Hungary’s troubling flirtation with anti-Semitism

I first visited Budapest, Hungary, in June of 2013. The occasion was a conference for young leaders from Central and Eastern Europe working to create more open societies that would foster respect for minorities. As I walked around the city, I was drawn to the Danube River, which flows through it.

Along the banks of the Danube is a memorial sculpture honoring the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were then shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies would fall into the river and be carried away. As an extra measure of cruelty, several people were tied together and only one or two in each group shot, so that those still alive would be pulled below the surface and drowned.

The sculpture represents the shoes left behind on the bank.

My memory of seeing those shoes has stayed with me ever since. It is especially meaningful now, as we prepare to commemorate the 71st Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance. Jews are commanded to remember ( zachor) and not to forget ( lo tishkach). Implicit in this responsibility is the need to confront the past and learn from it.

Since World War II, Hungary has made significant strides in commemorating the Holocaust and creating a more open and tolerant society. Like many other European countries, Hungary has established Holocaust Remembrance Day to perpetuate the memory of what happened and to educate future generations. Hungary's government also declared 2014 the year of Holocaust commemoration. On my visit I saw a thriving Jewish community in Budapest and heard its members describe a revival of Jewish life and culture.

However, Hungary must address several challenges as it seeks to instill the memory of the Shoah in its citizens.

Plans to build a memorial to the 1944 German occupation of the country are viewed with suspicion by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary. That body worries that the government intends to rewrite the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, relieving Hungarians of responsibility and focusing entirely on the arrival of German troops in March 1944, minimizing anti-Jewish measures that were imposed previously and ignoring the role of Hungarian forces in assisting the Nazis.

The Jewish community is also deeply concerned about the rise in influence of Jobbik, which has become the nation’s third largest party. Founded in 2003, it is infused with xenophobic hatred aimed especially at Jews and Romas (referred to by some as Gypsies).

Since my visit, these concerns have only grown. Earlier this month, Jobbik won more than 20 percent of the vote in national elections and will have 23 seats in the 199-seat Parliament. The continuing appeal of Jobbik also portends potential gains for the party in next month’s elections for the European Parliament. When more than one in five voters in Hungary — a NATO and E.U. member — opts for an unabashedly extremist party, alarm bells should go off.

My conversations with several leaders from Hungary's Jewish community supported the findings of a survey of Jews in eight European countries by the E.U.’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released last year. It reported that 48 percent of Hungarian Jews have considered emigrating in reaction to growing anti-Semitism in the country. In fact, Hungary is not the only place European Jews are worried: 21 percent of Jews in these eight countries have experienced at least one anti-Semitic “verbal insult or harassment and/or a physical attack” in the past year, and nearly one-third have considered emigrating because they do not feel safe in their home country, according to the survey.

If Hungary and Hungarians would confront their history and stand up to Jobbik's hateful rhetoric, they could set an example for Europe, and help contain the anti-Semitic scourge. If, however, Hungary seeks to evade its responsibility for the Holocaust and anti-Semitism continues to grow, not only would the Jews be threatened, but Hungary itself would be in danger of losing its democratic values.

Hungary’s progress in dealing with its past must be maintained, built upon and guarded vigilantly. Remember, and do not forget lessons of the past.

Brian Siegal is director of AJC’s Miami and Broward Office.

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