, if one is even possible, but it is true that even though one in three Hungarians dislikes Jews to some degree, they do not engage in violent assaults, verbal abuse or anti-Semitic vandalism at any level that is comparable with western Europe. But that doesn’t mean, following Orwell, that we shouldn’t be concerned about the political effects of this prejudice.
Under The Surface
Data gathered by Maszihisz recorded 53 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 and 70 in 2020. Only one of these incidents involved a physical assault. Now, while it is a precious truth that one hate crime is one too many, Hungary’s nationalist government can’t be faulted for making hay out of the fact that theirs is one of the few countries in Europe with a significant Jewish population that is disturbed by anti-Semitic violence only rarely.
Compare Hungary with Germany, which has a slightly larger Jewish population of 120,000. In 2019, the German authorities recorded 1,839 anti-Semitic attacks—a record number at that point in time, including 72 violent crimes.
If it was difficult in 2019 not to reflect on the bitter irony of postwar Germany becoming the location of at least five anti-Semitic offenses on a daily basis—that was even more the case in 2020, when the record of anti-Semitic outrages peaked again. During a year defined by the coronavirus lockdowns, Germany still recorded 2,275 anti-Semitic crimes. Due to people sheltered at home, the number of violent assaults was down—55 in 2020—but that still amounted to at least one physical attack on a Jew every week at the hands of either Muslim extremists or neo-Nazis or the occasional leftist.
Given the situation in Germany and a similar one in France, along with the presence of a vocal anti-Zionist campaign on the far-left and the increasing boldness of the far-right in nations across Western Europe, why worry about Hungary?
There are those, foremost among them the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who say that we shouldn’t. Why would we, they ask, when Jews can walk safely to synagogue in Budapest, instead of peering anxiously over their shoulders when doing the same in Paris or Vienna? Why would Hungary—a country with a consistent record of support for the State of Israel to boot—be regarded as a land unfriendly to Jews?
These are good questions, and it is certainly the case that of all the manifestations that anti-Semitism can take, violence is the most serious threat of all. But there is another layer to the problem that is composed of historical memory and ingrained prejudices absorbed across centuries. “Anti-Semitism is present across the whole of Hungarian society, and we have to combat this phenomenon,” Andras Heisler, the head of Maszihisz, told the Budapest Times.
This is the sort of anti-Semitism that one catches at the end of a remark, the kind that discreetly ostracizes those Jews who identify as Jews from social interactions. To illustrate how these attitudes can affect Hungarian Jews, Heisler explained that the first bat mitzvah ceremony at the recently renovated Rumbach Street Synagogue in Budapest, involving a group of 12 girls, was held recently. The parents of the girls turned down a request for the occasion to be captured on video out of “fear of what would happen if their colleagues, neighbors and acquaintances found out they are Jews,” said Heisler.
The data in the Maszhisz report bears these concerns out. Conspiracy theories abound in Hungary, and fabrications on social media about wealthy Jews—particularly, the liberal Hungarian Jewish billionaire George Soros, who is public enemy for Viktor Orbán—are eagerly lapped up. In the local media, the journalist and commentator Zsolt Bayer is a loudly anti-Semitic voice with a large audience and excellent political connections. A founder with Orbán of the ruling Fidesz Party, Bayer received one of Hungary’s highest awards, the Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross, at the prime minister’s behest in 2016.
In one episode of Bayer’s radio show last year, the coronavirus pandemic was depicted as a global Jewish conspiracy through the obscene language he has is known for (Bayer has previously said that Roma Gypsies “are unfit to live among people” and referred to black people in a 2020 magazine article using the “N” word.) “The Jews are the source of our troubles,” Bayer said on the show, echoing the infamous Nazi slogan that the Jews “are out misfortune.” He elaborated on this point by claiming that the coronavirus was engineered by Jews as a pretext to impose “martial law” on the entire globe.
Denial And Relativization
Polling that accompanied the Maszihisz report revealed that 20 percent of Hungarians held views that were “strongly anti-Semitic,” while a further 16 percent were described as “moderately anti-Semitic.” These figures were consistent with previous years, the pollster observed, while the remaining 64 percent of the population “show no anti-Semitic attitudes at all.” Additionally, the analysis accompanying the poll emphasized that Hungarians tend not to make anti-Semitic comments unprompted, but will nonetheless agree with a range of anti-Semitic statements that are put to them.
The legacy of World War II is also important. In common with other countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary is actively revising its account of World War II to minimize the extent of local collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of Hungary’s 500,000 Jews, who were deported en masse late in 1944. The Maszihisz report observed that a large proportion of Hungarians were fed up with Holocaust remembrance, noting with worry “the increasing prevalence of Holocaust denial and relativization (the former is common to roughly one in 10 respondents, the latter to about one in five respondents).”
Whether the discourse will eventually turn to violence remains an open question.
