Rise of Conservative right alarming Hungary’s Jews

The radical far-right Jobbik party is poised to emerge in next month’s elections in Hungary as a potent force in Parliament, and the prospect is ringing alarm bells in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community.

“It’s scary,” said Vera Szekeres-Varsa, a Holocaust survivor and former chair of the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International. “It’s not like 60 or 70 years ago, but it’s still scary.”

Jobbik, whose formal name is the Movement for a Better Hungary, campaigns with fiercely populist rhetoric that capitalizes on seething voter resentment and foments fear and hatred of the mainly impoverished population of Roma, or Gypsies. Targeting what it calls “Gypsy criminality,” Jobbik also warns against “foreign speculators,” including Israel, it says want to control the country.

“Hungary belongs to the Hungarians” is a party slogan.

“Jobbik frequently uses anti-Semitic rhetoric, not directly but through code words and references, as well as symbols and appearances,” said Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at the Central European University who long has tracked nationalist and anti-Semitic trends. “This is frightening for the Jewish population.”

While the conservative Fidesz party is expected to score an overwhelming victory in the April 11 first-round Parliamentary vote—ousting the widely unpopular Socialists, who have been in power since 2002—Jobbik is expected to make a strong showing and enter the Hungarian Parliament for the first time. Jobbik surged out of the far-right fringe to grab 15 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections last June.

Aside from Jobbik’s growing strength, Hungarian Jews are concerned that Fidesz may compete with Jobbik for votes by shifting some of its own positions more to the right.

For Hungary’s Jews, who overwhelmingly vote for the center-left parties, including the Socialists, the rise of the conservative right is concerning.

“I think they will have to make gestures to the far right,” Adam Schonberger, 30, an activist with the Conservative Jewish youth organization Marom, said of Fidesz. “What really worries me is that in the upcoming parliament there could be no real representative of liberal or minority values.”

A poll of decided voters published March 18 in the HVG weekly showed Fidesz with 57 percent support, the Socialists with 21 percent and 18 percent for Jobbik.

“It is possible that Jobbik will get close to or even more votes than the Socialists,” Kovacs said. “Fidesz for sure will have a majority, and may get a two-thirds majority. This will represent a substantial change in the electoral landscape.”

A two-thirds majority would enable Fidesz, led by the charismatic Viktor Orban, to amend the constitution and push through changes affecting the electoral law, the size of parliament, presidential powers, local governments, and other issues.

No single party has held that concentration of power since the fall of communism—or before that, since the Nazi-allied regime of Miklos Horthy.

Fidesz enjoys some Jewish support and is not considered to be anti-Semitic. It was a Fidesz-led government that instituted Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. Yet some Jobbik officials and Fidesz have collaborated on the local level.

While Fidesz has ruled out a coalition with Jobbik if Fidesz does not achieve a two-thirds majority on its own, a poll last December indicated that some 300,000 right-wing Fidesz supporters might be ready to shift their backing to Jobbik. Fidesz may attempt to forestall such defections by hardening some of its own positions.

Support for Hungary’s center-left parties has plummeted due to the economic downturn and a recent spate of high-profile corruption scandals. In one case, several Socialist politicians were implicated in a racketeering scandal involving the Budapest public transport agency. In another, the Socialist mayor of Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, the Seventh District, was arrested on bribery and other charges relating to real estate deals.

“The collapse of the liberal and center-left parties is of particular concern to Hungary’s Roma and Jews, who are targeted verbally—and in the case of the Roma, also sometimes physically—by right-wing sympathizers,” said historian Michael Miller, who teaches in the Jewish Studies department at the Central European University.

Last year the state banned the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitary wing, whose black-clad members marched through Roma villages bearing red-and-white striped flags and other symbols reminiscent of the World War II Arrow Cross, Hungary’s homegrown Nazi-allied fascists.

A little more than a year ago Krisztina Morvai, who later was elected one of Jobbik’s three European Parliament members, lashed out at Israel for its offensive in Gaza.

“The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas,” she wrote in an open letter to the Israeli ambassador to Hungary. “I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’ “

At a party rally March 15, Jobbik’s 31-year-old leader, Gabor Vona, told thousands of followers that Hungary must seek independence from “Washington, Brussels,”—that is, the European Union—“Tel Aviv” and other powers.

Web sites and publications linked to Jobbik are much more explicit, bashing Israel and employing vicious anti-Semitic invective that evokes Nazi-era propaganda.

