“There is no doubt about its presence,” a spokesman for the Hungarian government said last week about anti-Semitism. However, he stressed, Jews living in Hungary practice their religion freely, and Budapest has become a very popular tourist attraction for Israelis.
Ferenc Kumin, Hungarian deputy state secretary for international communications, spent about an hour Oct. 18 in an exclusive interview with Washington Jewish Week, in which he said hate speech is a problem in his country but that his government is working to eliminate it. He didn’t deny that the extremist Jobbik Party is a divisive force, but said much of its hatred is aimed at the country’s Roma citizens. The majority of Jobbik’s followers reside in the countryside where few Jews live, he said.
The Jobbik Party “is not growing. That is the good news,” he said. That party won seats in the Hungarian government for the first time in 2010, earning 16.5 percent of the vote. Kumin predicted that if an electionwere held now, it would only muster 13 to 14 percent.
Kumin bristled when asked why his government takes so long to speak out against anti-Semitic incidents, saying his country is not set up to respond to the “10 minute news cycle” that requires an immediate comment.
He pointed to an event about a year ago in which a member of the Jobbik Party asked for a list of any Jews serving in parliament. “It was a very intimidating speech,” Kumin noted. While the government did not instantly condemn the speech, it participated in “mass demonstrations organized the following weekend. All parties joined in,” he said, noting that was rare. “This is considered fast. For me, it was quite a strong representation” and worked to unite moderates in the country.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, rebutted that. “While claiming to condemn extremism, government officials have used coded messages and imagery to send a different message. One independent television station has actually been threatened with fines for characterizing the extremist party Jobbik as ‘far-right.’ ”
Cardin said he is “deeply troubled by growing extremism in Hungary. This extremism is manifested by an uptick in anti-Roma racism as well as growing anti-Semitism. What makes this especially troubling is that it has gone hand-in-hand with an erosion of checks and balances and diminished space for civil society.”
The number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased in the past few years, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Kumin said his government doesn’t keep records on how many Jews live there and that Judaism is not listed as an ethnic minority. But he estimated there were approximately 100,000 Jews living in Budapest. The country’s population is slightly less than 10 million.
“A significant amount of society can be considered anti-Semitic, but it’s far from being the majority,” he noted. He said for some of those people, anti-Semitism is rooted in the past and more of a tradition than anything else.
He referred to a recent poll asking Hungarians how they felt about Jews. Some 30 percent of the population admitted to being anti-Semitic. The same percent said they had positive feelings toward Jews, while the other 40 percent of the population considered themselves neutral.
“We have an active Jewish life in our country,” the largest Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Kumin said. The Dohany Street Great Synagogue in Budapest is a functioning synagogue that utilizes “only basic scanning” as security. “Try to do the same in Germany or France. You can’t even approach the building,” he said, adding that he has no doubt the Jewish community would request a police presence if it felt threatened.
The Hungarian government changed its constitution recently, allowing those who believe the dignity of their ethnic party has been “insulted or hurt” to press charges. Previously, only a victim could bring charges, Kumin said. If found guilty, the person must pay “a large amount of compensation.”
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the massive Nazi deportation of Jews. Hungary plans to hold many events during the year and is currently constructing a museum focused on individual stories from the Holocaust. It is being built at an abandoned railroad station “which played a central role” in the deportation, he said.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) member states awarded Hungary the 2015 chairmanship of the group. Gergely Prohle, head of the Hungarian IHRA delegation, called that “a great honor,” and noted that his government “has been striving to combat anti-Semitism and racism, though we know that it is a long fight and much more remains to be done.”
Sen. Cardin strongly agreed more must be done. “The recent participation of the deputy speaker of the parliament at a ceremony for Hungary’s wartime leader, Miklos Horthy, cannot possibly be reconciled with the leadership role that Hungary will assume in 2015 as chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance,” he said.