It’s worth remembering that anti-Semitism in the United States was primarily rhetorical and attitudinal until quite recently; only since the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 has the threat of violence become a central part of the problem. But the warning signs are always there.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
Hungary and anti-Semitism: A reply to columnist Ben Cohen
By LÁSZLÓ BERNÁT VESZPRÉMY
(JNS) – I read Ben Cohen’s July 23 column on anti-Semitism in Hungary with great interest.
Basically, I don’t consider Cohen’s article to be a bad one: as a Holocaust researcher and deputy editor-in-chief of Hungary’s largest Jewish news portal, Neokohn, I believe the New York-based author gave a generally correct picture of the situation in my country.
Nevertheless, I discovered some small inaccuracies in the article that I think are calling for comments or corrections.
Cohen writes: “Data gathered by Mazsihisz recorded 53 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 and 70 in 2020 (in Hungary). Only one of these incidents involved a physical assault.” There is technically no mistake here, as the data gathered by Mazsihisz indeed shows this. However, not only Mazsihisz measures the annual number of anti-Semitic atrocities in Hungary, but also the Action and Protection Foundation (TEV), for almost 10 years now.
A Different View
According to TEV data, there were 30 anti-Semitic atrocities in 2020 and 35 in 2019. In a detailed breakdown, there were 27 cases of hate speech in 2019, as well as six cases of vandalism and one attack. In 2020, there were 22 cases of hate speech, one discrimination case, six cases of vandalism and one threat. (The reports can also be read in English on the TEV website here.)
I do not dispute Cohen’s conclusion that one attack is one too many, and that the situation in Hungary is still better than what is going on in Germany or France. I do think, however, that other sources need to be presented as well, especially if the omitted organization already has 10 years of experience and a well-established hotline network.
Cohen also writes in his article: Zsolt Bayer, “a founder with Orbán of the ruling Fidesz Party,” echoed the infamous Nazi slogan that the “Jews are our misfortune” on a radio show. “He elaborated on this point by claiming that the coronavirus was engineered by Jews as a pretext to impose “martial law” on the entire globe.”
Cohen’s source is again the report of Mazsihisz, which, however, does not write this.
According to the report: “Also in March 2020, in the radio talk show of Zsolt Bayer and István Stefka entitled Paláver broadcast in Karc FM on Mondays and Tuesdays, the callers repeatedly referred to the coronavirus-related activities of the background power, during which Jews were explicitly mentioned several times. The presenters did not distance themselves from these opinions: “Background power commanded that white Christians should be exterminated or mixed … the background power, they are so rich that we must not even talk about them as Jews … the Jews are the source of all trouble … ”; “ … the virus … was organized on purpose … I will say it, the billionaire Jews said … 800,000 slaves are enough for them … ” “I think with this virus, the aim of the background power is to introduce a martial law for the entire world … then a global government … .” (See pages 29-30 in the Mazsihisz report, found in English here.)
I’m not trying to defend Bayer, and, of course, it’s a big problem if a caller said things like that on a radio show. It’s also problematic if the hosts didn’t interrupt him. However, it is a fact that it was not the Fidesz Party founder Zsolt Bayer who said the quoted lines, but a random Hungarian conspiracy theorist.
Finally, Cohen makes the following remark: “Hungary is actively revising its account of World War II to minimize the extent of local collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of Hungary’s 500,000 Jews, who were deported en masse late in 1944.”
Important Holocaust Facts
As a Holocaust researcher, I consider the following facts important: between May 15 and July 8, 1944, 435,000 Hungarian Jews were deported by the Nazi German occupiers and their Hungarian collaborators from the contemporary territory of Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition, the subsequent collaborationist Arrow Cross government has organized further death marches and mass executions, adding to the number of casualties between a few thousand and tens of thousands. Historians put the number of surviving Jews around 185,000 to 190,000.
In 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said: “At an earlier time, the government of Hungary made a mistake, moreover, committed a sin when it did not protect its citizens of Jewish heritage,” Orbán said during a press briefing after his meeting with Netanyahu in Parliament. “Every Hungarian government has the duty to protect all of its citizens, regardless of their heritage.”
In 2014, János Áder, president of Hungary, put it this way: “Seventy years ago, following the German occupation of our country in 1944, the will of Hitler’s Nazi Germany Within barely half a year they mercilessly executed their program of creating ghettos and deported the entire Hungarian Jewry living in the countryside.”
Hungary’s current right-wing leaders do not deny the role of the contemporary Hungarian state in deportations. They do not blame the Germans only for the deportations unlike the Dutch King Wilhelm Alexander did recently.
It is questionable whether all Hungarian right-wing historians and journalists have a view of the Holocaust and World War II that is in line with historical facts. Obviously, the discourse on history in Hungary still leaves much to be desired. But it is certain that if a historian or journalist disputes the responsibility of the Hungarian state in the Holocaust, it is done not according to the words of Orbán and Áder, but in spite of them.
I wanted to add the above to Cohen’s otherwise interesting and generally correct article.
László Bernát Veszprémy is a Hungarian Holocaust historian and the deputy editor-in-chief of Neokohn.hu.