Nora Berend: The antisemite question in Hungary

Nora Berend is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. She received her B.A. at Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, spent a year at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and completed her studies at Columbia University where she received her Ph.D.

Her field is medieval history, especially early Christianity at the “frontiers,” to which Hungary belongs. Her first book was At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000 – c. 1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

This article was originally published in Hungarian  in the December 30, 2013 issue of Népszabadság. Nora Berend generously translated her article into English for publication here.

* * *

These days, once again people talk about the ‘Jewish question’ as if ‘the Jews’ were the cause of real problems. Those who speak of the Jewish question count Jews according to the Nazi racial laws, irrespective of the individual’s religious adhesion, self-identification or commitment to the state of Israel.

There has never been, nor is there today, a Jewish question in Hungary. On the contrary, there was, and is again, an antisemite question. Antisemitism, which is a political tool. Two types of state models can be detected throughout Hungarian history. One was based on rights: in the modern period this means that every citizen is equally a member of the state. The other model excludes certain groups in the interest of a supposed religious or racial unity. This exclusion can take many forms, from verbal abuse to murder.

There are some who believe that it is possible to stop at a certain point. For example, one can blame ‘the Jews’ for the fate of the country, and that is not antisemitism, because nobody was lined up next to the Danube and shot. Yet history has demonstrated that where hate speech spreads because it receives open or tacit state support, where some groups are seen as legitimate targets, there deeds also follow. Today antisemitism is established as a socially permitted form of thought and discourse.

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

Because of that, for many people, the threshold of the unacceptable has risen so high, that what in other countries would cause an outcry and public scandal became defensible positions in Hungary (for example, in Germany apart from the Neo-Nazis nobody would think of counting Jews in parliament or in the historical profession, especially defining who Jews are through racial rather than religious criteria). This is a disquieting measure of the acceptability of antisemitism. But what kind of Hungarian state is being protected by those who are doing the excluding?

The desired unity that is supposed to be protected  is never real: Hungary throughout its history has never been homogeneous, neither in religion nor in ‘race’. The ‘Christian’ kingdom in the past was home to a variety of pagans, Muslims, Christians who were branded heretical, and later Catholics and Protestants (who fought against each other). It was at most  rhetorically that one could speak of religious unity; it never existed in reality. One can speak even less of a Hungarian ‘race’ in a country where the first known data already depict a constant mixing of peoples.

The ‘Hungarians’ already at the time of their appearance in the Carpathian basin were a mixed population, and when they settled they merged with Slavs and others found in the area. During the following centuries, the process of mixing continued. Not only national heroes like János Hunyadi, Miklós Zrínyi or Sándor  Petőfi had been born to non-Hungarian parents, but even key figures in the ‘race protection’ movement such as Gyula Gömbös and Ferenc Szálasi were not ‘pure Hungarians’. Those who tried to define a Hungarian ‘race’ had to resort to a self-contradictory twisting of words: the people of Árpád and those peoples who ‘nerved together’ with them, stated Gömbös, naturally maintaining the right to decide who are unable to ‘nerve together’ with the Hungarians.

Only two real answers exist to the often repeated question, ‘What is a Hungarian?’: a Hungarian citizen, and anyone whose self-identification is Hungarian. The opposition between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Jew’ is meaningless from every perspective apart from the antisemite’s. What antisemites gain from their antisemitism has been analysed by many, among them Károly Eötvös, defense lawyer in the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel trial in his book The great trial; Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, Anti-Semite and Jew, and Endre Ady in many of his articles. Not insignificant among those who gain in this way are those who make political capital from antisemitism. That it is possible to fall victim to one’s own political antisemitism has been demonstrated more than once.

Not long ago Csanád Szegedi, Jobbik’s representative in the European Parliament, turned quickly from a protector of Hungarians into a representative of Zionist interests in the eyes of his former party when his Jewish origin was revealed. The excuse to engineer the fall of  Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939) was the Jewish origin of one of his great-grandparents. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the first Jewish Law was accepted, and the second one, which defined Jews as a race, prepared. These cases alone show the absurdity of Hungarian antisemitism in defense of the ‘homeland’ and the nation. Those who wish to build a homogeneous nation never act in the interests of the nation, but in those of their own power.

