Jewish leaders from around the world called on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to do more to stem rising anti-Semitism in the country as the premier urged “zero tolerance” for nationalist hatred.
About 500 delegates representing 100 countries at the World Jewish Congress started three days of meetings yesterday in Budapest, the capital of a country that’s home to central Europe’s largest Jewish population. Anti-Semitism, including the rise of the radical Jobbik party, is “dragging the good name of Hungary through the mud,” WJC President Ronald S. Lauder told the audience that included Orban.
Jobbik, the third-biggest party in the Hungarian Parliament, held a demonstration on the eve of the WJC meeting in Budapest to “commemorate the victims of Zionism and Bolshevism.” One of its lawmakers, Marton Gyongyosi, on Nov. 26 called for a list of Jewish legislators and government members who pose a “national security risk.” More than 500,000 Hungarians, mostly Jews, were killed in the Holocaust, according to the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center.
“Hungarian Jews need you to take a firm and decisive lead,” Lauder, who is the son of the founder of the Estee Lauder cosmetics company, told Orban at the meeting yesterday. “They need you to take on these dark forces. They need you to be pro-active. They need your leadership in this fight.”
Hungary introduced an annual Holocaust memorial day under the previous Orban administration more than a decade ago and the current government banned Jobbik paramilitary groups and passed a constitution the Cabinet considers to be more effective in fighting extremism, the Hungarian leader said yesterday.
The government blocked an anti-Semitic demonstration in Budapest last month and this weekend’s Jobbik protest took place after a court ruling overturned a police ban urged by Orban.
“Anti-Semitism is unacceptable and intolerable,” Orban told Jewish leaders.
Orban, in his speech, failed to “address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe,” the WJC said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
While Orban has spoken out regularly against anti-Semitism, Jewish groups last year criticized the government for expanding the reading curriculum for schools to include books by Jozsef Nyiro, a member of Parliament during World War II and an ally of Ferenc Szalasi, a former head of the fascist Arrow Cross party who was executed for war crimes.
Parliament speaker Laszlo Kover, who co-founded the ruling Fidesz party along with Orban, organized a reburial ceremony for Nyiro last year. The government has denied seeking to legitimize anti-Semitic views.
In March, the government gave a state prize to television journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, whose program had been fined for anti-Semitic and anti-Roma messages. The Cabinet asked the journalist to return the award after protests by Israel and the U.S.
“We acknowledge, of course, that the prize was withdrawn,” Lauder said. “But the fact that it was awarded in the first place is the kind of thing that has us worried.”
Still, it was the rise of the radical nationalist Jobbik that headlined concerns about Hungarian anti-Semitism among delegates. The conference “calls on Hungary to recognize that the ideology and the actions of the Jobbik movement and its subsidiaries, including the New Hungarian Guard, pose a fundamental threat to Hungary’s democracy,” according to a draft resolution distributed to reporters.
Jobbik won 836,774 votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections out of 5.1 million votes cast, a sevenfold increase from 2006. Then, the party failed to win a single seat after sharing a ballot with another radical party.
Gabor Vona, the party’s telegenic 34-year-old president, founded a paramilitary group in 2007 that patrolled towns and villages with Roma, also known as Gypsy, populations, saying national police weren’t up to the task. Its uniforms were emblazoned with the red-and-white stripes of a historic Hungarian Arpad flag, which resembles the symbol of the Arrow Cross regime that allied with the Nazis during World War II.
The hundreds who attended Jobbik’s protest on the eve of the Jewish conference compared with thousands who marched through the streets of Budapest last month in an annual remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust.
“Tens of thousands rallied here in Budapest for the ‘March of the Living,’” Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, told delegates today. “They stood together to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to protest against anti-Semitism. These pictures, to me, sent a message of hope that we will prevail.”
Rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, home to as many as 120,000 Jews out of a population of about 10 million, contrasts with the flourishing Jewish life in the country, Peter Feldmajer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary, said yesterday at the WJC meeting.
Hungary’s Jewish communities “revived Jewish religious and cultural life with unparalleled enthusiasm” since the end of communism in 1990 and can “freely express their love of Israel,” he said. While “the works of court poets of Hungarian Nazis are included in the national curriculum, thus polluting the souls of our students,” Hungary does a “tremendous lot” to make Holocaust education a part of the school curriculum, Feldmajer said.
“You have come to a country, where Jews could live in peace and enjoy the support of the majority of Hungarian society if the holler of the vindictive minority did not suppress their sober and friendly voices,” Feldmajer said.