As the World Jewish Congress prepares to convene in Budapest, Paul Berger covers the increasingly hostile conditions under which Hungarian Jews — one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with an estimated population of around 85,000 recorded in 2012 — are forced to reside.
Primarily, the problem in Hungary is a political problem. With an unemployment rate of over 11 percent and low economic growth, the electoral success of the fascistic Jobbik movement, and an annual rise in recorded hate crimes last year, the European faultlines of economic malaise, political extremism, and the persecution of immigrants and minorities are meeting in Hungary with troubling consequences.
Fidesz, the ruling political party, has since 2010 set about trying to concentrate authority in the parliament in which it has been able to muster a supermajority, taking powers of oversight away from the other organs of government. Recent constitutional amendments passed this year included limiting the power of the country’s Constitutional Court to strike down any laws passed by a two-thirds majority, castrating the court and allowing to rule out on procedural matters. The retirement age for judges was also lowered in an attempt to weed out uncooperative justices.
Other provisions restricted the liberty of the individual to work, travel, and marry. Students whose college education is subsidised by the state are required to work in Hungary for a certain period of time after graduation, while others who elect to move abroad now have to pay back the value of that subsidy. The law now also gives preference to traditional family relationships, in other words those between one man and one woman with children. At the behest of the European Union, a provision allowing only public media to broadcast political advertising before general and European elections was amended.
Such authoritarian constitutional amendments both feed and feed off nationalist and racist sentiment in Hungary. Jobbik has in the past year both resurrected a blood libel from 1882, and called on the ruling government to draw up a list of Jews that pose a “national security risk”, once more raising the issue of dual-loyalty.
But Jobbik is not the only problem. In March, Prime Minister Viktor Orban awarded the Tancsics Award to Ferenc Szaniszlo, a television journalist who has referred to Roma as “apes” and implied that he views Jews as “garbage”. When he was forced to return the award after protestations by others artists and journalists, Szaniszlo described himself as “a victim of machinations by Israel and the United States.”
There are failures not only at the national level but locally, too. Berger reports that several municipal governments across Hungary have elected to erect statues of Admiral Horthy, the counterrevolutionary leader who ruled Hungary autocratically from 1920 to 1944. During the Second World War, Hungary willingly became part of the Axis powers aligned with Italy and Germany against France and Great Britain, and Horthy remained a puppet leader during the 1944 occupation of the country, during which time the near-total destruction of Hungarian Jewry occurred.
With local and national government encouraging various forms of supremacy, then, it is the responsibility of supranational governments and agencies to pull Hungary back towards Europe’s accepted values of liberty and egality. The Council of Europe, responsible for the supervision of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe, voted last week to begin monitoring Hungary, citing “the erosion of democratic checks and balances” since 2010.
The European Union meanwhile, of which Hungary is a part, has threatened legal action over the recent constitutional changes and will decide its course of action once a full review is complete. Benjamin Abtan, writing in New Statesman, notes that the EU has the power to reprimand Hungary if it believes that “democratic checks and balances” are being eroded by, among other things, suspending its voting powers in the Commission, Parliament, and Council.The gravity of the problem for Jews in Hungary was highlighted once more over the weekend when Ferenc Orosz, head of Hungary’s Raoul Wallenberg Association, was beaten up at a soccer match in Budapest. Orosz stated that at the game, the crowd were chanting pro-Mussolini fascist slogans and shouting ‘Sieg Heil!’, and when he requested they stop Orosz was “threatened and called a ‘Jewish communist”. After the match, Orosz was set upon and left with a broken nose.
An incident such as this is unusual to the extent that, as Berger highlights, most of the threats towards minorities in Hungary have been verbal and embedded in the political discourse. But the increasingly xenophobic environment in Hungary means that some Jews have already undertaken arrangements to leave the country, some for Israel but others to Austria, both for economic as well as security reasons.
This is troubling in and of itself, but what is so significant about the Hungarian problem is that the fate of Jews and Roma does not exist in isolation, but is bound up in a much larger and more troubling shift away from democracy and plurality and towards nationalism and authoritarianism.