In Hungary, rising anti-Semitism, growing fascism – and a Jewish renewal

July 19, 2017
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appear at a news conference in Budapest on July 18. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

On Shabbat morning in Budapest last week, Hungarian Jews did the same thing they’ve done every Shabbat for centuries: They went to shul.

But since theirs is among the world’s older and more established Jewish communities — Hungary’s first Jewish settlers arrived in Buda, west of the Danube River, as early as the 12th century — the Jews of Budapest do not daven in any ordinary shul. They pray in the historic Dohány Street Synagogue, known as “The Great Synagogue,” distinct for being the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world.

When I arrived around 10:30 a.m. on Shabbat, I had to convince the guard I was not a tourist but a Jew who wished to pray. I passed through a metal detector and checked my phone into a lockbox, before I was ushered down a corridor to the synagogue doors.

Built in the mid-19th century in the Moorish Revival style, Dohány is one of Budapest’s most popular tourist destinations. Countless tour buses pass here daily, offloading visitors to take selfies in front of its grand, red-brick façade. Tourists visit even on Shabbat, when the synagogue and its adjacent museum, built on the site where Theodor Herzl was born, are closed to the public.

Passing through the synagogue doors feels like entering a secret world. The interior is opulent and stately: With three gallery levels, stained glass, glimmering chandeliers and a ceiling so high you must tilt your head to see the frescoes hovering above, the synagogue rivals the great cathedrals of Europe. There are enough pews to seat 3,000 people. And it is easy to imagine a time when it did.

But this Shabbat, just 30 are davening Musaf.

Most of the congregants appeared older and male. Wrapped in tallitot, they scattered themselves among the pews as if they were leaving room for latecomers. Toward the front, a young couple flirted over an imaginary mechitzah, since the vast upper galleries that once served as the women’s section have long been abandoned. Still, the presence of youth felt promising, until I discovered the couple was not Hungarian, but Israeli. And they were only visiting.

In front of me, an elderly, petite woman dressed in black turned around and tried to make conversation in Hungarian. Seeing my perplexed expression, she switched to English.

“I’m a survivor,” she whispered. 

At the end of the service, an eerie silence swept in, replacing the cantor’s chanting. The congregation departed in unison and gathered around a small memorial to say Kaddish with a feeling that suggested this is what they were here for — after all, this community was decimated during the Holocaust, when it is estimated as many as 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and killed inside of eight weeks. If there is any one thing that defines the Jews of Budapest, it is loss.

I turned to the survivor and asked if there is still anti-Semitism here.

“There are anti-Semites everywhere!” she said with a thick accent. Then she leaned in, as if to tell me a secret. “People don’t love us. I don’t know why.”

A defaced, government-sponsored billboard in Hungary, part of a campaign targeting Jewish financier George Soros. It reads, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Many say it comes with anti-Semitic overtones.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why Hungarian Jews feel unloved. Their community was nearly annihilated during World War II, and even that catastrophe is but one example in a long history of anti-Semitic deeds and policies carried out both by the general population and successive Hungarian governments. The Communist rule that followed World War II sustained many of the Nazi-era, anti-Jewish hostilities that devastated the community.

Today, Hungarian Jews continue to live on edge. Although they carry on with normal lives and daily routines, they cannot shake a feeling of dread. Most of them move about their days trailed by an uneasy feeling that danger lurks just around the corner, and that no matter how “good” life might get, it all could disappear in an instant.

So it isn’t a stretch to connect the pestilence of anti-Semitism that has plagued this community for centuries with the fact that only 30 people are praying in a synagogue built for 3,000. But to offer only a grim portrayal of another lost community of Europe would belie a more complicated reality for Hungarian Jews.

Jewish life in Hungary has suffered primal and perhaps permanent wounds, but the country’s remaining Jews are dogged and determined. There is plenty of evidence that they are striving to pursue avenues to Jewish identity despite rising anti-Semitism and deep distrust in a right-wing, authoritarian government many say is duplicitous.

“The prime minister has said and written that our government will defend the Jewish community and the Jews here in Hungary,” Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich told me. “That’s what he says.”

“Do you believe him?” I ask.

“I believe in God and that the Mashiach will come,” he replied.

