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Culture

Theater row deepens concern over Hungary's burgeoning nationalism

The appointment of a right-wing director at Budapest's New Theater raises new worries about freedom in the arts. Hungarians are protesting what they see as too much interference by the government.

A statue of Hungarian actor Jozsef Timar and the new Hungarian National Theater are illuminated

It's up in the air what kind of plays will be performed at the New Theater

A tense calm has returned to the streets of Budapest, but not for long. Thousands of Hungarians protested this weekend against the appointment of theater leaders linked to far-right groups. More demonstrations are expected.

Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos overruled a professional panel's advice and appointed outspoken nationalist Gyorgy Dorner as director of the Hungarian capital's prestigious New Theater, despite concerns by Jewish groups and international condemnation.

Dorner plans to share the job with Istvan Csurka, who leads the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), which is known for its anti-Semitic rhetoric. They have said they want to rename the theater Hinterland, because "new is not necessarily good," especially "in the degenerate sick liberal hegemony."

The mayor, however, has claimed there will be no name change.

Nationalist approach

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Prime Minister Orban has ruffled feathers in the EU

The theater leadership, which is set to take office in February, demands that only Hungarian national drama is performed and not what they refer to as "foreign garbage," which is viewed as a code word for Jewish and other non-Hungarian productions.

That Csurka is taking a nationalist approach is no big surprise: The firebrand writer and politician has said Hungarians are "being exploited" and "oppressed" by Jews who "dominate the economy and literature." He has also warned of a "Jewish conspiracy," whose perpetrators are sitting in New York and Tel Aviv.

MIEP has also invited controversial figures to their meetings, including British author and Holocaust denier David Irving and French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Several writers and actors have signed a petition accusing Mayor Tarlos of using public funds to create Hungary's first fascist "neo-Arrow Cross" theater since World War II. The Hungarian Arrow Cross Party regime closely cooperated with Nazi-Germany. Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, many by Arrow Cross members and their supporters.

Concern in Jewish community

The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities called the controversial theater appointments "an advance for circles with Nazi ideology."

These sentiments are shared by Slomo Koves, who in 2003 became the first Orthodox rabbi to be ordained in Hungary since the Holocaust. "I think the appointment of this man [Gyorgy Dorner] is a very big mistake. It is also a disappointment for society because the right-wing creates hatred between the people," Koves told Deutsche Welle.

"These kinds of people can't be directing a cultural institution because that requires openness towards other cultures," added Koves, whose family has received death threats from anti-Semitic extremists in recent years.

With well over 100,000 members, Hungary has the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe apart from Russia.

Aerial view of downtown Budapest

Hungary joined the EU in 2004

Outrage over the theater controversy has spread beyond Hungary. German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi canceled appearances in Budapest to protest the appointment of the New Theater leadership. He said he didn't want to "appear in a city whose mayor entrusted the direction of a theater to two known, extreme right-wing anti-Semites."

Hungary's State Opera, where Dohnanyi was commissioned to perform, is considering suing the conductor for compensation.

Mayor Tarlos, who has close ties with Hungary's center-right government, defends his decision to change the leadership at New Theater. He says Gyorgy Dorner, who is also an actor and well-known in Hungary as the voice of American stars Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis in dubbed films, will be evaluated "at an appropriate time."

Tarlos has asked the opposition for patience. "It is the mayor's right and responsibility to appoint someone to a post, and one can see in a year's time whether it was a good decision," Tarlos told reporters.

International attention

But don't tell that to the thousands of outraged Hungarians who have been demonstrating in Budapest.

"Gyorgy Dorner and Istvan Csurka are of such extreme and hateful convictions that they are unsuitable to head the capital's New Theater," said actor Mihaly Hajagos, who helped to organize the recent protests.

Demonstrators chant slogans against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during an anti-government demonstration in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scores of Hungarians protested Orban's government over the weekend

The theater controversy has added to international concerns over anti-Semitism in Hungary. The country's increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come under pressure to tackle extremism, particularly after thousands of neo-Nazis from across Europe were recently allowed to gather for a festival near Budapest.

At the same time, Hungarian journalists are under pressure not to report these controversies. Orban introduced a controversial new media law and changed Hungary's constitution, taking away power from previously independent institutions.

In a separate protest on Sunday, tens of thousands of Hungarians from different backgrounds and faiths demanded democracy and protested the government's attempts to concentrate power in its hands.

Despite all these tensions, Rabbi Koves remains optimistic. "I hope that the upcoming Jewish New Year will help heal the painful feelings of the Jewish people," he said.

Author: Stefan J. Bos, Budapest

Editor: Kate Bowen

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