Hungarian antisemitism: How to combat it?

I would like to share with you an opinion piece by Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, whom I consider one of the sharpest commentators on Hungarian politics. In today’s issue of Galamus she wrote about the growing antisemitism in Hungary, a topic with which the liberal Hungarian media is preoccupied. The pro-government newspapers are naturally less so. While the liberals demand placing neo-Nazi Jobbik into quarantine, Magyar Televízió (MTV) allowed Márton Gyöngyösi to explain himself on its early morning program. Let’s further spread the “gospel” of hate.

The title of Mihancsik’s article is “Antisemitism: A short history of responsibility.” Actually, the word she uses, and what I translated as antisemitism, is “zsidózás,” coming from the verb “zsidózni,” which is an untranslatable Hungarian verb. It means talking about Jews in an unfavorable light. It also implies that the speaker regularly engages in anti-Jewish speech.

Mihancsik outlines her view of how and why Hungarian society ended up in a state where an openly racist neo-Nazi party, Jobbik, managed to get 800,000 votes in the last elections. Although a lot of people, especially on the right, denied the seriousness of the early signs of the growth of the extreme right, Mihancsik is convinced that it was this underestimation of the problem that was one reason for the present situation. In addition, in her opinion it was a grave mistake for the Hungarian right to consider communism and fascism equal dangers for Hungarian society.

A day after Márton Gyöngyösi’s speech in parliament there happened to be a conference about hate speech organized by the European Council in Budapest. Here Zoltán Balog, minister in charge of human resources, claimed that the hate speech of today is actually an inheritance from the communist dictatorship when “hate speech was organized by the state. For example, the state organized hatred against the kulaks. It is that hate speech that lives on today in Hungary and it is our duty to do something against it.” One could laugh if such nonsense weren’t so sad. Hatred of the Jews and Gypsies goes back to the Rákosi period? Organized by the communists?

Although Balog desperately tries to blame the communists for having people like Gyöngyösi in the Hungarian parliament, the more proximate blame lies elsewhere. Not only is Fidesz responsible for the state of affairs in Hungary today but also people like László Sólyom who simply refused to make a distinction between the dangers coming from the right and the left. Who can forget when Sólyom compared 168 Óra, a liberal paper, to kurucinfo, a virulent anti-Semitic website, and stated that “both are extremist”? LMP, whose leadership came out of a civic organization headed by László Sólyom before he became president, to this day claims that the “Nazi danger” simply doesn’t exist. The Hungarian left is simply using the ogre of Nazism before “every election.”

Speaker's cornerWhen in 1991 the liberals and socialists organized the Demokratikus Charta against István Csurka and his antisemitism, Fidesz, although then still a liberal party, refused to join MSZP and SZDSZ. By 1998 Viktor Orbán himself was using code words conveying antisemitic sentiments when he talked about people whose heart is in foreign lands (idegenszívűek). Surely, everybody knew that he was talking about Jewish cosmopolitan liberals. By 2002 Orbán was talking about “élettér,” the Hungarian translation of Lebensraum, a word carefully avoided by most people. And let’s not forget that Orbán considered Jobbik in its earliest days to be a youth organization of Fidesz. He looked upon these youngsters with fatherly care, as he himself said.

Those who underestimate the danger of the extreme right, in Mihancsik’s opinion, include Fidesz, László Sólyom, SZDSZ, LMP, and finally the “doctrinaire human rights protectors” who paid no attention to the content of words uttered. She considers András Schiffer one of these “fundamentalist defenders of human rights” who while working for TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought for the freedom of racist and antisemitic speech and did everything to prevent any police action against the neo-Nazis.”

Mihancsik considers Schiffer “the most responsible man among active politicians on the democratic side for the defenseless state of Hungarian society against racism and antisemitism.” In her opinion, Schiffer’s attitude and actions  are “a much greater sin than any uncertainties, errors, mistakes, and weaknesses of all the socialist-liberal governments before 2010.”

