Nora Berend: The antisemite question in Hungary

Nora Berend is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. She received her B.A. at Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, spent a year at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and completed her studies at Columbia University where she received her Ph.D.

Her field is medieval history, especially early Christianity at the “frontiers,” to which Hungary belongs. Her first book was At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000 – c. 1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

This article was originally published in Hungarian  in the December 30, 2013 issue of Népszabadság. Nora Berend generously translated her article into English for publication here.

* * *

These days, once again people talk about the ‘Jewish question’ as if ‘the Jews’ were the cause of real problems. Those who speak of the Jewish question count Jews according to the Nazi racial laws, irrespective of the individual’s religious adhesion, self-identification or commitment to the state of Israel.

There has never been, nor is there today, a Jewish question in Hungary. On the contrary, there was, and is again, an antisemite question. Antisemitism, which is a political tool. Two types of state models can be detected throughout Hungarian history. One was based on rights: in the modern period this means that every citizen is equally a member of the state. The other model excludes certain groups in the interest of a supposed religious or racial unity. This exclusion can take many forms, from verbal abuse to murder.

There are some who believe that it is possible to stop at a certain point. For example, one can blame ‘the Jews’ for the fate of the country, and that is not antisemitism, because nobody was lined up next to the Danube and shot. Yet history has demonstrated that where hate speech spreads because it receives open or tacit state support, where some groups are seen as legitimate targets, there deeds also follow. Today antisemitism is established as a socially permitted form of thought and discourse.

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

What can be seen on the streets of Budapest

Because of that, for many people, the threshold of the unacceptable has risen so high, that what in other countries would cause an outcry and public scandal became defensible positions in Hungary (for example, in Germany apart from the Neo-Nazis nobody would think of counting Jews in parliament or in the historical profession, especially defining who Jews are through racial rather than religious criteria). This is a disquieting measure of the acceptability of antisemitism. But what kind of Hungarian state is being protected by those who are doing the excluding?

The desired unity that is supposed to be protected  is never real: Hungary throughout its history has never been homogeneous, neither in religion nor in ‘race’. The ‘Christian’ kingdom in the past was home to a variety of pagans, Muslims, Christians who were branded heretical, and later Catholics and Protestants (who fought against each other). It was at most  rhetorically that one could speak of religious unity; it never existed in reality. One can speak even less of a Hungarian ‘race’ in a country where the first known data already depict a constant mixing of peoples.

The ‘Hungarians’ already at the time of their appearance in the Carpathian basin were a mixed population, and when they settled they merged with Slavs and others found in the area. During the following centuries, the process of mixing continued. Not only national heroes like János Hunyadi, Miklós Zrínyi or Sándor  Petőfi had been born to non-Hungarian parents, but even key figures in the ‘race protection’ movement such as Gyula Gömbös and Ferenc Szálasi were not ‘pure Hungarians’. Those who tried to define a Hungarian ‘race’ had to resort to a self-contradictory twisting of words: the people of Árpád and those peoples who ‘nerved together’ with them, stated Gömbös, naturally maintaining the right to decide who are unable to ‘nerve together’ with the Hungarians.

Only two real answers exist to the often repeated question, ‘What is a Hungarian?’: a Hungarian citizen, and anyone whose self-identification is Hungarian. The opposition between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Jew’ is meaningless from every perspective apart from the antisemite’s. What antisemites gain from their antisemitism has been analysed by many, among them Károly Eötvös, defense lawyer in the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel trial in his book The great trial; Jean-Paul Sartre in his work, Anti-Semite and Jew, and Endre Ady in many of his articles. Not insignificant among those who gain in this way are those who make political capital from antisemitism. That it is possible to fall victim to one’s own political antisemitism has been demonstrated more than once.

Not long ago Csanád Szegedi, Jobbik’s representative in the European Parliament, turned quickly from a protector of Hungarians into a representative of Zionist interests in the eyes of his former party when his Jewish origin was revealed. The excuse to engineer the fall of  Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939) was the Jewish origin of one of his great-grandparents. It was during his tenure as prime minister that the first Jewish Law was accepted, and the second one, which defined Jews as a race, prepared. These cases alone show the absurdity of Hungarian antisemitism in defense of the ‘homeland’ and the nation. Those who wish to build a homogeneous nation never act in the interests of the nation, but in those of their own power.

As tools, antisemites use hate speech, exclusion, the opposition of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Spontaneous hatred, based on discontent and ignorance exists in every society, and it can be mobilized more easily the worse people’s economic conditions are and the more hopeless their future is. But the task of the state is not to unleash and incite hatred, but rather to dispel it through information, and if necessary, to prohibit its manifestations. It would be the task of the same state to create such living conditions for its citizens that they do not grasp at the promises of hate speech as solutions in their hopelessness.

