Jewish culture is thriving again in Budapest after a long dormancy. Before 1945 twenty-five percent of the city’s population was Jewish, which gave the city its special flavor intellectually and artistically. Although the Budapest Jews fared better than Jews outside the capital, nonetheless about half of them perished. Those who didn’t pretty well gave up their Jewish identity. This was partly the result of the trauma of the Holocaust and partly a function of the communist dictatorship, which, especially in the early years, was fiercely anti-religious. With the change of regime the Budapest Jewish community, about 100,000 strong, started to become increasingly visible and active. At the same time, antisemitism started to grow and intensified in the last few years.
Although the trend has been quite noticeable for some time it was only in the last month or so that at least two articles appeared about Hungarian antisemitism in important papers. First, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the conservative Swiss paper, had a long description of the growth of the Hungarian right and with it of antisemitism. Yesterday The New York Times published a lengthy article entitled "Simmering Anti-Semitism Mars a Vibrant Hungary."
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung is a conservative paper and its coverage of Hungary was definitely slanted toward the right. That is until recently. The paper’s current regional correspondent has been highlighting the Hungarian right’s shift toward the extreme right. He reports on antisemitic manifestations–from soccer clubs to paramilitary formations. What is especially surprising, given the NZZ‘s soft spot for Viktor Orbán, is that the recent article blames the party chief of Fidesz "who is consistently trying to please the very questionable nationalist and racist elements. In the interest of getting their support he utters opaque half-truths about Hungarian identity and history." The Swiss paper mentioned that Orbán made sure that he was seen together with Zsolt Bayer at the party’s birthday bash. The two men were obviously enjoying themselves tremendously. Surely, says the paper, this was a deliberate move on Orbán’s part to demonstrate to the extreme right that he is a friend and supporter of the openly antisemitic Zsolt Bayer. The article ends with this harsh assessment: "Those like Bayer discredit not only the party [Fidesz] but also Hungary."
The New York Times article is very detailed. The author is Michael Kimmelman, the noted art critic, and so the article emphasizes artistic issues. For example, Kimmelman talked to Péter György, professor of media theory and an art critic, about the lack of Hungarian artistic expression of the trauma of the Holocaust. According to György, "Hungary is a deeply traumatized society since the First World War and the Holocaust, of course…. After the early years of Hungarian Communism, to be Jewish was one’s private affair." But after the change of regime "a new generation of Jews has emerged, which behaves like Jews." And, of course, this is something pretty new in post-1945 Hungary.
Kimmelman also talked to a historian, Tibor Frank, who described the situation in the context of longstanding prejudices that link Jews with national debacles like the Bolshevik takeover of 1919 and the years of communist rule, when many leaders were Jewish. Today those associations have passed on to the troubled socialists. "The Jewish issue is part of a larger reassessment of our history." Unfortunately, I am not at all sure whether there is any meaningful reassessment of Hungarian history.
Meanwhile there is a funny story from Hungary. Tamás Deutsch, one of the founders of Fidesz, has had a fairly stormy relationship with the fair sex. He fathered three children by his first wife and, while married to her, had an affair with his secretary. Another child came from that liaison. Apparently his wife would have put up with this, but when he took up with Ágnes Für, daughter of the former minister of defense in the Antall government, Lajos Für, even his long-suffering wife had had enough. They got divorced, and he married Ágnes (who had two children from her first marriage). Deutsch was so excited about his relationship to the Für family that he added the Für name to his own. He announced that he must be called Tamás Deutsch-Für from here on. However, father-in-law Für became more and more radical, until he became one of the founders of the Hungarian Guard. The family relationship became a bit uncomfortable for Deutsch-Für, and therefore in an interview when the reporter asked him what he thought of his father-in-law’s politics he answered: "I love and respect my father-in-law, but we don’t agree on this matter at all, and we sometimes express this. We will probably never convince each other." He added that it would be incorrect to draw any conclusion about his political activity based on his father-in-law’s affiliation with the Hungarian Guard.
Lajos Für was outraged and responded in an open letter sent to a radical rightist internet site. The letter in part read: "Since Deutsch has been using our family’s name, many people have rightly thought that it is useful to him politically. His shamefully incorrect comments about the Guard, however, show that the situation has reversed, and what used to be an advantage is now a disadvantage. So it would not be good for anyone if in the future anywhere, anyone confused what the name Deutsch and what the name Für represent." And he added that the openly Jewish Deutsch-Für is "a liberal wearing a Hungarian rosette." ‘Liberal’ is often used as a code word for Jewish. I’m curiously waiting what will happen to Deutsch’s Für appendage after that.