hungarian jewry

The Orbán government and the “Jewish question” by Karl Pfeifer

Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian journalist who as a child spent some time in Hungary and learned faultless Hungarian. His Hungarian friends call him Karcsi. You can read more about him here.

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Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, is doing everything in his power to obtain legitimacy for his antidemocratic policies from the next World Jewish Congress that will be held in Budapest (May 5-7, 2013). Does the choice of Budapest signify anything given the daily reports of growing Hungarian anti-Semitism?

Naturally, the Hungarian government is doing its level best to “correct” this widespread perception. Gullible foreigners are fed all kinds of half- or untruths about the situation in Hungary. They minimize the extent of anti-Semitism in the country while exaggerating the government’s effort at attempting to curb activities of neo-Nazi groups.*

World Jewish CongressI was there when the Hungarian ambassador to Austria, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, declared in Vienna the other day: “If Hungary were a fascist country the WJC would not hold its congress in Budapest. One hundred thousand Jews live in Hungary and our prime minister made clear that he does everything in his power to defend the Jewish minority. I have never heard the Austrian chancellor say anything like that in the Austrian parliament.”** Now even the most ardent critics of the present government (I among them) never called Hungary a “fascist country.” And, thankfully, the Jews of Austria were never subjected after 1945 to the kind of verbal (and sometimes physical) threats as they are in present-day Hungary. Therefore the Austrian chancellor never felt he had to defend the Jewish minority in public.

The first question is how did the Hungarian ambassador arrive at the figure of 100,000 Jews in Hungary? According to the Nuremberg or the Hungarian racial laws of the early nineteen forties? Or does anybody seriously claim that there are 100,000 Hungarian Jews entitled to enter Israel and receive Israeli citizenship according to the premises of the Israeli law of return?

In the end it is a question of democracy. Can the state and its rulers decide the identity of its inhabitants? Should they have the right to define who is a Jew and to define Hungarian Jews as a minority? After all, Hungarian Jewry was never considered to be a distinct ethnic minority. Yet Viktor Orbán, in that speech the Hungarian ambassador was referring to, was talking about “our kind of Christian Democrats” as opposed to the Jews. Isn’t one’s personal identity a basic right of every citizen?

Hungarian right-wing media rehash the old claim that the Jews were responsible for Communist rule in Hungary. While the leaders of Hungarian Jewry use the old and failed method of appeasement.

In 1920, when French and British Jews lodged a complaint at the League of Nations about the law that restricted the number of Jewish students at institutions of higher learning, the Hungarian-Jewish leadership objected to foreign interference in the name of Hungarian patriotism. As a result of protests of the excluded students eventually the officials did lodge a complaint but added that the community concerned was not in a position to act freely: “… in view of the virulence of anti-Semitic agitation in Hungary, it will be readily understood that the Jewish community are scarcely free agents in this matter.” ***

So, when anti-Jewish laws were enacted  in 1938 the Hungarian Jewish leaders’ position was already compromised when they tried to get help from British and French Jews. They didn’t receive much assistance. The Hungarian-Jewish establishment felt it had to come to terms with the country’s rulers and to acquiesce in “moderating” anti-Jewish legislation, hoping that would forestall the harsher measures advocated by the extreme right-wing elements. As we know, this was to no avail. Harsher and harsher laws were introduced until the final solution reached about 70% of Hungary’s Jewry. Jews were alone within the Hungarian non-Jewish society, almost without any support by the liberal and progressive elements.

How do the rulers of Hungary deal with the “Jewish question” today? Here is one example of many. György Konrád, who by an almost miraculous chain of fortunate circumstances escaped the Hungarian Holocaust to become one of the most famous dissidents and authors of his country, the President of the international PEN club of writers and President of the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters, celebrated his eightieth birthday on April 2. He received congratulations from all over the world, was officially invited by the politically conservative president of Germany for a personal visit at his residence. But nobody from official Hungary, not the president, not the prime minister, not the mayor of Budapest, not the lowest government official in charge of cultural affairs saw fit to send him even a friendly word. On the contrary, one of the chief functionaries responsible for national culture (or rather the lack of it) publicly stated that Konrád was no Hungarian writer at all, only erroneously seen abroad as such.

While some might be tempted to restrict Hungarian anti-Semitism to the Hungarian Nazis and their political party, Jobbik, and trust the promises of Mr. Orbán, they should know that the nationalistic, “völkisch” policy of the government will continue unabated after the ladies and gentlemen of WJC and journalists like myself graciously invited as reporters will have returned to their countries of origin.

*http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/17/gyor/ In Győr a Nazi demonstration was allowed in the center of town on April 13 and the Nazi were escorted by the Hungarian police.

**Austrian public radio has reported on the statement of the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna. http://oe1.orf.at/programm/335405 and I published on the same at http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/25/ungarn-symposium/

***The Joint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, The Jewish Minority in Hungary (London).

Jobbik is not a neo-Nazi party. At least not according to a Hungarian judge

First, before I recount the encounter of László Karsai with Jobbik, I should perhaps refresh your memory of the man. He is best  known as a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, but his field of competence is much broader. He even wrote a book about the nationality question in France and another on the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. He studied the question of the Hungarian Gypsies between 1919 and 1945. If  readers of Hungarian Spectrum know his name it may be because I wrote about a controversy that erupted as a result of his refusal to attend a conference in Norway on Raoul Wallenberg. Karsai was one of the invited guests, but he backed out after he learned that Géza Jeszenszky, Hungarian ambassador to Norway, was one of the sponsors. Géza Jeszenszky wrote a university textbook on national minorities in East-Central Europe, and his chapter on the Gypsies was full of inaccuracies and reeked of prejudice.