In recent weeks, tensions with the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have escalated. Although the government professes official support for the Jewish community in public statements and gatherings, it also encourages a Hungarian ethnic nationalism that undermines it. Words like Lebensraum (“living space”) have crept into national discourse in recent years, used to describe Hungarian geopolitical goals the same way Hitler used the term. To gin up national pride, Orbán has praised former Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy, the World War II regent who oversaw the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews to death camps. Although some believe Horthy conspired in private to defy Hitler, his rise to power in 1920 was accompanied by the “White Terror,” a two-year campaign of violence and repression that targeted Jews, and his government is credited with passing the first anti-Semitic law of the 20th century.

Chief Rabbi Robert Frölich

Even if, as some say, he saved Jews, he wasn’t exactly Oskar Schindler. Orbán described Horthy as an “exceptional statesman.”

Earlier this month, the government displayed its indifference to Jewish sensitivities when it sponsored a multimillion-dollar anti-immigration campaign, targeting Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros, whose face is plastered on thousands of bus stops and billboards around the country. “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh,” the poster reads in Hungarian, referring to the Holocaust survivor’s support for policies that would allow immigrants to enter the country.

“He is public enemy No. 1,” said Judy K., a 64-year-old teacher and private tutor who asked that her full name not be printed, referring to Orbán. “There is an atmosphere of intimidation here and they can easily retaliate.” She said the Soros campaign is a perfect example. “It reminds me of the [George] Orwell novel ‘1984’ because it seems as if the government is following the same script: Pinpoint the scapegoat who can be blamed for everything,” she said. “And it has rather severe anti-Semitic connotations.”

Many in the Jewish community agree that the campaign panders to anti-Semitic tropes, depicting Soros as a wealthy internationalist Jew with outsized power who poses a threat to the Hungarian nation. Soros has compared the campaign against him to “Europe’s darkest hours,” a reference to the Nazi years, adding in a statement last week, “I am distressed by the current Hungarian regime’s use of anti-Semitic imagery as part of its deliberate disinformation campaign.”

Jewish concern with the campaign is reflected in the Anti-Defamation League’s definition of anti-Semitism, which it defines as “a form of hatred, mistrust, and contempt for Jews based on a variety of stereotypes and myths, [which] often invoke the belief that Jews have extraordinary influence with which they conspire to harm or control society. It can target Jews as individuals, as a group or as a people.” 

The Soros campaign made international headlines in recent weeks after leaders in the Hungarian community denounced its sinister undertones. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote a carefully worded letter to Orbán asking him to remove the posters. Although “not openly anti-Semitic, [the campaign] is capable of inducing anti-Semitic sentiments,” Heisler wrote.

In a rather tetchy response, Orbán replied that his campaign against immigration was in fact protecting the Jewish community. “I don’t expect thanks or recognition for our struggle against illegal migration, but a little help from your community would be nice.” 

It is amid this fraught atmosphere that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an official visit to the country this week, the first by a sitting Israeli prime minister since 1989, when Yitzhak Shamir made an unofficial visit to Budapest for one day. But locals had low expectations and mixed feelings about Netanyahu’s historic visit.

“We don’t really care; it doesn’t really help us,” Kata Nadas, a 33-year-old Jewish tour guide told me.

If there was any hope that the Israeli prime minister might provide moral support to the local community and denounce the Soros campaign, it was dashed when instead of criticizing the government, he criticized Soros.

Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe. Photo from Wikipedia

“If Netanyahu is a person who doesn’t think this [campaign] is anti-Semitism, then for me, if he’s here or not here, it doesn’t make a difference,” Nadas said.

By the afternoon of July 18, news had spread that Orbán struck all the right rhetorical notes with the Israeli leader. “I made it clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the government will secure the Jewish minority and that we have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism,” he said.

In a stunning about-face, he also appeared to accept responsibility for Hungarian collaboration in the Holocaust. “We decided in World War II, instead of protecting the Jewish community, to cooperate with the Nazis. This will never happen again. Former Hungarian governments made a sin not protecting Jews.”

Despite Orbán’s overtures to Netanyahu, Hungarian Jews question his sincerity. In 2014, Orbán came under fire for hastily erecting a Holocaust monument that many felt whitewashed Hungary’s crimes. Although the monument is a memorial to victims of World War II and includes an inscription in Hebrew, it depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel as he’s about to be mauled by a German imperial eagle, a clear implication that Hungary was an innocent victim of Germany, and not a willing accomplice. It raised the ire of locals who erected their own counter-monument in protest.