Naturally, one can disagree with Mihancsik’s views, and I am sure that many of the readers will. Many people will find it unacceptable to limit free speech, however odious. Others will take the view that the American view of free speech is simply not applicable in Hungary, a country with a history that includes the deportation of 600,000 Jewish citizens. Or that has such a history of discrimination against the Roma. Others, as some of the SZDSZ liberals often repeated in the past, believe that the problem cannot be solved by legal means. The society’s attitude must change. The question is indeed very complicated.

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85 comments

  1. Remarks.
    1. Under Kadar, “zsidozas” and other ethnic slurs were confined to the soccer stadiums.
    Coded and uncoded “zsidozas”, by Fidesz and Jobbik respectively, is now everyday phenomenon.

    2. Fidesz and Jobbik has been in a de facto coalition in their Kulturkampf since 2010.
    They just exercised this cooperation yesterday in Szeged to fire the director
    of the Szeged arts festival.
    http://nol.hu/archivum/kaosz_lesz_a_szegedi_szabadterin

  2. @Minusio

    A French NGO is at the moment trying to get Twitter to disclose the names of tweeps who have been using certain hashtags to spread antisemitic discourse. They may succeed, they may not, but this is only about people who openly broke the line – next time they’ll just be more careful and use coded language. And the decoder will be available somewhere out of reach.

    I find political hate speech to be relatively open, here in Hungary, ie much more direct than in France for instance where it is now mostly in coded form. Nevertheless, I don’t think it really makes a difference – in both countries the level has risen far above 5-10%. And I don’t think it’s a matter of education… it’s a matter of fear.

    @Kirsten

    Surely, in the case of Jobbik, there are remnants of previous interwar antisemitism. Yet, their pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian stances are certainly something new. In my view, these stances are used to cover for antisemitic discourse in a way that can attract younger people. World politics are just way more cool, aren’t they?

    Gyöngyösi had a slip of the tongue when he first mentioned ‘jewish descent’ – which himself an his colleagues immediately tried to spin towards plural citizenship in general. This, coming from people who – like Fidesz – want to give a second Hungarian citizenship to every magyarophone in Central Europe…

    Western European far-right parties made the same move when they switched from flattering ‘traditional’ anti-immigrants feelings to anti-islam rethorics. Now everything that happens anywhere in the muslim world can be related to what happens at home.

  3. Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10) :
    @Minusio
    A French NGO is at the moment trying to get Twitter to disclose the names of tweeps who have been using certain hashtags to spread antisemitic discourse. They may succeed, they may not, but this is only about people who openly broke the line – next time they’ll just be more careful and use coded language. And the decoder will be available somewhere out of reach.
    I find political hate speech to be relatively open, here in Hungary, ie much more direct than in France for instance where it is now mostly in coded form. Nevertheless, I don’t think it really makes a difference – in both countries the level has risen far above 5-10%. And I don’t think it’s a matter of education… it’s a matter of fear.
    @Kirsten
    Surely, in the case of Jobbik, there are remnants of previous interwar antisemitism. Yet, their pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian stances are certainly something new. In my view, these stances are used to cover for antisemitic discourse in a way that can attract younger people. World politics are just way more cool, aren’t they?
    Gyöngyösi had a slip of the tongue when he first mentioned ‘jewish descent’ – which himself an his colleagues immediately tried to spin towards plural citizenship in general. This, coming from people who – like Fidesz – want to give a second Hungarian citizenship to every magyarophone in Central Europe…
    Western European far-right parties made the same move when they switched from flattering ‘traditional’ anti-immigrants feelings to anti-islam rethorics. Now everything that happens anywhere in the muslim world can be related to what happens at home.

    “… it’s a matter of fear.”

    Who is afraid of whom? And Why? Sorry, but I don’t understand.