As tools, antisemites use hate speech, exclusion, the opposition of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Spontaneous hatred, based on discontent and ignorance exists in every society, and it can be mobilized more easily the worse people’s economic conditions are and the more hopeless their future is. But the task of the state is not to unleash and incite hatred, but rather to dispel it through information, and if necessary, to prohibit its manifestations. It would be the task of the same state to create such living conditions for its citizens that they do not grasp at the promises of hate speech as solutions in their hopelessness.

Today in Hungary it is possible to make antisemitic and anti-Roma statements and the homeless can be turned into enemies. The generation which grows up in this atmosphere learns that there are people who are not human beings: who can be humiliated, who are not protected by laws, who can be trampled upon. Today in Hungary the Roma are in the worst position from this perspective, since in their case exclusion – because of their heavily disadvantaged status as well as the physical attacks and even murders committed against them – easily turns into a question of life and death.

That the mechanism of exclusion is not tied to religion or ‘race’ is clearly seen from the fact that with the growth of poverty, the poor and homeless are beginning to be categorized as enemies. Using exclusion as a tool, nationalist blather can be sold to some people, for a while. It may seem that there are the winners. But in fact long term, the exclusionary functioning of a state only produces losers. As the Calvinist bishop Dezső Baltazár wrote between the two world wars, the rights of the Jews are a measure of human rights. Where Jews are deprived of their rights, anyone can be deprived of theirs at any time.

It is an old wisdom that history is the teacher of life; and the knowledge that we could learn from history, but we do not want to, is equally old. In Hungary, as in every other country, one can only live a human life in the true sense of the word if instead of hate, there is a protection of rights, instead of exclusion, there is respect of human dignity, instead of nationalistic slogans, there is a guarantee of the rights of citizens. True patriots do not try to figure out whom to exclude from among ‘the Hungarians’, but instead want to find a way for the Hungarian state to ensure life worthy of human beings for each of its citizens.

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86 comments

  1. Maybe they are preparing the return of a Habsburg king or the founding of another dynasty?

    We’ve had similar scandals about hunting in Germany in the Black Forest with “friendly” politicians and businessmen – corruption is rampant everywhere.
    Who paid for this?

  2. Louis Kovach :
    I keep seeing the skinhead pictures with swastika used in numerous publications as if it is a daily sight in Budapest. I have a few questions. When was the picture taken? Who was the Prime Minister in Hungary when the picture was taken?

    The picture illustrating this piece was taken in 2009 at the annual Jobbik Oct. 23rd rally. It could easily be replaced by numerous ones taken the following years. For instance that one, shot at a Jobbik-organized rally against the holding of the World Jewish Congress Assembly in Budapest on May 4th, 2013:

    And who was the Prime Minister last May? Oh, wait…

  3. “Who paid for this?”
    The Hungarian taxpayers.

    Am I guessing correctly that some of the “privatized” [pilfered] public or EU money is in Liechtenstein?

  4. We should write Bundeskanzlerin Merkel to send 20% of the 5 billion EU support for Hungary [the Kozgep share] straight to Liechtenstein to save on wiring fees.

  5. Marcel De writes: “The picture illustrating this piece was taken in 2009 at the annual Jobbik Oct. 23rd rally. It could easily be replaced by numerous ones taken the following years. For instance that one, shot at a Jobbik-organized rally against the holding of the World Jewish Congress Assembly in Budapest on May 4th, 2013:

    And who was the Prime Minister last May? Oh, wait…”

    Very disingenuos answer. The picture, which was posted in the blog, was taken when the party in power was the MSzP.

  6. @Louis Kovach. “Very disingenuos answer. The picture, which was posted in the blog, was taken when the party in power was the MSzP.”

    What is that supposed to mean? The picture was taken during a neo-nazi demonstration. Perhaps I’m wrong, but if there had been a law forbidding such demonstrations the socialist government probably would have banned it. As I remember, no important laws or reforms could be passed in parliament because of Orbán’s total opposition.

  7. Mesterhazy of MSzP is on ATV now. He is horrible, he should not lead the largest opposition party.

  8. I appreciate that Ms. Berend offered to translate her article for your blog; please encourage her to submit this translation to the New York Times and other global publications so that it obtains a wider audience.

  9. Louis Kovach :
    Marcel De writes: “The picture illustrating this piece was taken in 2009 at the annual Jobbik Oct. 23rd rally. It could easily be replaced by numerous ones taken the following years. For instance that one, shot at a Jobbik-organized rally against the holding of the World Jewish Congress Assembly in Budapest on May 4th, 2013:
    http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/files/2013/05/jobbik-demo.jpg
    And who was the Prime Minister last May? Oh, wait…”
    Very disingenuos answer. The picture, which was posted in the blog, was taken when the party in power was the MSzP.