Today in Hungary it is possible to make antisemitic and anti-Roma statements and the homeless can be turned into enemies. The generation which grows up in this atmosphere learns that there are people who are not human beings: who can be humiliated, who are not protected by laws, who can be trampled upon. Today in Hungary the Roma are in the worst position from this perspective, since in their case exclusion – because of their heavily disadvantaged status as well as the physical attacks and even murders committed against them – easily turns into a question of life and death.

That the mechanism of exclusion is not tied to religion or ‘race’ is clearly seen from the fact that with the growth of poverty, the poor and homeless are beginning to be categorized as enemies. Using exclusion as a tool, nationalist blather can be sold to some people, for a while. It may seem that there are the winners. But in fact long term, the exclusionary functioning of a state only produces losers. As the Calvinist bishop Dezső Baltazár wrote between the two world wars, the rights of the Jews are a measure of human rights. Where Jews are deprived of their rights, anyone can be deprived of theirs at any time.

It is an old wisdom that history is the teacher of life; and the knowledge that we could learn from history, but we do not want to, is equally old. In Hungary, as in every other country, one can only live a human life in the true sense of the word if instead of hate, there is a protection of rights, instead of exclusion, there is respect of human dignity, instead of nationalistic slogans, there is a guarantee of the rights of citizens. True patriots do not try to figure out whom to exclude from among ‘the Hungarians’, but instead want to find a way for the Hungarian state to ensure life worthy of human beings for each of its citizens.

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Paul
Guest

An excellent article – a neat and concise summary of the stupidity of defining people by ‘race’, the ease with which people in a disadvantaged situation can be turned against invented scapegoats, and the responsibility of the state to prevent and resist this, not fuel it. An ideal starting point for any discussion on anti-Semitism, especially its current rise in Eastern/Central Europe.

However, I must pick the author up on one point – the identification of being Jewish with “commitment to the state of Israel”. There are many Jews who are either luke-warm towards Israel or actively anti-Israel and Zionism – and, of course, there are thousands of citizens of Israel who are not Jews.

Being Jewish and being Israeli, or pro-Israel, are not the same thing and it is very dangerous to confuse and conflate the two (especially so in Hungary, where the two ARE seen as synonymous, and where the activities – or supposed activities – of Israel are automatically blamed on the Jews ).

tinshed (@tinshed)
Guest

Yes, an excellent article indeed. Well worth reading and great that is available to English-speakers.

Minusio
Guest

@Paul. I tend to agree that it is wiser to keep anti-semitism and opposition to the politics of the state of Israel apart (because that is what you probably meant as I take it).

In view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its possible resolution there are in fact discussions even in Israel whether it is necessary or desirable to define Israel as a Jewish state – a definition which is part of its founding myth that contains other inconsistencies. The original Zionists where not overly religious. Now Jews account for 75% of the population, but I know many who are as non-practicing as most Christians or Muslims I know.

Concerning Nora Berend’s article, I especially agree with her statement that being Jewish doesn’t mean that Jews constitute a race. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any converts who already appeared in antiquity. What’s more, there is no semitic race, but only a family of semitic languages. So anti-semtism is actually a misnomer.

The picture of the nazi skinhead has made the rounds over the years. The tattoo still shows three spelling/punctuation mistakes – attesting to the intellectual level of its owner.

Protest Protest 2014
Guest

We need more Nora Berends, Magdolna Marshovskys, and Eva Baloghs to turn around mothership Hungary.

The young Turks of 1956 who had pleasant memories from the Horthy peace years, do not want to acknowledge the antisemitism problem of the Hungarian political and religious leaders.
It is pleasant to learn the names of another righteous Hungarian: Dezső Baltazár

A condemnation of the Prohaszkas is long overdue.

We need a new monument that will broadcast the date when Prohaszka was rejected by all Hungarians.Leave

Sam Stonefire
Guest

The problem with this article is that it will be read by people who agree with it, and unfortunately it will be ignored by those who should read it.

gdfxx
Guest
Paul : An excellent article – a neat and concise summary of the stupidity of defining people by ‘race’, the ease with which people in a disadvantaged situation can be turned against invented scapegoats, and the responsibility of the state to prevent and resist this, not fuel it. An ideal starting point for any discussion on anti-Semitism, especially its current rise in Eastern/Central Europe. However, I must pick the author up on one point – the identification of being Jewish with “commitment to the state of Israel”. There are many Jews who are either luke-warm towards Israel or actively anti-Israel and Zionism – and, of course, there are thousands of citizens of Israel who are not Jews. Being Jewish and being Israeli, or pro-Israel, are not the same thing and it is very dangerous to confuse and conflate the two (especially so in Hungary, where the two ARE seen as synonymous, and where the activities – or supposed activities – of Israel are automatically blamed on the Jews ). Paul, although I agree with some of your points, I have to point out that a lot of the anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Hungarian Nazis of today includes absurd comparisons between… Read more »
Trunk
Guest

Btw did you know that apparently the first new synagogue of Budapest in 80 years is being built in Csepel? And under which government was the building commissioned and – with some luck – will be opened in late 2014? So, which political party is doing the most for the Hungarian Jewry?