  4. Minusio @ 4

    Clever!
    This is definitely food for thought for me, thanks…

    However, I made another observation. There seems to be a steep and long learning curve for “freed slaves” to become sovereign masters of their own destiny. To a larger or lesser degree you can see this with most ex-colonies, but also with the ex-satellites of the Soviet Union. And then it depends on the right people at the right time. For example, the politician I think is the most convincing European at present is Prime Minister Tusk of Poland (after the unspeakable Kaczyński twins). In contrast, the Czech Republic under Vaclav Klaus is nothing to write home about (I regularly follow the English news of Radio Prague about their petty mess).
    Let me downscale my observation to make it more graphic. The picturesque town of Meersburg at Lake Constance belonged to the bishops of Constance (across the lake) for many centuries. But even after the secularisation in 1803 it didn’t become independent, but came under the rule of the House of Baden. Although a few modernisations were carried out between 1870 and 1929, it soon came under the grip of the Nazis. – Finally, in 1945 it was free, a town like any other – theoretically. But it took more than another generation (until the 1970s) for them to be able to govern themselves. For 30 years, the town council was divided into two camps, mayors were deposed, schemes against each and everybody abounded, finances became rather irregular, court cases ensued, etc. In short, there was no sense of civic consensus and responsibility. But they finally did learn to get their act together.
    But mind you, they never had lived under any long-term tyranny (the nazi spook was over after 12 years – a brief episode in the 1000-year-old history of this town), they were just not used to running their own affairs in a sovereign, responsible manner. So back to the larger picture: How much harder it is for East and Central East European countries that had lived under tyranny for 50-70 years!
    In one sense (but not in Orbán’s) communism was worst, because it wiped out the upper middle class that normally is the catchment area for the “class politique” in most countries.

  5. I can’t help but wonder what sort of education Hungarians are getting concerning WWII and the holocaust. Is there any? When I visited my grandfathers hometown of Tokaj the ruined( and partially reconstructed) synagogue was still sitting in the middle of town. No one could miss it. Or misunderstand it’s history. It simply blows my mind that these hatreds could still be going on against a decimated people who contributed so much to Hungarian cultural and scientific life. Like I said, I wonder what if anything is taught in Hungarian schools.

  6. Kirsten @49
    I think this is very true, at least in some cases:

    ” I would not exclude the possibility that for many people engaging in zsidozas, it is just habitual behaviour and intellectual laziness – the additional function of this then being that you are not expected to offer your compatriots more thoughtful behaviour, and you cannot expect anything of the kind in return. “

  7. Why do we not start with the details of the marton gyongyos’s life:
    http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyöngyösi_Márton ?
    1. son of Hungarian spies?
    2. agent of muslim authorities?
    I am repeating my proposal, to arrange a 24 hour picketing his house.
    Does he deserve rest unless stopping his cheap carrier of incitement?
    Does he deserve some resistance?

  8. “I can’t help but wonder what sort of education Hungarians are getting concerning WWII and the holocaust. Is there any?”

    I’m not at school any more 🙂 but I’m Hungarian.

    History classes do teach the holocaust (and did so even during communist times), and the suffering of Jews is condemned. Also there are a lot of films, books, poems, autobiographies, documentaries around, written for teenagers, and a lot of Hungarians visit Auschwitz at some point in their life. When I was little, anyone who even drew a svastika (?) was severely punished.

    The vast majority of Hungarians do not wish any kind of holocaust to happen again.

    But a lot of Hungarians think that Jews still favour each other to the interests of “Hungarians”. Some Hungarians can tell who are Jewish by the shape of their faces or their surnames, so they interpret their behaviour according to this prejudice. There is also an element of envy in it, as there always has been, since Jews are said to be better at finances and better at establishing high-fly careers.
    But as Kirsten explains, a lot of it is just a habit, like a reflex, something that people have heard from people around them, never questioned it, they believe it to be true and they don’t recognize themselves as antisemitic.
    I was brought up by an antisemitic father and remember many-many conversations (arguments, verbal fights…) with him about this topic, especially during my university years. At some point he told me that if I ever decided to marry a Jew, that would totally override his opinion and he would welcome a Jewish son-in-law. This kind of “mild” antisemitism (“I wouldn’t harm a Jew and the holocaust was a tragedy for the whole mankind, but I have the right to tell the truth about them BUT personally they are no problem, really”) is very common still.
    Or: one can like a Jewish actress to the point of her being their favourite actress. But if that actress sits in a chat-show panel together with 5 more Jewish actors and actresses, they will quickly point out “they are all JEWS” as if it meant their opinion or performance is you-know-what…doesn’t matter / distorted / serves the interests of you-know-who…

    I put “mild” in q. marks because it is still very unfair prejudice and provides the ground for more active and angrier antisemitism.

