An Examination of Antisemitism in Hungary

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 5:00pm

By Péter Krekó

In recent years, domestic and international public discourse regarding antisemitism in Hungary has been characterized by banal understatements and exaggerated overstatements at the same time. Headlines such as “Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe?”; “Fast jeder zweite ungarische Jude überlegte Auswanderung” (Almost every second Hungarian Jew has considered emigration), “Hungary is antisemitic and vile to the Roma. Don’t dare lecture us, Mr Commissioner” are often seen in the international press. As a response, the Hungarian government resorts to “double standards,” emphasizing its commitment against antisemitism but refusing to confront justified claims about antisemitism and the far right in Hungary.  I will present a research-based overview of the situation in Hungary. We should base our decisions on established knowledge, while always being aware of complexities, as well as seek to find meaningful ways to reduce antisemitism. Using testimonies in formal education might be one of these strategies.

Antisemitism has obviously increased in the last decade. Research shows that 10 to 14 percent of respondents found Jews to be repulsive, from 1993 to 2006. By 2008, that figure had jumped to 28 percent, while in 2013 it was lower but still high: 21 percent. Although economic crises have a major role in the fluctuation of antisemitism, their effect is not a given. It depends upon the political context, and mainly upon whether there is a political force that blames Jewish people for the economic and political crisis. In Hungary the Jobbik party does this systematically.

Antisemitism in Hungary is a divisive issue. Unlike anti-Romaism, which is practically consensual (and even more deeply concerning, as two-thirds of Hungarians think that criminality is in the genes of Gypsies) the attitudes toward the Jews are much more polarized. According to our research at Political Capital, we find a high number of antisemites, as well as “philosemites” in Hungary at the same time. A survey of the Hungarian Internet community conducted in July 2013 found that 28 percent of the respondents do not like Jews, while 34 percent do. However, antipathy toward Jews is higher among the younger respondents, which means that politics built upon antisemitism has serious strategic reserves in Hungary. Jobbik’s main constituency are not the poor, angry old people[1] but the middle-class, relatively well-off, well-educated young adults. It clearly points to the failures of the Hungarian education system in raising more democratically committed young people, active participants of civil society, who build their value system on the respect of human rights. It definitely calls for new approaches in education.

Antisemitism is not a one-dimensional phenomenon. While political and journalistic discourse often simplifies the phenomenon of antisemitism, making it seem like a one-dimensional attitude, there is no other prejudice that would be as layered and complex, considering its psychology, its influence, and multiple ways of expression, than antisemitism. The softer, more indirect, and subtle the forms of antisemitism are, the more widespread they become and the more difficult it is to eliminate them. In our studies, we found a much higher ratio of the more cognitive form of antisemitism, the “conspiracy antisemitism” stereotype against the Jews that sees “invisible” manipulations by the Jews acting in secret, than archaic, open, and emotional, “visceral” repudiation. In public discourse we find a wide range of antisemitic statements, from the most blatant forms of Holocaust denial, and blood libels, to the more subtle forms of biased Israel-criticism, the opinion that the Jews deal too much with their past, and Jews take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era. This latter opinion is shared by 68 percent of Hungarian society, according to a survey for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Project on Combating Right-wing Extremism (Forum Berlin) conducted by Andreas Zick and his colleagues.[2]

The most important threat of antisemitism in Hungary is not violence. Antisemitism, despite the growing number of violent atrocities, is not a problem that is articulated in everyday, personal relations—unlike the anti-Roma attitudes that threaten ethnic violence. Antisemitism is an ideological function, which means that for now, the physical and financial security of the Jews is, in most cases, not at risk.  The goal of contemporary antisemitism is primarily the creation of a biased and self-justifying ideological position. Contemporary, conspiracy–based antisemitism gives an explanation to national domestic problems of the citizens and of the country, national historical traumas and losses, domestic conflicts, ethnic tensions, or the economic crises. Antisemitism is the opium of the nation, which refuses to face every problem and failure, and blames them on a global Jewish conspiracy. This makes the national community more closed, more arrogant, and more paranoid, and prevents it from learning from the political and historical mistakes of the past. And it unfortunately captures the social and political mainstream as well. Antisemitism, therefore, poses at least as great a danger on the majority of the society than on the Jews themselves.

The stubbornness of antisemitism makes it difficult to eliminate. If someone is an addict, it is the one who takes it away who will be the most hated. Indoctrination will not work, although education might. My experience is that facing the problem directly in classroom is a helpful method—refuting and ridiculing the most widespread conspiracy theories in the classrooms via informed and open debate. It is important not to be afraid of encountering antisemitic arguments and instead encourage debates with students, even those with antisemitic views. But teachers need training, good arguments, and tools to be able to maintain confidentiality in the classroom to allow for an authentic dialogue, even against the most blatant statements.  Resources such as the testimonies of the USC Shoah Foundation provide knowledge, insight, and understanding into the Hungarian classroom, to support teachers in such classroom debate.

It is not self-evident that remembrance as such will always have a beneficial effect.  Across Europe, the more visceral forms of antisemitism are declining (Hungary is among the few counter-examples), giving way to new forms of antisemitism such as antisemitism-denial and negative reactions to Holocaust remembrance. In Hungary, a country where more than two-thirds of the population thinks that Jews try to take advantage of having been victims of the Holocaust (even if we think this opinion is outrageous), putting more emphasis on historical remembrance of the Holocaust may be a double-edged sword.  If applied wisely and cautiously, it can bring beneficial effect. If it is used to strengthen the recipients’ guilt, the result may be even more widespread, stubborn antisemitism. The role of carefully structured education programming is crucial. Change will happen when we remember the past, teach about it in the present, for the future.


[1] The roots of radicalism and anti-Roma attitudes on the far right

[2] Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report