Orbán’s latest concession to the Israeli prime minister looked to some like a quid pro quo for Netanyahu’s refusal to denounce the anti-Soros campaign.

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, published a statement on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page, calling for “those involved in the current billboard campaign … to reconsider.”

“The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” he said. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”

But soon after his message was posted, Israel’s foreign ministry stepped in and backpedaled. “Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred,” the statement read. But, “in no way was the [ambassador’s] statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Hungarian Jews felt betrayed. Even if Netanyahu has a legitimate beef with Soros, who has supported organizations in the Jewish state that have criticized his government, to allow the Hungarian government to depict him as a singular source of menace and evil — in a country that associates him with Judaism — it was a step too far.

“Whether the intention behind the campaign was consciously anti-Semitic or not, the posters both verbally and visually resemble political discourse in the interwar years, and even worse,” Rabbi Radnóti Zoltán wrote to me via email. “By now it is clear that it evokes dormant anti-Semitism: several of the posters have been inscribed with Stars of David or slogans such as ‘dirty Jew.’ It is pure hate-speech directed against one individual — who happens to be a millionaire and a Jew, which [several forums], including state media, are eager to point out.”

The back and forth over this campaign has been intense. Paul Nussbaum, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, told me, “I broke my long-standing rule, which is: I never publicly criticize the Israeli government in writing because I consider it to be ‘inside baseball,’ but this is not inside baseball.”

Nussbaum is the son of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors and has relatives who live here. Last week, he traveled to Budapest to protest the Soros campaign in a meeting with Orbán’s top ministers. “It is very disappointing to see the Israeli leader pandering to the right-wing, totalitarian, revisionist government in Hungary,” Nussbaum said. “Orbán has been ostracized by the European Union and the European community because of his turn to the right and his dismantling of democratic institutions.”

The majority of local Jews I spoke to expressed dismay at what they see as an unholy alliance between Orbán and Netanyahu. Many say it is symptomatic of a worldwide trend in which populist leaders are using their mandate to dismantle or diminish democratic institutions and weaken opposition to their power. It is not uncommon to hear comparisons of Orbán with Netanyahu, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — and President Donald Trump.

“These illiberal governments get legitimacy from each other,” Nussbaum said. “Their club is a very small club.”

Some describe Orbán’s governing style as “state capture.”

“His policy is divide and rule,” Judy K., the teacher said. “We have a completely incapacitated opposition, and there are no checks and balances to check those in power — for example, there are no opposition members in any of the major institutions, including the constitutional court, law enforcement and legislation.”

The economy also is stagnant. “The middle class is shrinking very rapidly,” Judy K. added, “and Orbán has waged a war against the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have left to work in Germany, Austria and London. The young professionals have left. People cannot make plans for the future because it is so unpredictable. This is not a pretty picture.”

But it does provide a perfect opportunity for a scapegoat.

“What you do when the domestic situation is awful is you try to get everyone to focus on something beyond the domestic,” Nussbaum said. “So you focus on borders and followers of Islam coming through and destroying Hungarian culture. That’s why you could successfully wage the Soros campaign, which is like a cartoon out of Der Stürmer, [the Nazi-era tabloid], or ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ It works: You blame your problems on a Jewish extra-rich capitalist who is trying to control events inside the country.

Chief Rabbi Frölich also said the economic downturn is partly to blame for the rise in anti-Semitism. “When people become poorer and poorer, they have to find someone to blame. This is the experience of the last couple hundred years; the Jews are always there to be blamed.”

Despite general indifference to Netanyahu’s visit, some say it is a powerful signal to Orbán that Hungarian Jews are a force to be reckoned with, and Jewish leaders welcomed a show of solidarity with Netanyahu’s office.   

“When the prime minister of Israel visits us, it’s an honor for us,” Frölich said. “It shows that we cannot be put down, that we are a significant part of Hungarian society.”

Although he stopped short of describing Hungarian Jewry as flourishing, Frölich said Jewish life in Budapest is strong. Population estimates hover around 100,000. The city has synagogues, schools and kosher restaurants. There are Jewish newspapers, Jewish theater and Jewish cultural events. Earlier this month, the Jewish street fair, “Judafest,” celebrated its 10th anniversary, convening 28 Jewish organizations and attracting an estimated 10,000 Jews for a weekend of cultural, educational and religious programs.