    What they teach about WW2 in general is a different story. Huge gaps and distortions there, to say the least.

  9. The best way to give credibility to racists and lunatics is by banning them. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Indonesia, Hungary, Mali or the USA: The best way to fight raving racist lunatics is by letting their ideas be debated in public.

    I’m with the ACLU, TASZ and many demonstrators in Tahrir Square on this issue.

  10. CarlosD :
    I can’t help but wonder what sort of education Hungarians are getting concerning WWII and the holocaust. Is there any? When I visited my grandfathers hometown of Tokaj the ruined( and partially reconstructed) synagogue was still sitting in the middle of town. No one could miss it. Or misunderstand it’s history. It simply blows my mind that these hatreds could still be going on against a decimated people who contributed so much to Hungarian cultural and scientific life. Like I said, I wonder what if anything is taught in Hungarian schools.

    Not much. On Holocaust day, they might show a movie to students about the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

  11. As an American living abroad for my first time, I am still surprised about the openness of anti-Semitism and racism in Hungary and Central Europe. There is racism in the U.S. for sure, but it tends to be coded, kept in inner circles and spoken behind closed doors. There is usually huge media outrage (similar to what happened with Gyongyosi last week), but for even the most minor statements from low-level public figures. I don’t believe that most Hungarians share Jobbik’s worldview, but there is a problem with too much tolerance for this type of behavior. If the culture would more outwardly shun these ideas, maybe the racists would just go into the shadows. But in some instances, people might have a “man in the mirror” moment.

  12. CarlosD :
    I can’t help but wonder what sort of education Hungarians are getting concerning WWII and the holocaust. Is there any? When I visited my grandfathers hometown of Tokaj the ruined( and partially reconstructed) synagogue was still sitting in the middle of town. No one could miss it. Or misunderstand it’s history. It simply blows my mind that these hatreds could still be going on against a decimated people who contributed so much to Hungarian cultural and scientific life. Like I said, I wonder what if anything is taught in Hungarian schools.

    Unfortunately what Fidesz at this point officially wants to be thaught in schools are Trianon and how Jews were responsible for that, WWII and how Trianon was responsible for that, how the Jews were responsible for Horthy’s atrocities, and how Hungary tried to save the Jews on the helm with Horthy but were forced into the mess by the Germans.

  13. I hear that the anti-Jobbik demonstration had about 10-15,000 participants. That is less than .1% of Hungary’s population and less than 1% of Budapest’s population. Not very heartwarming numbers…

  14. @Minusio

    In Europe, for hate speech to become political there must be enough fear to be exploited. It’s not that bigots are frightened by the targets of their speech: they’ll say they feel threatened by them, but this is only part of the scapegoating process. The scapegoats are who they deem necessary to sacrifice in order to get rid of the fear.

    Those fears are about decline, a lack of prospects and a lack of perspective. And lots of bigots have a relatively high level of education…

  15. gdfxx :
    I hear that the anti-Jobbik demonstration had about 10-15,000 participants. That is less than .1% of Hungary’s population and less than 1% of Budapest’s population. Not very heartwarming numbers…

    Apparently many people were scared to go out as they were worried that Jobbik would identify them and put blood money on their head with the full blessing of the Orban government as it was the case when people who protested at a war criminal’s house very recently. Fidesz never distanced itself from Jobbik a that time, and still there are no consequences.
    THis is not a gossip as I heard this from a very few people now when I asked if they were there.

  16. Some1 :

    gdfxx :
    I hear that the anti-Jobbik demonstration had about 10-15,000 participants. That is less than .1% of Hungary’s population and less than 1% of Budapest’s population. Not very heartwarming numbers…

    Apparently many people were scared to go out as they were worried that Jobbik would identify them and put blood money on their head with the full blessing of the Orban government as it was the case when people who protested at a war criminal’s house very recently. Fidesz never distanced itself from Jobbik a that time, and still there are no consequences.
    THis is not a gossip as I heard this from a very few people now when I asked if they were there.

