Sunday, March 24, 2013

  • Sunday, March 24, 2013
  • Elder of Ziyon
From Time:
Budapest has Central Europe's largest population of Jews, an estimated 100,000, with dozens of synagogues, prayer houses, art galleries, wine bars and community centers. Yet thanks to a declining economy and growing anti-Semitism, more and more Jews are either leaving Hungary or considering it. The number of those who have actually emigrated is still relatively small--an estimated 1,000 over the past year, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known as Mazsihisz--but in Facebook forums, at synagogues and over casual dinners at Jewish bistros, the question looms large. "You look around at your friends," says Dani, a 36-year-old architect who requested that his last name not be used, "and they're all asking, Is it time to go?"

They have reason to wonder. In June, Budapest's retired chief rabbi, Jozsef Schweitzer, was accosted by a man who said he "hates all Jews." In October two men attacked Jewish leader Andras Kerenyi, kicking him in the stomach and shouting obscenities at him. When Kerenyi's assailants were arrested, an online radio station praised the attack, calling it "a response to general Jewish terrorism." In December, Balazs Lenhardt, an independent Member of Parliament, burned an Israeli flag in front of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry during an anti-Zionist protest--one in which participants shouted, "To Auschwitz with you all." In the past several months, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, Holocaust monuments have been damaged, and swastikas have been painted on synagogue walls. On March 14, professors at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest found stickers affixed to their office door that read, "Jews! The university belongs to us, not you! Regards, the Hungarian students."

Isolated anti-Jewish events occur occasionally throughout Europe, but the frequency of these incidents in Hungary has accompanied a measurable darkening of public opinion. Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest's Central European University, found that from 1992 to 2006, levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary remained relatively stable. About 10% of adults qualified as fervent anti-Semites, another 15% had some anti-Semitic feelings, and 60% of the population was not anti-Semitic at all. But beginning in 2006, when Hungary's economy began to deteriorate and far-right parties began to rise, the intolerance started to intensify. By 2010 the percentage of those who qualified as fervent anti-Semites had risen to as high as 20%, and the percentage who said they held no anti-Jewish feelings had dropped to 50%.

...The standard bearer of the radical right is Jobbik, or the Movement for a Better Hungary. The party won 16.7% of the vote in the 2010 national election, making it the third largest in Hungary. Though its strong showing was widely attributed to its anti-Roma platform, Jobbik's members have made no secret of their anti-Jewish feelings. In one notorious incident in November, Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi--who has said he is concerned that Hungarian foreign policy unduly favors Israel--called for a survey of "how many people of Jewish origin there are in Hungary and in government who may represent a risk to national security."

As outrage grew over his call for what the media quickly deemed a "list"--a term especially radioactive in a country where community lists were used during World War II to deport Jews to concentration camps--Gyongyosi backtracked, claiming that he had meant that only dual-nationality Hungarian Israelis in government should be identified. Yet in an interview with TIME in early February, he characterized a 2007 speech by Shimon Peres--in which the Israeli President noted that empires today could be founded "without settling colonies" and jokingly remarked that his fellow citizens were "buying up Manhattan, Hungary, Romania and Poland"--as evidence of Israel's nefarious intentions. "[Peres] said that what you need to subjugate another people and colonize them is money and business," said Gyongyosi. "It's not conspiracy theory to say, I live in this country and I look around me and I see this kind of colonization."

...At the national level, Fidesz has taken serious steps to combat anti-Semitism," says Feldmajer. "But at the local level, the municipal level, there's often collaboration between Jobbik and Fidesz." Feldmajer claims there are "anti-Semitic voices within Fidesz" that are sometimes indistinguishable from those within Jobbik. One of the most inflammatory of those voices is Zsolt Bayer, a virulently anti-Roma tabloid journalist who was one of the ruling party's founders. After Andras Schiff, the famous London-based Hungarian pianist, wrote a letter to the Washington Post saying he would not return to Hungary because of its current political situation, Bayer wrote a newspaper column in which he referred to Schiff and a pair of foreign Jewish critics of the Hungarian government as "a stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England." Bayer, who remains close to Fidesz leaders, maintains that he was criticizing them for their political beliefs, not their religion.

...And yet even people like Vero-Ban, who is married to Rabbi Tamas Vero and loves Budapest, is wondering whether it is time to leave. About two years ago, her husband took their two young daughters out shopping. As he knelt on the floor to help his girls try on shoes, a passerby spied the rabbi's kippah and began shouting slurs at him while onlookers did nothing. If the family hasn't emigrated yet, it's because Vero feels a responsibility to his community. Still, the question figured prominently in the rabbi's Rosh Hashanah sermon last year. "I wonder if we are brave enough to face the unknown now," Vero said. "Or if, in a few centuries, our descendants will ask, Why did the Jews not return to the Holy Land in the 21st century? Did they not learn from history?"

The number of Hungarian Jews who have immigrated to Israel is small--170 last year--and many leave for economic reasons as well as political. Unemployment is 11.2% in Hungary, and in 2012, its GDP contracted by 1.7%. But even those who can easily find a job are wondering where their line in the sand should be. Not long ago, Dani the architect and his wife Eszter were on a crowded city bus with a man who was yelling into his cell phone about a "'dirty Jew who wouldn't give me back my money.' The first time you hear something like that, you're really shocked," Eszter recalls. "The second time, you're just shocked. And the third time, it starts to seem normal." The two have seriously considered leaving--Dani has sent out his portfolio to a number of foreign companies--but so far, the desire to remain close to their family has kept them in Hungary. "I still believe those things can't happen again," Dani says, referring to the Holocaust. "But maybe we're kidding ourselves. You know the saying about how you cook a frog not by dropping him in boiling water--he jumps out--but by putting him in cold water and slowly turning up the heat? Maybe we're the frogs."


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