    Did I get it right, and there are an MSZP member with the misspelled tattoo in disguise, or you implying something else, Luis?
    Let me guess: the unfaithful MSZP organised the Nazi rally, just to discredit the Orbán government…?
    They are a shameless bunch, we know, they can even pretend to be Humans, while in reality they are all Kádár clones and zombies, you know, so watch out, Luis, whenever an MSZP member in sight!
    I would miss you, if something happens, really!

  10. Minusio :
    @Louis Kovach. “Very disingenuos answer. The picture, which was posted in the blog, was taken when the party in power was the MSzP.”
    What is that supposed to mean? The picture was taken during a neo-nazi demonstration. Perhaps I’m wrong, but if there had been a law forbidding such demonstrations the socialist government probably would have banned it.

    I think the responsibility of MSZP-SZDSZ is often overlooked in the rise of the far-right. I my view they never did anything to stop such a rise. They concentrated all their resources on fighting Fidesz, as they recognized them as the opponent. If you have a set number of weapons and you can only hit one target you are also making a preference, you are giving comparative aid to the one that’s not being targeted. I think it was a conscious choiche to let the far-right gain ground because they are not ‘governing capable’ as in not likely to rise to governmental power.

    And then there are also the bizarre examples such was the case of the outright support by the Democratic Coalition members of László Toroczkai. A clear example of a far-right and left wing local cooperation. This was done to defeat the Fidesz backed candidate in Ásotthalom.

  11. tappanch :
    Mesterhazy of MSzP is on ATV now. He is horrible, he should not lead the largest opposition party.

    Just wait and see! Today I’ve heard that Bajnai will renegotiate the deal regarding the alliance.Anything could happen.
    A pity, that a year went by with nothing as a result, though.

  12. To translate the above theory to the picture in question: likely they didn’t care enough to spend any political capital or any other resource on stopping the demonstration in the Socialist era. I mean they would care on the level of newspaper articles or declarations, but not enough to put a stop to the far right advances.

  13. spectator :

    tappanch :
    Mesterhazy of MSzP is on ATV now. He is horrible, he should not lead the largest opposition party.

    Just wait and see! Today I’ve heard that Bajnai will renegotiate the deal regarding the alliance.Anything could happen.

    Mesterházy essentially said the same. They will attempt to create a common list, and redistribute the candidates in the districts as well. However this might also be a trick to show their “intention” at compromise, and then blame the other side when the negotiations fail.

  14. Mr.Paul :

    I think the responsibility of MSZP-SZDSZ is often overlooked in the rise of the far-right. I my view they never did anything to stop such a rise. They concentrated all their resources on fighting Fidesz, as they recognized them as the opponent. If you have a set number of weapons and you can only hit one target you are also making a preference, you are giving comparative aid to the one that’s not being targeted. I think it was a conscious choiche to let the far-right gain ground because they are not ‘governing capable’ as in not likely to rise to governmental power.

    I think, that if you have a touching familiarity with democracy you’d remember, that any action in this respect requires legal reason, thus requires legislation what allowing such action.
    Another question tough, why there is no law targeting the extreme political groupings which clearly organised against someone as person, but there isn’t even such law today, when there is literally nothing stands between the ruling party and the law-books, is it?

  15. Mr.Paul :

    spectator :

    tappanch :
    Mesterhazy of MSzP is on ATV now. He is horrible, he should not lead the largest opposition party.

    Just wait and see! Today I’ve heard that Bajnai will renegotiate the deal regarding the alliance.Anything could happen.

    Mesterházy essentially said the same. They will attempt to create a common list, and redistribute the candidates in the districts as well. However this might also be a trick to show their “intention” at compromise, and then blame the other side when the negotiations fail.

    I guess, you are right – unfortunately 🙂

  16. “I think, that if you have a touching familiarity with democracy you’d remember, that any action in this respect requires legal reason”

    Excuses can always be found so as to why not do something. To why not stand firmly against far-right advances. But excuses only lead to the results we’ve already seen.
    From Jobbik 2006 2,2%, to Jobbik 2010 17% in just 4 years of Socialist and halftime SZDSZ governing. That 7-8 times rise wouldn’t have been possible if instead of excuses they would actually do something effective.