“Hungary is a Jewish colony” was the headline of an interview on one such Web site with the brother of one of Jobbik’s vice presidents.

Kovacs says he believes Jews are fearful of Jobbik’s gains but are not worried that they will translate into anti-Jewish policies. About 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, most of them in Budapest.

“With Jews, there is no practical social tension,” Kovacs said. “The anti-Jewish discourse is rhetorical—but there are no anti-Jewish political demands. There are, however, radical anti-Roma demands, like cutting social benefits or segregation in school.”

Still, he said, “Loud verbal anti-Semitism can lead to a very polarized and intense atmosphere, which in turn could facilitate, for example, anti-Jewish street violence.”

Szekeres-Varsa said the cumulative impact was very unsettling.

“I don’t see a direct threat, but there is an appalling atmosphere,” she said. “The air is stinking, and there is great uncertainty.”

Schonberger called Jobbik “a very aggressive, radical, arrogant party.”

“If they are able to make other people stupid and soulless, that is the worst,” he said. “We have to maintain our consciousness and keep our two feet on the ground.”

Schonberger, who organizes a youth-oriented Jewish music festival each summer, said he already was looking ahead at ways to promote civic activism to bolster liberal values. This year’s festival, he said, will include programs aimed at encouraging dialogue and cooperation with Roma and other minorities.

“We have to start something, we have to help each other,” he said. “We need to help make a better Hungary.”

Politics of liberal and conservative Jews reverse

Recently, I spoke to Reform rabbinical students in their class on “Jewish Political Tradition.” Which is, exactly, what?

My expertise, I told them, is
politics, not theology. Here was my dilemma: to talk reality or defer to the orthodoxy of Reform Jews, which is to say, political liberalism. (Forget the Reconstructionists, i.e., Jewish Unitarians, who are oxymoronic “religious” secular humanists.) How confusing all this, especially for non-Jews, who are further told that Conservative Jews are somewhere between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews — sort of like the words “liberal” and “conservative.”

The profoundly influential economist, Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, championed free market economics. “I am liberal,” Friedman once said to me, explaining that he was a classical liberal, preoccupied with the individual, not the state. And so we have in America this role reversal, where today’s liberals are infatuated with government, except for national security.

And then we have conservatives, who conserve exactly what? Surely, instead, they would uproot the status quo, notably, the failed legacy of the New Deal.

Matters are further complicated, because discussion of values empowers conservatives and threatens liberals. Mythology aside, liberals do not want government to be neutral on values. For example, some liberals promote condoms at public (that is, taxpayer-supported) middle schools.

What then are values for today’s liberals? We are told, tolerance, diversity and an open mind. But they can’t provide even civility at their dominated university campuses, where they shout down speakers who talk about values.

This much I know: the American separation of church and state rejected a church-state but not religion. The founders were steeped in Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian roots. This explains why they invoked God, and some even mastered biblical Hebrew.

Therefore, what informs Jewish political thought? If, as liberals and conservatives agree, we are not a theocracy, then how does one enforce virtue?

Former communist Frank S. Meyer became the conservative theorist for Bill Buckley’s National Review. Born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, Meyer understood from both religious traditions that virtue must be chosen, not compelled. In contrast, the nostalgic Jewish romance with liberalism oddly resembles ancient theocracy. That’s because liberals repudiate limits on government. They would go beyond the Ten Commandments and consequent laws; they would enforce their version of morality.

In sum, as I told these Reform rabbinical students, it is a truism that Judaism instructs us on matters of justice. We may light the world for Jews or even others, for example, that people should voluntarily support charity. That is quite different than liberalism, which would use government forcibly to redistribute wealth.

Liberals are conflicted as they ponder that for much of history, political leaders claimed divine, if not denominational, rule, which most everyone today rejects, except radical Islamists. Perhaps Jewish religious liberals therefore cannot distinguish between government compelled action and private voluntary action. In other words, many liberal Jews who are religious want government to enforce what they consider social justice, rather than for people voluntarily to practice social justice.

A long time ago, I helped engineer the victory of James L. Buckley, elected from the Conservative Party to represent New York. I noticed, then, that Jews who were less affluent and more religious were more open to U.S. Senate candidate Buckley’s election in 1970 and then President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

What did it mean, that we — conservative Republicans — could do so much better, generally, among Jews in, say, Brooklyn or Queens, than, say, among Jews in Long Island or Westchester? Was it that liberal theory was undermined by the real world? For example, Jewish social scientists wanted public housing imposed in Forest Hills (Queens). But local Jewish residents who had worked hard to escape the projects asked Buckley, on his election, to oppose social experimentation in their neighborhood.

