1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Rising anti-Semitism in Hungary worries Jewish groups

Felix Schlagwein
December 17, 2020

Hungary says it provides a safe environment for its Jewish community. But the government has shown itself to be tolerant of anti-Semitic figures in public life.

Viktor Orban in front of EU flag
Image: Getty Images/G. Kuchta

Jewish groups in Hungary and abroad condemned a recent op-ed in the Hungarian online media outlet Origo, in which a government-appointed cultural commissioner compares George Soros to Hitler.

Szilard Demeter, the head of Budapest's Petofi Museum of Literature and a loyal supporter of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, compared the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire Soros as a "liberal Fuhrer" and Europe as "his gas chamber;” he also likened Poland and Hungary to "the new Jews.” "Poison gas flows from the capsule of a multicultural open society, which is deadly to the European way of life,” he wrote. After a massive outcry in both Hungary and abroad, Demeter apologized half-heartedly and retracted his article. However, he kept his job.

It is because of such incidents that Orban's government is regularly accused of flirting with anti-Semitism. The government is always quick to refute this, saying that Jews in Hungary are safer and freer than in western Europe. "Open threats and attacks on Jewish people, the likes of which happen today in Germany are unimaginable in Hungary," Orban recently wrote.

It is true that there are relatively few documented cases of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in Hungary — though Hungary's Jewish population (47,400) is smaller than France's (453,000) or Germany's (116,000). According to a 2018 study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Jews in Hungary felt safer than in other EU countries. Only 13% worried about becoming the victim of an anti-Semitic physical attack. By comparison, 58% of Jews in France feared this and 47% of those living in Germany.

Celebrating anti-Semitic public figures

"This government is not anti-Semitic,” claimed Andras Kovas, Professor for Jewish Studies at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest in an interview with DW. However, he agreed that the government does use anti-Semitic stereotypes in its ongoing campaign against Soros.

The government has also celebrated public figures who are openly anti-Semitic. The far-right Erno Raffay who had already received numerous awards, was given another in August. In 2015, he had compared migrants from largely Muslim countries to Jewish immigrants in the 19th century, saying that these latter had "multiplied" and "pushed" Hungarians from many areas of society. "This should be a lesson to [Hungary]" he added.

The journalist Zsolt Bayer, known for racist and anti-Semitic utterances, is also a close friend of the prime minister and was a co-founder of the ruling Fidesz party. About 10 years ago, he described the French-German politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Hungarian-born pianist Andras Schiff, who are both Jewish, as "stinking excrement."

"Regrettably we did not manage to bury all of them up to their necks in the woods of Orgovany," Bayer added. During what is known as the White Terror of 1919 to 1921, there were various massacres of Jews and Communists by counter-revolutionary soldiers, including one at Orgovany in southern Hungary in 1919.

His newspaper was fined twice after Bayer published articles that were deemed to constitute hate speech. Three years later, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Knight's Cross, one of the highest in Hungary. Some 30 recipients of the same award, including Andras Heisler, the head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), returned theirs in protest.

"These people have a very bad influence on our society," Heisler told DW. "We would prefer it if the government distanced itself from them in future." 

Revising history

Hungary has attempted to relativize Hungary's role in the Holocaust over and over again. A few ways it does so is by erecting statues or monuments — like Budapest's Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation, which critics say relativizes Hungary's role in the deportation of more than 440,000 Jews during the Holocaust — or setting up museums, such as the controversial "House of Terror" in Budapest. Anti-Semitic writers such as Albert Wass who was sentenced in absentia to death for war crimes in 1946 are now part of the national curriculum.

Almost ironically, Viktor Orban is a close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rarely uttered any criticism of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The two have similar political agendas, are critical of the EU and share an animosity towards Soros.

Anti-Semitism is not only to be found in the government and its allies but among the opposition too. In October, the opposition put forward Laszlo Biro from the erstwhile far-right Jobbik party, as its joint candidate.

The credibility of the opposition alliance suffered after Biro was forced to apologize for previous racist and anti-Semitic comments on social media. The whole affair has played into the government's hands and the media outlets which support it. It is cited each time Orban and Fidesz are accused of anti-Semitism. The government has also criticized Mazsihisz president Heisler for speaking up against anti-Semitism in Fidesz ranks but not in those of the opposition.

"The problem, not only in Hungary," argued Heisler, "is that politicians from all camps play the ‘Jew card' when it works for them politically." He has called on all politicians and parties to put a stop to anti-Semitism.