  17. Mr.Paul :
    “I think, that if you have a touching familiarity with democracy you’d remember, that any action in this respect requires legal reason”
    Excuses can always be found so as to why not do something. To why not stand firmly against far-right advances. But excuses only lead to the results we’ve already seen.
    From Jobbik 2006 2,2%, to Jobbik 2010 17% in just 4 years of Socialist and halftime SZDSZ governing. That 7-8 times rise wouldn’t have been possible if instead of excuses they would actually do something effective.

    How could they do something when Fidesz rejected any legislation to stop hate speech etc.?

  18. I didn’t want to imply that it was likely, Bajnai seemed sincere to me in wanting a larger cooperation, BUT if there are roadbumps in the negotiations they might still go for plan B and switch to a line like “even though it was the last minute where we should be already focusing on the elections we still tried and tried and tried to negotiate, but these gyurcsanyists, they wanted soooo much seats here seats there, they just can’t be reasoned with”.

    Mesterházy also seems to be accepting the idea of broadening the alliance BUT people inside MSZP who would actually have to give up the seats in question, they might be against it.

    So to sum it up my view is: they want the enlarged cooperation but only if the price is cheap enough, a few token seats to the Liberals, to DK, mostly paid out from the Együtt’s previous share, giving up at most 4-5 seats from the MSZP side.

  19. tappanch :
    Mesterhazy of MSzP is on ATV now. He is horrible, he should not lead the largest opposition party.

    Olga Kalman for Prime Minister! She has everything, knows everybody and everything. Just imagine!

  20. @Mutt:
    “… and you know this how?”
    post-mortem involvement
    @Tappanch:
    Anti-Jewish sentiment is indeed rampant in Western Europe under the (dis)guise of anti-Zionism, particularly amongst leftist parties. It is arguably a combination of guilt, post-colonial righteousness and to some extent the internalization of the teaching of Frantz Fanon. The increasing Muslim constituencies are also probably not to be discounted. It is unlikely however that those are the root causes of anti-Jewish sentiment in Hungary, which does not predominantly hide behind anti-Zionism; it is more a raw and visceral sentiment that needs neither a Muslim constituency nor sophisticated intellectual excuses. Zionism was in its infancy and Israel did not exist as the national state of the Jewish people under Horty or before him.

    As the large number of self-hating Jews demonstrates, whether Horn’s ancestors made him Jewish enough for Hitler is probably not relevant. One’s jewishness does not prevent one from being anti-Jewish. The fact remains that Horn felt, for whatever reasons, that it was not timely or appropriate for the new TV frequency to be awarded to what was perceived to be Jewish interests. How shall we call this? I don’t know!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet
    Or more prosaically: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

  21. @qaz. Perhaps it is a matter of age, and being old I have seen it all unfold. Until and after 1967, Israel was the underdog and thus loved by the European left. In Basel, Israeli students were preferred to rent hard to get student flats.

    The treatment of “the territories”, the factual disappearance of the left in Israel and the dominance of right-wing policies has disenchanted the European left to the point of open opposition. For example, according to its provisions, the OECD couldn’t actually have accepted Israel as a member. But it did, further alienating the left.

    I am a realist and sparing with my criticism of Israel. But that the European left is no longer supporting Israel – except for its right to exist within secure borders – should come as no surprise. However, I don’t see open or wide-spread anti-semitism with the European left.

  22. I have posted this article on Facebook where I have quite a few ‘friends’ who are Hungarian. I live in Canada, am not Hungarian nor speak the language so I must rely on the translations I receive of Hungarian articles. I want to post here a response to this article that I received from a ‘friend’ this morning – particularly this writer’s claim that absolutely no one talks about the ‘Jewish question’ in Hungary. Could those of you on this list who live in Hungary and read Hungarian news in Hungarian comment on his claim of the ‘lying’ that’s involved here?

    Beginning of quote:
    “I hope you trust me not to take antisemitism in Hungary lightly, for more than one reason. But this article is lying. Its very first statement — “These days, once again people talk about the ‘Jewish question’” — is simply, factually, false. Essentially nobody does. Believe me, I’d be among the first to notice and make it known if this was really the case. But it is not. At all.

