Opinion: Pesach dilemmas in Budapest

Budapest may be the only capital in Europe where a member of Parliament could raise the blood libel accusation against Jews and essentially get away with it.

The blood libel accuses Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood to make matzah or carry out other rituals.

And in a speech before Parliament less than 24 hours before the start of Pesach, a lawmaker from the far-right, anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and anti-Roma Jobbik Party essentially did just that.

MP Zsolt Barath cited a notorious blood libel case that took place exactly 130 years ago in the Hungarian village of Tizsaeszlar.

In April 1882, just a few days before Pesach, local Jews were accused of murdering a teenage Hungarian girl. The case touched off a wave of anti-Semitic violence and political agitation that lasted for years.

The Jews were eventually acquitted after a lengthy trial. But in his speech last week, Barath questioned the verdict, saying it had come due to “outside pressure” and that Jews were “severely implicated” in the case.

Barath’s speech and the lack of immediate response from top officials shocked and outraged Jews here.

It confirmed for many the widespread perception that  anti-Semitism in Hungary is becoming not just increasingly open, but increasingly tolerated and legitimized.

“Jobbik has already made too many such statements,” said Israeli ambassador Ilan Mor. “It’s time to state clearly that “enough is enough.”

Rabbi Ferenc Raj hammered this home the next night at a communal seder organized by Bet Orim, an American-style reform congregation he helped found. Raj, who left Hungary in 1972, is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and divides his time between Budapest and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Zsolt Barath must resign,” he told the dozens of guests seated at long tables in the auditorium of the modern Balint House JCC in downtown Budapest.

“Hungary’s prime minister cannot remain silent,” he said. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug.”

The degree of anti-Semitism in Hungary has been a constant subject of discussion for years, but the debate sharpened since Jobbik won nearly 17 percent of the vote in the 2010 elections that gave an overwhelming mandate to a right-wing government led by the Fidesz Party.

A report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released last month added fuel to the fire.

Based on a telephone survey in which callers asked 500 people in 10 countries four questions regarding anti-Semitic stereotypes, it concluded that a whopping 63 percent of Hungarians held anti-Semitic attitudes.

The survey prompted headlines in the Hungarian media, with some commentators citing it as proof of a huge rise in anti-Semitism.

But Mircea Cernov, who heads an organization called Haver that teaches schoolchildren about Jews, Roma and other minorities, called it “superficial” and “manipulative” and said it could have a negative impact on organizations like Haver that were trying to carry out serious social action and other educational work.

Sociologist Andras Kovacs, Hungary’s leading analyst of both Jewish communal development and anti-Semitic trends in Hungary, called into question its accuracy on several counts.

Kovacs has been methodically tracking anti-Semitism in Hungary for more than 15 years. He told me that according to his research, the proportion of anti-Semites in Hungary would be 20 to 25 percent.

That still might mean that Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country of the 10 surveyed by the ADL, but it is still much lower than what was shown in the ADL survey.

Kovacs faulted the ADL survey for employing a faulty methodology that favored responses from hard-core anti-Semites.

“People who were undecided or uninterested or who simply didn’t want to reply to such questions from unknown cold-callers on the phone would not have answered,” he said.

In addition, he said, the survey used questions about stereotypes that could lead to ambiguous interpretations.

“We don’t know how much the fact that someone holds a stereotype can be used to measure his or her actual hatred of Jews,” he said.

Naturally anti-Semitism was a theme that came up in conversations I had with my Jewish friends in Budapest before and during Pesach.

It was clear that most were concerned, some of them very concerned, but at the same time, they were not letting fear rule their lives.

“Many people are afraid, but in their everyday normal life they are not in danger,” Andras Heisler, a former president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, told me.

They are certainly not cowering behind barred doors.

At Pesach, I made a “seder crawl” that took me to the Bet Orim seder and two others on the first night and one additional seder on the second.

I had been invited to all of them, and seder hopping was how I dealt with the dilemma of having to make a choice about which to attend.

Each was a big communal affair for dozens of people, organized by one of Budapest’s plethora of different Jewish groups and congregations. They all took place in and around the city’s downtown old Jewish quarter, in venues ranging from a modern JCC auditorium to the formal dining room of a popular restaurant to a funky basement youth cafe.

“There are a lot of positive things going on in Budapest,” Cernov told me. “Jewish community life is not about anti-Semitism.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently about Jewish life and heritage in Europe. Her books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She also blogs on Jewish heritage and travel at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.