Hungary's Jews face down new extremism

Marton Dunai
Reuters Middle East

* Hungarian Jews embrace traditions, religion, culture

* Rising anti-Semitism frightens, may unify them

BUDAPEST, Dec 16 (Reuters) - A week after a leader of

Hungary's far-right Jobbik party called for lists of prominent

Jews to be drawn up to protect national security, Janos Fonagy

stepped forward.

"My mother and father were Jewish, and so am I, whether you

like it or not," the state secretary of the Development Ministry

told parliament, explaining he did not have dual citizenship

with Israel and was not religious.

"I cannot choose, I was born into this. But you can choose,

and you have chosen this path," he said, addressing Jobbik

deputies. "Bear history's judgement."

It is only relatively recently that Hungary's Jews have

celebrated their identity as openly as they did when Europe's

largest synagogue was built in Budapest in the 1850s.

Now they are determined not to allow a political climate in

which they have to defend that identity or even suppress it.

More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the

Holocaust after Hungary sided with the Nazis in World War Two

and those left in Budapest were forced into two ghettos.

When the Soviet Red Army moved in and liberated the ghettos

in 1945 about 100,000 Jews remained, living reminders of a

collaboration with fascism many Hungarians wanted to forget.

"Even 15 years ago, using 'Jewish' as a brand required quite

some bravery," said Vera Vadas, the director of the Jewish

Summer Festival, launched in 1998. "Now the word just describes

our culture and it draws artists and audiences alike."

From an initial crowd of about 3,000, the number of visitors

at the festival was around 120,000 this year, filling the

cobblestone alleys and courtyards of the city wall to wall.

The biggest of the two wartime ghettos is now a thriving

Jewish quarter, a year-round highlight on Budapest's tourist map

with the huge Dohany street synagogue -- the model for New

York's Central Synagogue -- at its heart.

Around it are more synagogues, museums, businesses, schools

and restaurants, and sometimes a mix of those things, such as a

Talmud class that is taught regularly at one of the famous

Budapest "ruin pubs" - run-down buildings converted into bars.


Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, the young leader of a small, modern

synagogue in southwestern Budapest, said his generation was the

first to be confident of its heritage after their traumatised

grandparents taught their children to play it down.

"My parents' generation, the one born immediately after the

war, was protected so much they never got to experience their

Jewishness," said Radnoti. "They assimilated almost completely."

"Now, my children take their Jewishness naturally, they have

no doubts about their roots. They are kids who live in Hungary,

speak Hungarian and follow the Jewish faith. The vast majority

of young Jewish parents can and do choose this tradition."

Besides religious freedom, the end of Communism in 1989 also

brought a freedom of speech and politics that quickly gave birth

to openly anti-Semitic political forces.

The Jobbik party, the third biggest in parliament, has used

anti-semitic slurs to boost its standing before elections in

2014, drawing international scorn.

The strongest yet greeted last month's call by Marton

Gyongyosi, who runs Jobbik's foreign policy cabinet, for Jewish

members of government and parliament to be listed in the wake of

Israel's recent military campaign to stop rocket fire from Gaza.

"I think such a conflict makes it timely to tally up people

of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian

parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a

national security risk to Hungary," he told parliament.

Hungary's centre-right government condemned the remarks, for

which Gyongyosi later apologised, and the U.S. Embassy in

Budapest called them "outrageous".

Although anti-Semitism has not yet led to serious physical

confrontations, hate crimes have included desecration of Jewish

cemeteries and a verbal attack in Budapest on 90-year-old former

Chief Rabbi Joseph Schweitzer.

"I don't think all people who vote for Jobbik are

anti-Semites," said Slomo Koves, the chief rabbi of the Unified

Hungarian Jewish Congregation.

"But if Jobbik brings it into the public discourse, even

people who were not anti-Semites before, they feel like it's a

way to show your frustration... The problem is that this has an

effect on the state of mind of all Hungarians."


Andras Heisler, a leader of Mazsihisz, the Association of

Jewish Communes in Hungary, said Jobbik was a danger to Hungary.

"I think this is real racism and inciting hatred. A bad

economic situation, recession, usually flames tempers and this

is the case now as well."

Laden with debt and hit hard by the wider debt crisis in

Europe, the country is struggling to end recession and sort out

its finances, and a series of austerity measures have increased

tensions on the street.

Anti-Semitism has made some Jews more determined to stand up

for their heritage, said Zoltan Jakal, a 36-year-old financial

analyst and part-time cantor.

"I have several friends who have strengthened their Jewish

identity because of a few incidents with anti-Semites," Jakal

said. "When there's peace people tend to forget they are Jews.

If nobody else reminds them of this, anti-Semites will."

Hungary's political elite showed a rare gesture of unity at

a big rally on Dec. 2, where ruling and opposition party leaders

expressed their disdain for Jobbik's politics.

So far, polls suggest Jobbik has retained its voter base.

Among young voters its support is nearly 20 percent, making it

the strongest party in the age group below 30, according to a

Republikon Institute poll earlier this year.

But unlike its hugely successful anti-Roma rhetoric,

anti-Semitism may end up working against Jobbik on the long run,

Republikon Institute Director Csaba Toth told Reuters, because

it will put off potential coalition partners.

"Anti-Semitism gets far fewer votes," he said.

(Additional reporting by Krisztina Than; editing by Philippa


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