Anti-Semitism in Hungary: New Voices for Old Narratives
20 Jan 2015
Dr Erin Marie Saltman examines the ways in anti-Semitism has developed in Hungarian politics and society, and how it remains a part of the far-right narrative in the country.
Hungary's seemingly recent political move away from 'liberal European values', towards localised and nationalist politics has caused a great deal of international concern and speculation. Strong electoral support of the right-wing conservative nationalist party, Fidesz, and far-right party, Jobbik, has increased in recent years, with notable far-right support coming from youth voters. Alongside this new wave of far-right politics has been an increasing xenophobic, and in particular anti-Semitic and anti-Roma, political rhetoric.
In some ways, Hungary has followed similar patterns to other post-communist countries with regards to far-right developments. While Western far-right movements and parties tend to increasingly focus on issues of immigration and Islamophobia, the far right in Central and Eastern Europe maintains older roots based on territorial disputes, animosity towards globalisation and capitalism, and perceived grievances with internal ethnic minorities.
In Hungary, as in many post-communist states, in the early and mid 1990s anti-communist intellectuals and politicians realised the political value of nationalism. Nationalist symbols and cultural reference points were used as a means of gaining popular support, which sometimes brought more controversial history back into the political arena, including the 'Jewish question' and other mechanisms of 'self versus other' rhetoric. This served to create scapegoats out of those seen as 'modernisers' or 'bearers of alien values'.
Historically, anti-Semitism with relation to religion and politics in Hungary is controversial and highly debated. Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century cultivated anti-Semitic rhetoric, largely led by the Church. Given Hungary's mostly homogenous Christian population, the Christian versus non-Christian divide solidified from the late 19th century onward. Potent religious and political figures such as Bishop Ottokár Prohászka and Regent Miklós Horthy from the 1920s to the 1940s are seen by some as villains who exacerbated Jewish persecution, while by others they are hailed as nationalist heroes and victims of their time.
Old radical nationalist ideas and new grievances
Horthy in particular led a Christian nationalist political agenda with many political scientists interpreting his official ideology and political path as openly anti-Semitic. The Christian church supported the 1920 numerus clausus laws restricting the number of university places for Jewish students, and Jewish acts of 1938 to 1942 limiting Jewish participation in many areas of public life. Such laws foreshadowed the deportation of more than 400,000 Jewish Hungarians in the last months of the Horthy regime. In the aftermath of the Second World War with the introduction of a new socialist regime in Hungary, religious tensions and anti-Semitism were temporarily buried under communist regulations outlawing religion.
Openly anti-Semitic political movements in post-communist Hungary first surfaced with the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), an openly far-right party founded in 1993. The founder of MIÉP, István Csurka, sparked open confrontation on the subject with the publication of an article in August 1992 in the magazine Magyar Forum, seen as the first openly anti-Semitic article written by a political representative in a major news publication. In his article, Csurka discussed what he considered the deceit and treason imposed on the nation by liberals, Jews and 'non-Hungarians' living in Hungary. He called for ethnic purism while blending his narrative with allusions of mythical folk tales about Hungary's origins. However, MIÉP was primarily supported by a marginalised ultra-nationalist older constituency and had very little appeal to younger audiences.
In 2009, Jobbik broke into the political landscape by obtaining 14.77% in the European Parliamentary Elections. Jobbik has rejuvenated the far right, bringing it to the mainstream by targeting more contemporary nationalist issues such as 'gypsy criminality' and 'police brutality', modernising old narratives that previously targeted Jews and Zionist conspiracies. That is not to say that anti-Semitism and Zionist conspiracy building does not still exist in Hungary today. However, what Jobbik did was blend old radical nationalist ideas with new grievances.
Anti-Semitism in Hungary today tends to be expressed latently, often hidden within carefully placed rhetoric while certain online media platforms take a more overt stance. Kuruc.hu, for example, has a more openly hostile tone towards Roma, Jewish-Israeli and other foreign forces seen as 'invading' Hungary. Created in February 2006, the site has caused numerous controversies with the content of its articles, once even exposing personal details of its targets.
Jobbik's rhetoric and tactics have also drawn out a new sub-culture of youth activists with one in four first time voters supporting Jobbik in the 2010 national elections. Jobbik's rejuvenated far-right sub-culture includes support from ultra-nationalist music movements (nemzeti rock), fashion brands (Harcos) and media outlets (Kuruc.hu and Barikad).
The youth appeal of Jobbik is particularly high among university students, going against some theories that reduce Jobbik support to a protest vote or the vote of lower working classes. Research studies by Maria Vásárhelyi have shown that are were high levels of radical right xenophobia among certain university history and religious students, where 21% openly felt that Jewish citizens weakened the Hungarian nation and 49% felt that Jewish interests were different to Hungarian interests.
Hungarian far-right movements continue to target Roma and Jewish populations. Unlike certain far-right European counterparts, who hold open Islamophobic views, Jobbik and its affiliate movements have taken openly pro-Palestine stances in the past, due to their anti-Semitic views which play on global Zionist conspiracies.
Increased tension against Jewish and Roma minorities
Increased tension against Jewish and Roma minorities remains palpable. Prize-winning Hungarian author, Akos Kertesz, was granted political asylum in Canada in 2013 after experiencing an onslaught of threats and verbal attacks, mainly of an anti-Semitic nature, after publishing a controversial article in 2011 that criticised Hungarian trends. The author stated that his decision to seek asylum was painful and that his discontent was directed at Hungary's "current political authorities, which seek to destroy the country's newborn democracy".
While many factors play into the current socio-political tensions in Hungary, the strength and influence of key political actors and parties is significant. Jobbik in particular, alongside its affiliated grassroots groups like the Hungarian Guard, have modernised the far-right agenda, creating scapegoats out of internal Roma and Jewish populations as well as the European community. While many Hungarians are offended and openly oppose the more controversial Fidesz initiatives and Jobbik agendas, far-right political rhetoric has undoubtedly increased within mainstream discourse in recent years. With the current political landscape lacking strong liberal and left-wing opposition party options, these trends are not predicted to weaken without drastic changes in the political landscape.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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