Karsai can be controversial. For example, at the moment he is working on a biography of Ferenc Szálasi, the founder of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party. He discovered a number of new documents that prove that the generally accepted scholarly opinion of Szálasi might not be accurate. Especially with respect to Szálasi’s views on the Hungarian Jewry. On the other hand, he is convinced that Miklós Horthy knew more about the death camps than he later claimed. So, he does what a good historian should do: he tries to seek the truth even if it might not please some people.

As I noted earlier (more or less in passing), László Karsai is once again in the limelight. This time Jobbik sued him because in December 2011 Karsai called it a neo-Nazi party. He made the statement in the course of an interview on ATV’s early morning program called “Start.”

Jobbik’s leadership took its sweet time before deciding to make a court case out of the “incident.” It took Jobbik half a year to discover that its good reputation had been damaged by Karsai, but then they demanded satisfaction. One reason for the delay may have been that Karsai uttered his half a sentence on Jobbik’s ideological makeup in the course of discussing the emerging Horthy cult. The discussion wasn’t so much about Jobbik as about Jobbik’s attitude toward the Horthy regime.

Jobbik sought a verdict that would find that the party’s reputation had been impinged upon by Karsai; moreover, they demanded an apology from the historian. Karsai’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the nature of a party’s ideology is not a question that can be decided by court proceedings. It belongs to the free flow of scholarly debate within the historical community.

Jobbik tuntetok

Jobbik categorically denies that it is a Nazi or neo-Nazi party although there is extensive proof that the leading members of the party made no effort to hide their racism and anti-Semitism. Some of the organizations Jobbik has strategic alliances with proudly call themselves national socialists. Kuruc.info, which may be Jobbik’s publication, often talks about Adolf Hitler in laudatory terms.

The real question, however, is not whether Jobbik is a neo-Nazi party but whether this historical question can be debated publicly and whether judges are the ones who should decide this issue.

The historical community itself is divided on the question. Rudolf Paksa, a historian who wrote a book on the history of the Hungarian extreme right, claims that “Jobbik is definitely not a neo-Nazi party in the scientific sense. It is anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and chauvinistic, but all these together still do not make it a neo-Nazi party. After all, there are no indications that Jobbik wants to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, which is an absolutely essential characteristic of national socialism.” At the same time Paksa found it outrageous that Jobbik wanted to decide the issue in a court of law. Paksa testified back in January that he hoped the judge would respect the freedom of expression and opinion.

After hearing the arguments, the judge decided to postpone the decision. It wasn’t until March 22, 2013 that the verdict was handed down by Péter Attila Takács, the presiding judge. According to Takács, Karsai besmirched the good name and reputation of Jobbik by calling it a neo-Nazi party. Karsai will have to pay 66,000 forints in court costs and within fifteen days he will have to apologize in writing, an apology that Jobbik may make public.

Why did Takács rule this way? The rationale for the verdict is, to my mind, peculiar to say the least. The problem, Takács wrote, is that the characterization of the party by Karsai didn’t take place as part of a scholarly discussion about the ideological makeup of Jobbik but in the context of the developing rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Therefore it cannot be considered part of a scientific exchange.

Since then the verdict has become available in Beszélő (March 26, 2013) and I read with some interest that the judge, among other things, forbids László Karsai “from further infringement of the law.” How can one interpret this? Does it mean that in the future he cannot call Jobbik a neo-Nazi party if the conversation is not about Jobbik itself? Or that in certain circumstances he can label it as such without breaking the law? It’s hard to tell.

The important thing is that the judge found Jobbik’s arguments well founded and cited two paragraphs of the 1989 Constitution that was in force at the time of the incident. Paragraph 59(1) stipulates that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone is entitled to the protection of his or her reputation and to privacy, including the privacy of the home, of personal effects, particulars, papers, records and data, and to the privacy of personal affairs and secrets.” In addition, the judge cited paragraph 61(1)  that states that “in the Republic of Hungary everyone has the right to the free declaration of his views and opinions, and has the right of access to information of public interest, and also the freedom to disseminate such information.” I find the second line of reasoning truly outrageous. Jobbik has the right to the free declaration of its views and opinions but not László Karsai. Absolutely brilliant.

Naturally, László Karsai is appealing the verdict. Reading it, I had the feeling that Judge Takács might not have been the most impartial judge. Here are a couple of telling details from the verdict. Jobbik’s history is described in the most benign terms as a youth movement whose goal was “to unite young people committed to the national ideal.” “Well known people supported them: Mária Wittner, Gergely P0ngrácz, Gy. László Tóth, István Lovas, Mátyás Usztics.”  The judge forgot to mention that these well known personalities all belong to the extreme right. Jobbik wanted to offer “an alternative for radical right-wing voters.” Jobbik’s parliamentary caucus is the second largest after Fidesz-KDNP, and they have representation in the European Parliament. So, there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. This decision is a boost to Jobbik and the extreme right.

I might also mention that unfortunately Hungarian courts do not subscribe to the tenets of case law. If the judge had followed precedent, Karsai should have been exonerated because in 2010 Gábor Vona sued László Bartus, editor-in-chief of the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava published in New York. Bartus called Jobbik “a rotten, fascist, Nazi” party. The court dropped the case against Bartus, claiming that the editor simply exercised his right to free expression. The vagaries of Hungarian jurisprudence. It will always remain a mystery to me.