The future prospects of European Jews have not looked this uncertain in decades. The clichés of the recent past regarding a continent earnestly confronting the history of the Holocaust and becoming immune to anti-Jewish hatred and violence had to be painfully discarded. An alarming rise in physical attacks combined with practically constant insults online has again turned antisemitism into a widely debated subject across Europe.

The future prospects of European Jews have not looked this uncertain in decades. The clichés of the recent past regarding a continent earnestly confronting the history of the Holocaust and becoming immune to anti-Jewish hatred and violence had to be painfully discarded. An alarming rise in physical attacks combined with practically constant insults online has again turned antisemitism into a widely debated subject across Europe.

In such a context, it is worth exploring what has changed in recent years in the relationship of the Hungarian regime to the country’s diverse Jewish communities and in terms of the local political uses of antisemitism. By focusing on innovative and controversial trends in these regards under the rule of Premier Viktor Orbán, my aim is to reflect on seismic shifts underway in Europe’s rightist political culture.

The case of Hungary may be said to have wider implications since the country has not only become proudly illiberal and decreasingly democratic since 2010 but has also emerged as an ever closer ally of the State of Israel within the EU.

An Elusive Consensus

George Soros

Divergent perceptions and assessments of antisemitism have been repeatedly and at times fiercely debated in Hungary since 1989. Cumulatively, these often polarized debates might have had an educational impact. However, the evaluation of antisemitism has remained not only a deeply emotional question but also a heavily instrumentalized one.

Hungarian society has not managed to arrive at a more consensual understanding of the chief characteristics and contemporary significance of anti-Jewish prejudice and hatred. Nor has a wide agreement emerged on the most advisable means to fight these phenomena.

Nothing illustrates better the elusiveness of such a consensus than the divergent perception of the ongoing state-directed propaganda campaign against George (György) Soros, a native of Hungary and a teenage survivor of the Holocaust.

Recent polls have shown that whereas Hungarian Jews consider it evident that the anti-Soros campaign presents a markedly antisemitic narrative and – consciously or as a form of collateral damage – mobilizes and strengthens anti-Jewish resentments, many non-Jewish Hungarians are unready to acknowledge and may be genuinely unable to perceive this connection.

Antisemitism without Antisemites

The campaign against the elderly investor and philanthropist, which has been at the heart of Hungarian state propaganda for years now, posits a shadowy force that supposedly uses his abundant financial means to exert illegitimate political influence to try and undermine the Christian nations of Europe, with Hungary supposedly being one of his main targets.

Viktor Orbán

The campaign draws on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which should be all too familiar from Hungary’s recent past. Thus, it reveals just how little the current power-holders have learned from the country’s largely self-inflicted twentieth-century traumas. At the same time, the Orbán government has insisted and received the broad approval of its supporters that its prolonged propaganda campaign against George Soros has “nothing to do with Jews” – or, even more polemically, that the accusations of antisemitism directed at its campaign constitute the real abuse.

This could at first hearing be taken as a mere continuation of a major trend of recent decades, namely that of ‘antisemitism without antisemites,’ meaning that those who make use of antisemitic notions in post-Holocaust Europe are often eager to oppose the charge of antisemitism. They explicitly disassociate themselves from their own ambiguous and dubious conduct without acknowledging its problematic nature.

Even as it reiterates such conspiracy theories regarding Soros, the Hungarian regime has explicitly declared (to reproduce its unmistakably rightist vocabulary) ‘zero tolerance’ towards antisemitism. The notable gap between actual attitudes and preferred self-presentation has thus only widened further in recent years.

A Symbolic Reenactment

It is undeniable that, in sharp contrast to their right-wing predecessors during the Horthy era (1919–1944), the Hungarian state of today generously supports the Jewish religious infrastructure and culture of the country. However, a significant part of the political agenda behind such support is to change the relations internal to Hungarian Jewry in favor of the (Hasidic) Chabad movement.

This means a conscious weakening of the position of the more secular, often better-informed and typically also more critical members of Hungarian Jewry, including the largest national organisation Mazsihisz.

Given Viktor Orbán’s repeated assertions that he would act as a “protector” of the country’s Jews and mounting evidence that his regime prefers the visibly separate over the highly assimilated among the local Jewish communities, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the regime aims – despite the wholly different role religion plays in contemporary society – at a kind of symbolic reenactment of medieval-type relations between the ruler of a Christian nation and the Jews living under his firm and benevolent rule.

A Marriage of Convenience

Another novelty since 2015 – when Hungarian regime for the first time openly declared ethnic homogeneity desirable– is that representatives of the regime have started to accuse their leftist and liberal opponents of (purposefully or unwittingly) enhancing antisemitic radicalism on the continent. The key argument representatives of the Orbán regime make is that, as supporters of immigration, their leftist and liberal opponents are ready to welcome more Muslims even though the current presence of such groups already constitutes a clear threat to the future of European Jewish life.

Benjamin Netanyahu

It is easy to see how such arguments are, at least nominally, staunchly opposed to antisemitism and borrow from the Western far right, which contribute to the further strengthening of xenophobia in what is already among the most xenophobic countries in the EU.

An accompanying crucial innovation in recent years has been that, in part due to their shared opposition to Muslims and rejection of them becoming new and equal citizens, the Hungarian regime has managed to establish an intimate partnership with the rightist Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu.

The current marriage of convenience between the long-serving leaders of Israel and Hungary may indeed qualify as an unprecedented feat in the diplomatic relations between their states but it also clearly reflects the search for new partners of two increasingly ill-reputed right-wing governments.

As part of a more generalised attack on pluralism and diversity, xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes have become more widespread in Hungarian society. At the same time, just as the Western left has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Israeli policies, the right-wing Orbán regime has taken bold steps to redefine its relationship to Israel as well as Hungary’s Jewish community.

Combining a strict public rejection of Muslim immigration with support for the local Hasidic community but also with antisemitic campaigning against liberal values, the regime has pursued a bold and cynical agenda which has met the approval of its comparably dominant Israeli partner.

The increasingly authoritarian regime of Hungary may thus be said to reflect unexpected realignments under way in European politics in its characteristically radical fashion.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Hungarian on Merce and can be found here

Ph.D. Assistant Professor in European History at Maastricht University.


Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

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