Years later, when I returned to California after working in Washington, I saw the same pattern. For example, later in the 1970s, affluent Westside Jews who had their children in private schools supported widespread mandatory busing for Los Angeles public schools. But their San Fernando Valley relatives preferred only voluntary integration tools like magnet schools. By the ’80s and ’90s, Jews in California were split on at least two other issues: illegal immigration and race/gender preferences.

Liberal Jews like Erwin Chemerinsky obsessed about their ancestors in sweatshops in the New York garment district. But Jewish Republican leaders, like former Judge Sheldon Sloan, recent California State Bar president, resented the comparison between Eastern European Jews who went through the system at Ellis Island and today’s (an Orwellian euphemism) “undocumented immigrants,” however hard working, who entered the country illegally and receive taxpayer-funded entitlements.

As for race and gender preferences, Jews with a sense of history (Jewish quotas) and justice (race classification) helped bring about California’s Proposition 209, which prohibited government race and gender preferences in hiring, contracting and education.

And, now, national security becomes the new schism, as many Jews reject Steven Spielberg’s morally depraved “Munich,” in which he equates terrorism with anti-terrorism. It is not surprising that liberals like Spielberg look for endless shades of gray. For all his cinematic genius, he cannot even see contrast.

Good and evil, rather than abortion or homosexuality, is the new values debate that these Reform rabbinical students must confront.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

Alito Would Erode Minority Protection

“But is it good for the Jews?” That was the question many of our grandparents voiced when they perused the morning papers — a question we may have dismissed, even with affection, as a narrow or parochial expression.

Today, we know that what’s “good for the Jews” extends beyond ourselves: It encompasses a concern for the well-being of society as a whole and the fate of our constitutional freedoms. After all, we Jews are unquestionably part of the general community, thriving largely thanks to the protections afforded to us as a minority religion.

For the National Council of Jewish Women, this has led us to take sides in the national debate on the direction of our courts, which are the guardians of our liberty and our well-being as Jews and as Americans. And it has led us to oppose the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito Jr. to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

When a Supreme Court nominee decides that the First Amendment permits the majority religion to impose its beliefs and symbols on the rest of us in the public square — it’s not good for the Jews.

When he reveals his lifelong ambition to overturn the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, preventing a woman from following her conscience and religious beliefs when exercising her legal right to choose abortion — it’s not good for the Jews.

And, when he consistently rules against victims of employment discrimination, narrowing civil rights protections — that too isn’t good for the Jews.

Judge Alito has a record of conservatism that is far to the right of our national consensus. He’s the candidate President Bush promised us when he said in 2000 that he would appoint justices like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

By his own account in 1985, Judge Alito entered law school “motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the area of criminal procedure, the establishment clause, and reapportionment.”

Further clarifying his views on the Supreme Court’s past decisions regarding religion, in November 2005 he told his supporter, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), that these rulings “were incoherent in this area of the law in a way that really gives the impression of hostility to religious speech and religious expression.”

Alito’s judicial record supports this statement. He disagreed with the majority of the 3rd Circuit when it decided that students could not include a prayer in their graduation programs simply because they had voted to have one.

He also argued that public school teachers could be forced to distribute materials of the Child Evangelism Project for their weekly after-school meetings. In contrast, the Supreme Court concluded that religious meetings may be held on school grounds only “where no school officials actively participate.”

As for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, Judge Alito’s views seem oblivious to the religious convictions of others. His hostility to the right to choose has been unwavering.

While working in the solicitor general’s office, Alito wrote a 17-page memo on using Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as an ” opportunity to advance the goals of bringing about the eventual overruling of Roe v. Wade and, in the meantime, of mitigating its effects.” He later expressed pride in his role in that case.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he wanted to uphold a requirement that a woman notify her husband before obtaining an abortion, a proposition Justice O’Connor and the majority rejected, declaring, “A State may not give to a man the kind of dominion over his wife that parents exercise over their children.”