    It is true that Orban said nothing about this so far. However, Antal Rogan, who is the head of the FIDESZ parliamentary fraction was at the demonstration and gave an acceptable speech (in my opinion). If the reason for the low participation is fear, then Jobbik has achieved its goal.

  17. Chesire Cat: Very well put, that’s my perception too. I find it perfectly possible for a prime minister with jewish origins to be elected simply because most of the people might just not recognize him/her as a jew at all. I don’t remember who put it that way but Hungarian antisemitism is “antisemitism without jews”. It’s more of a conspiracy theory in general than something directed at particular people. Of course, there are some real hardcore Jew haters who’d most certainly welcome a second holocaust, but most of the time “jew” is a common term for liberals, the international financial world, leftists, people who don’t agree with the speaker on forums, etc. It’s very weird and I don’t claim to know how to battle it. It’s a lot easier with the Gyöngyösi type.

    By the way, I’m sure Eva is already working on the post about the demonstration today but I can’t wait to say that I think Gordon Bajnai was terrific again today both because of what he said and how he said it. Rogán was ok, Mesterházy not so much.

  18. gdfxx: Don’t buy the government propaganda about the hundreds of thousands of people they claim to have at their demos. A 10-15 000 people protest is a rather large one in Hungarian terms.

  19. About education on the Holocaust. I graduated from high school in 2002 and my experiences are very familiar to what chesire cat described. It was very strongly condemned, both by the teacher (an ardent Fidesz supporter by the way) and the textbook. (Konrád Salamon). On the Holocaust day we did have discussions about it. I realize that my high school might not be a representative sample, but judging from how much kuruc people complain about the “false history” taught in high schools, I think there is a chance that this particular thing is still done right.

  20. Jano :
    gdfxx: Don’t buy the government propaganda about the hundreds of thousands of people they claim to have at their demos. A 10-15 000 people protest is a rather large one in Hungarian terms.

    I wasn’t comparing this demonstration to any other one. I was disappointed at these numbers because I was hoping for a larger demonstration based on what happened in the parliament. Whether the small number was caused by fear or by lack of interest or by lack of indignation or, in the worst case, by a large percentage of the population’s agreement with Gyongyosi, it is disappointing (to me).

  21. Jano, very interesting list of people and groups that you named which are likely to be related to ‘Jews’. In such a case, it is to be asked whether the main discourse in society has ever been ‘modern’. I mean between people in private, not what has been expected in school.

  22. Kirsten: That’s a very good question. I guess in some layers of society, the answer is no. But we can’t generalize on this one either, this might change from friendgroup to friendgroup, family to family, etc.

  23. “Unfortunately what Fidesz at this point officially wants to be thaught in schools are Trianon and how Jews were responsible for that, WWII and how Trianon was responsible for that, how the Jews were responsible for Horthy’s atrocities, and how Hungary tried to save the Jews on the helm with Horthy but were forced into the mess by the Germans.”

    It becomes a very worrying world when something that ought to be gross and blackly funny cynicism is actually horribly close to the truth.

  24. Paul :

    It becomes a very worrying world when something that ought to be gross and blackly funny cynicism is actually horribly close to the truth.

    It becomes very worrying when a society fosters such conditions that people feel it necessary to go out onto the streets to voice their opinion that Nazism is wrong. (Kossuth Ter today)

    Or that women shouldn’t be subject to violence (Kossuth Ter in September)

    What painfully self-evident notion will be next, I wonder?

  25. “Whether the small number was caused by fear or by lack of interest or by lack of indignation or, in the worst case, by a large percentage of the population’s agreement with Gyongyosi, it is disappointing (to me).”

    The weather was pretty appalling for most of the day- I know that shouldnt affect numbers but realistically it does. the city was generally like a ghosttown on Sunday

  26. “Hungarian antisemitism is “antisemitism without jews”. It’s more of a conspiracy theory in general than something directed at particular people.”

    In my experience, this is a pretty accurate description (in general). There simply aren’t enough Jews left in Hungary (certainly outside Budapest) for most people to have day-to-day experience of living/working with Jews. And in most cases, when people talk about ‘Jews’ they mean either Israel or some unspecific ‘international conspiracy’, not actual Hungarian Jews.