“Jewish life is pretty good here because you have everything you need to keep your religious life — you can go to services every morning, you have kosher food, you have a Jewish educational system — anything you need, you have,” said Frölich, who ministers at Dohany Street Synagogue.

A Jewish summer festival in Budapest is a sign of a reawakened community.

Chabad Rabbi Slomó Köves, who leads the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH), also offered an optimistic portrait.

“When I look at Jewish life in Hungary, I see that religious life and communal life is thriving,” he said by phone from Berlin.

The 38-year-old Köves was born in Hungary to secular parents but now leads an Orthodox congregation. “To be Jewish today in Hungary, you don’t need a survival strategy,” he said. “But if I go to France and walk down the street in a kippah, I need a survival strategy.

“I’m speaking to you now from Berlin,” he added, “and when I entered the synagogue, I had to go through three gates of security. In Hungary, if you go to the synagogue, you can go freely.”

When I point out that I had to pass through security myself on Shabbat, he challenged me. “Where?” he asked. “You should go to different synagogues. If you go to any synagogue in Europe, you have to call ahead and give your passport. But forget about this. Just look at the figures.”

Köves cited statistics from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which tracks hate crimes throughout the continent. According to the OSCE, in 2015 there were 786 anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom, 715 in France and 79 in Hungary in 2014, the latest year statistics are available. The U.K. and French governments report their own statistics, while Hungary depends upon “civil society” reporting.

“I’m not saying there’s no work to do; anti-Semitism in Hungary is definitely an issue,” Köves said. “But it’s very different from anti-Semitism in Western European countries. Since there is no Muslim community here in Hungary, there’s practically no anti-Semitic assault.”

Ah, there’s the rub.

Muslims, of course, are the real target of the government’s anti-Soros campaign. The feared “illegal immigration” and “migrant” problem that has obsessed Orbán’s government for the past several years is a direct reference to the wave of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and famine in the Middle East.

“In their [Hungarian government’s] proxy war against the immigrant, Soros has become a symbolic figure of somebody who is for bringing in immigrants,” Köves said. But that should not, he insisted, be confused with anti-Semitism.

“I wouldn’t call [the Soros campaign] anti-Semitism; I would call it something which touches on sensitive nerves of the general public and the Jewish community,” he said. “This political campaign is definitely, in my view, not a very elegant one, but I believe it’s a mistake if we turn the criticism into a Jewish criticism. It could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Even if some people think it could be understood [as] anti-Semitism, why should I come and confirm them? Why should I say to the general public, ‘Well, whoever criticizes Soros is an anti-Semite.’ ”

Judy K. said Köves and his community provide cover for the Hungarian government. “Orbán uses his closeness [to the EMIH community] to demonstrate that he wants to protect Jews against the migrants.”

But the majority of Hungarian Jews I spoke to weren’t mincing words. “Anti-Semitism runs deep, deep in the Hungarian DNA,” said Hungarian-born film producer Robert Lantos, who is a friend of mine.

Even for Soros haters, the anti-immigration campaign reeks of something rotten. And yet, like Netanyahu, Lantos feels no love lost for Soros, who has contributed millions of dollars to left-leaning organizations in Israel, some of which define themselves as human rights groups, most of them ferociously critical of Netanyahu’s government. “Soros is an enemy of Israel and there’s no reason for Israel to defend him,” Lantos said.

As far as I can tell, Hungarian Jews are like most Jews: proud, opinionated, diverse, defensive, politically differentiated and devoted to Jewish continuity. The difference for those who live here is that they live with a persistent, gnawing anxiety, “an intangible kind of threat,” as Judy K. put it, that exists just beneath the surface of civility but which could explode into physical danger or violence at any moment.

How thin is the veil that could eclipse the good life they’ve worked so hard to rebuild? After all, Hungary is a place in which the memory of the Holocaust is not a distant story but an ever-present reality. It transpired on its neighborhood street corners and along the beautiful banks of the Danube River, the now merged cities of Buda on one side, Pest on the other. For Hungarian Jews, this country will always exist as part living graveyard.

How much longer will things remain tolerable?

The threat of anti-Semitism “is growing stronger and stronger,” Frölich said. “The dangerous level is when anti-Semitism shows itself in deeds. Now, here in Hungary, we have ‘only’ the verbal anti-Semitism. But we’re not so far from the dangerous level.”

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