His strategy of pressing for more and more restrictions on Roe clearly became the ongoing strategy of the anti-choice movement — a movement that would restrict religious freedom by imposing one religion’s view on all women.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism recently repeated its support for legislation “maintaining the legality and accessibility of abortion so that in those cases where our religious authorities determine that an abortion is warranted halachically, obtaining that abortion will not be hindered by our civil law.” It’s clear that as a Supreme Court judge, Alito would threaten this principle.

So, what is “good for the Jews?” It’s a Supreme Court committed to upholding the rights and liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights, to upholding the letter and spirit of pluralism and to upholding basic values of inclusion and fairness.

The protections we seek as members of a minority religious group cannot exist in a vacuum, but only in the context of a larger society in which everyone’s rights and liberties are protected. For that reason, the National Council of Jewish Women urges all Jews and Jewish organizations to join with us in the fight to defeat Alito’s nomination to a lifetime seat on the highest court in the land.

Phyllis Snyder is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.


Turning GOP in O.C.

An emerging conservatism among Jews has rattled traditional Southern California partisan allegiances, and local Republicans are claiming a surge of new Jewish recruits. But in Orange County, one of the most conservative strongholds in the nation, party leaders say the migration has been going on for years.

“I think it has been rather consistent and ongoing for quite some time,” said Tom Fuentes, chairman of the O.C. Republican Party. “What I’ve seen is a philosophical motivation among practicing Jews involved with their faith finding a value compatibility with the values of the Republican Party.”

The conservative trend, as well the presence of Jewish Republicans on the ballot in the upcoming election, has energized the once-dormant local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has bloomed to 75 members.

“It sort of petered out over the last several years, but now it is thriving,” said Bobby Zemel, an RJC member from Anaheim. “I think recent events in the Middle East have really shaken American Jewry into understanding which party has the interest of Israel in mind. I think they are especially attracted to Jews in leadership within the Republican Party in Orange County.”

Zemel pointed to Adam Probolsky, a pollster from Costa Mesa who heads the 400 Club, the O.C. Republican Party’s largest fundraising arm. Zemel also cited his father, former Anaheim City Councilman Bob Zemel, who serves as the party’s second vice chairman and is currently seeking to reclaim his council seat, and Jon Fleischman, a deputy with the O.C. Sheriff’s Department and former executive director of the California Republican Party.

Taking exception to Zemel’s thesis is Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a high-profile Democrat whose re-election race is of countywide interest because of Irvine’s role in reshaping the much-contested El Toro airport into a multiuse park complex.

Agran is running against a Republican, Mike House, and is campaigning on a slate with two other Jewish candidates. Agran said he did not “buy it for a minute” that Jews were leaders of the local Republican Party.

“I think this business about Jewish people in high positions in the Republican Party of Orange County is largely a myth,” said Agran, whose running mates for two city council seats are incumbent Beth Krom and Mitch Goldstone. “The fact of the matter is that Jews share progressive values that are most reflected in the Democratic Party and in independent thinking.” Agran said it was in a democratic spirit that neither his running mates’ religious affiliation nor his opponent’s became an issue in their races.

House is joined on the Republican ticket by Irvine City Council candidates Christina Shea, a former two-term mayor of Irvine, and Chuck DeVore, an aerospace executive.

DeVore, Goldstone, Krom and Shea are vying for two open seats, along with Libertarian candidate Linda Lee Grau.

Fuentes said Jewish Republican candidates in Orange County have benefited from the local support, especially Republican County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for a state Assembly seat. Spitzer, who leaves open a highly coveted seat, is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Bea Foster, a teacher from Santa Ana, mainly because of the highly Republican makeup of Assembly District 71 and his popularity in leading the defeat of El Toro.

Although the Republican Jewish Coalition has not formally endorsed Orange County candidates, it supports candidates along strict partisan lines. One candidate, however, seven-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), has posed a unique challenge to some Jewish Republicans.

Rohrabacher’s Jewish opponent, Gerrie Schipske, a Long Beach community college trustee and the Democratic nominee for the 46th Congressional District, has accused Rohrabacher of being “anti-Israel.” Rohrabacher, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for Rohrabacher vehemently denied Schipske’s portrayal of the congressman.

Rohrabacher was one of only 21 House members to vote against the May 2002 resolution in support of Israel. According to the spokesman, however, this was a vote in support of President Bush, who was trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, not a vote against Israel.

“I count Dana as a friend,” said Probolsky. “He has voted very differently than what I hoped he would vote regarding Israel, but I think there are a whole lot of efforts by friends of his to try to get him to see a different perspective.”