    This is certainly true of my in-laws, and even of my wife, who has lived in the UK for 13 years and knows or works with many Jewish people. Her contact with Jews in no way affects her paranoia about ‘Jews’ in general and the ‘fact’ of their attempts to “buy up Hungary”, “work against Hungary”, etc. Only occasionally does she seem to connect the Jews she knows with the ‘Jews’ she has been taught to fear.

    Compare and contrast this with how the average (actually, just about ALL) Hungarian feels about the Roma – whom they very much DO experience at a personal level – and nearly always in a negative context.

    It’s almost as if you could replace the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ with another faith/nationality/ethnic group and it would make as much ‘sense’ to most Hungarians.

    But, having said all that, it would be a mistake either to dismiss this form of anti-Semitism as ‘not the real thing’, or to think that this general analysis applies to all Hungarians. As ‘mild’ or unthreatening as it may seem compared to the ‘real’ thing, this generalised form of anti-Semitism is still anti-Semitism and is the fuel on which Jobbik, and to a lesser extent, Fidesz, rose to power. And in the case of a minority (but a frighteningly large minority) of Hungarians, their anti-Semitism is very real indeed – and even more dangerous because it hides behind the general ‘milder’ form of anti-Semitism, and gains a certain amount of false validity from the generally accepted anti-Jewish sentiments.

    Make no mistake about it, however it’s analysed and explained away, this is a genuinely, and dangerously, anti-Semitic country – and getting worse.

  27. Paul :
    It becomes a very worrying world when something that ought to be gross and blackly funny cynicism is actually horribly close to the truth.

    I am not that worried. I learned from Kingfisher that the most important “truths” are widely known among Hungarians, even if they are somehow shared only through inofficial channels and are never declared as “official knowledge”. So I am confident that people stay well informed even if the officially aired information is plain nonsense.

  28. “What painfully self-evident notion will be next, I wonder?”

    That to be anti-Orbán or anti-Fidesz is to be anti-Hungary?

    I used to really look forward to landing at Budapest and going through passport control into Hungary – in many ways, 10 years ago, I preferred it to the UK. But I must be pretty easily identifiable from this blog, so now as I approach passport control, I half expect to find I appear on a list of ‘undesirables’.

  29. Kirsten :

    Paul :
    It becomes a very worrying world when something that ought to be gross and blackly funny cynicism is actually horribly close to the truth.

    I am not that worried. I learned from Kingfisher that the most important “truths” are widely known among Hungarians, even if they are somehow shared only through inofficial channels and are never declared as “official knowledge”. So I am confident that people stay well informed even if the officially aired information is plain nonsense.

    Much as I admire Kingfisher, I suspect that is an overly optimistic assessment based on living in Budapest and talking mainly to ex-pats, outsider-friendly Hungarians, and the better educated, more Liberal Budapesti. It is not my experience.

  30. Paul: “Make no mistake about it, however it’s analysed and explained away, this is a genuinely, and dangerously, anti-Semitic country – and getting worse.”

    I fully agree. Even if the “actual meaning” of Hungarian anti-semitism might be broader than plain hatred of Jews, and may not even imply hatred of neighbours etc., it has very real consequences. Not least in that a part of the society is permanently confronted with the message that they somehow do not belong to the society. But the broader picture might be useful when thinking about strategies how to deal with it – or at least how to prevent the younger generation from adopting this thinking as well (I know, the exact opposite of what Fidesz is now doing with the curricula).

    I looked the word zsidozni up in the magyar-cseh nagyszotar from 1989, and the word is indeed included (I admit I had my doubts).

  31. Ah ha! I feel slightly silly now. Still it’s nice to know you can be sarcastic as well, I always think of you as very serious.

  32. Google translates ‘zsidozni’ as ‘Jews out’.

    But it fails to translate ‘zsidózás’ at all. The English ‘problem’ with Hungarian in a nut shell!

  33. People who know me know what I think already from how I look or speak, so it’s really good that I can just write here on the blog :-).

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