    The photo, with the similarly false caption, is a famous Reuters shot from October, 2009, which you can find all over the web. It is basically a stock photo for neo-nazis. It might (or might not) have been shot in Budapest, but it is certainly not something you’d see every day or even every year. If it were shot in Budapest, the only possible occasion could have been the so-called “Day of Honor” (February 11) which neo-nazis from all over Europe celebrate in Budapest. That the photo was published in October makes this very unlikely.

    I have my own guesses about the motivations behind writing such articles and will in time share them with my FB friends. It takes longer than a comment to explain the phenomenon. But I believe that it makes the situation worse (like all lies do) and therefore should not go unopposed. Even if it appears to come from “our side”. There are many very real problems in Hungarian society including xenophobia and nationalism (sometimes targeting roma and — much less often — jewish people), but even these are very different in both form and substance from what the article describes.”

    End of quote. I’d like to respond to my ‘friend’ about this. I know him as an intelligent, earnest young man. What do you make of his comments in the last paragraph that “such articles…make the situation worse (like all lies do)”?

    Please respond.

  23. I don’t live in Hungary but in Vienna and being a journalist who writes about Hungary I am giving you an answer
    Dusty your Hungarian “friends” do not open their eyes.
    In any good bookshop in Budapest one can find the book of Gyurgyák “a zsidókérdés”
    (the Jewish question)

    try to google “Gyurgyák” “a zsidókérdés” and “antisemitism”
    see: http://books.google.at/books?id=iPs1Vaf6F9QC&pg=PA222&lpg=PA222&dq=%22gyurgy%C3%A1k%22+%22a+zsid%C3%B3k%C3%A9rd%C3%A9s+magyarorsz%C3%A1gon%22+%22varieties+of+antisemitism%22&source=bl&ots=XY0snDTMai&sig=0ZXXWo-I5ztHuTsZXlXo3PP8-aI&hl=de&sa=X&ei=5KXLUq3DG4fH7Aa4gYGQDg&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22gyurgy%C3%A1k%22%20%22a%20zsid%C3%B3k%C3%A9rd%C3%A9s%20magyarorsz%C3%A1gon%22%20%22varieties%20of%20antisemitism%22&f=false

    Also interesting the book of Kende “aviktor” which can be downloaded where Orbán is quoted as one who understands the antisemitic raving of István Csurka

    Kende Péter a viktor
    http://csg-consulting.com/kp/books/avikt.pdf

    also

    https://hungarianspectrum.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/the-orban-government-doesnt-heed-the-warnings/

    As for Neonazis and Hungarian tolerance you can find facts on the website of Athena
    http://www.athenainstitute.eu/en/index/

  24. @Dusty

    “The photo, with the similarly false caption, is a famous Reuters shot from October, 2009, which you can find all over the web. It is basically a stock photo for neo-nazis. It might (or might not) have been shot in Budapest, but it is certainly not something you’d see every day or even every year. If it were shot in Budapest, the only possible occasion could have been the so-called “Day of Honor” (February 11) which neo-nazis from all over Europe celebrate in Budapest. That the photo was published in October makes this very unlikely.”

    Obviously your friend never fell upon the annual Jobbik October 23rd rally on Déak tér. Nor did he encounter one of the several smaller rallies organized by the same party every year in Budapest on various occasions (in 2013 only, to protest against the World Jewish Congress assembly, against the gay pride, to unveil a bust of Horthy, to parade the új magyar garda in commemoration of 1919 etc.). He also never fell upon a HVIM and now a Magyar Dawn flash mob. International photo agencies are having a field day almost every time, and this is Budapest only…

    Every day? Of course not. But impossible to miss unless of course you choose to limit your own use of the public space to a strict minimum.

  25. Back to the pheasant massacre

    On one of the photos, we can see a Zsigmond Perényi on the ground being caned as part of a hunter induction scene.

    He is the secretary of the Holocaust Memorial Year.

    I do not know whether he is related to Zsigmond Perényi, who was the chairman of
    the Hungarian Upper House from October 1943 to November 3, 1944.

  26. Dear Eva,

    If this is the case, it is more than ironic that the Holocaust Memorial Year is organized by the descendant of a high-level facilitator of the Holocaust in the summer of 1944.

  27. After the German occupation on March 19, 1944, there was no change in the leadership of the Lower House either :

    András Tasnádi Nagy was the Speaker from November 1, 1939 to March 29, 1945.

    This is another proof that Hungarian Parliament was basically the same before March 19 and at the time of the extermination of the Jews.

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