Tachoma
Guest

OT: when you thought Fidesz already owned all media with any significant reach and even smaller ones (and independent right wing periodicals still continue to mushroom), V. Orban establishes yet another, this time monthly, magazine.

http://cink.hu/teljes-titokban-ujsagot-alapitottak-orbannak-1495152085

This plan shows the absolute relentlessness of the Fidesz media juggernaut. Fidesz is insatiable and incremental growth is just as important as the acquisition of huge, established franchises (such as TV2; Sanoma Hungary with all the women’s magazines is a big question mark as it is still under preparation, plus likely origo.hu next year).

(I don’t have to point out that the Hungarian left and liberals have nothing, and what used to be independent, non-fidesz media, though not leftist party media, is dying rapidly, such as the printed HVG, ES and the like.)

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Trunk :
Btw did you know that apparently the first new synagogue of Budapest in 80 years is being built in Csepel? And under which government was the building commissioned and – with some luck – will be opened in late 2014? So, which political party is doing the most for the Hungarian Jewry?

Of course Fidesz is doing a lot for “Hungarian Jewry”, on media controlled by Fidesz like Echo TV, Magyar Hirlap and Demokrata texts are published which in Germany or Austria only Neonazi publish (Krisztián Ungváry)
Also the fact, that in Fideszspeak Hungarians and Jews are considered separate entitities and the primeminister of the maffiastate is defending “the Jews” shows us, that Orbán and his ilk are like vultures trying to make a political profit of the fact, that with the consent of Horthy and with the Hungarian administration and Gendarmes doing overtime about half a million Hungarian citizens were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest
Paul : Being Jewish and being Israeli, or pro-Israel, are not the same thing and it is very dangerous to confuse and conflate the two (especially so in Hungary, where the two ARE seen as synonymous, and where the activities – or supposed activities – of Israel are automatically blamed on the Jews ). I also tend to agree with your view, however as gdfxx pointed out the line cannot easily be drawn, especially as Mz. Berend invites us to consider the “Antisemitic Question” in today’s Hungary. Expressions of antisemitism are certainly not restricted to far-right sympathizers, and a recent multi-European countries poll (ADL, 2012) suggested that among the general Hungarian population, the opinion that ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country’ is only slightly higher than in Germany, and significantly smaller than in Italy, Poland and Spain. Yet if we consider antisemitic statements of a political nature, the far-right is predominant, and here the association of Jewish citizens and Israel is quite strong. I see at least two reasons (?) for that. Coming from France, what strikes me most about the Hungarian far-right positions on this subject is that it is almost the same as some… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

THere will be a new elite Fidesz journal written by chief apparatchiks and oligarchs, probably from taxpayers’ money. Orban himself will contribute articles.

Chief editor will be the extremist journalist Bencsik (< Csurka)

The bulk of the copies will be sent to school libraries, public libraries, school principals, members of the state apparatus.

http://cink.hu/teljes-titokban-ujsagot-alapitottak-orbannak-1495152085

Tyrker
Guest

You keep ignoring the most basic rules of photo attribution. The photograph whose cropped version is embedded in this post was taken in 2009, and is copyright Reuters / László Balogh. Source: http://www.reuters.com/news/pictures/searchpopup?picId=12061484

That’s how you do it. Don’t tell me it’s THAT difficult.

andy - whew
Guest

Fascinating story that evolves regarding the Berend family’s intellectual thinking, publications and ahievements. The Nora Berend article’s going to take more time for me to read and properly digest.

Jano
Guest

I just had a very painful conversation with my de facto Nazi uncle. He wasn’t even phased out that a big chunk of our mutual relatives are at least partly Jewish. “I wasn’t talking about them”. After he finally left to add some coins to the parking meter “before the liberals take my car to Brussels”. Since he had a recent falling out with Fidesz due to some shady business gone sour (obviously stealing is bad only if Jews or liberals do it), as liberal he listed Rogán and Orbán.

This anti-semitic question is much deeper and complicated than most foreigners would think and can only be interpreted as the Absurdistan context. It has very little to do with actual Jews.

veil veil
Guest

GDFXX – the answer to your questions.
The level of information must be improved.
The Orban media and education is even worse than the one in the past periods.
The Israeli public relations is also poor.
Most of the immigrants arrived from Hungary like countries, with very bad cultural package.
What do you think, can an Israelo immigrant have a prejudice free thinking if born in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, or in an Arab country?
Most of humanity suffers from the “veil of ignorance” syndrome. (Janos Harsanyi)

tappanch
Guest

@Jano

After 70 years, anti-Semitism is growing strong again, everywhere. You can see the effect of this mass psychosis on the high percentage anti-Semitic Jews. This is a worldwide phenomenon, that includes Israel.

Tyrker
Guest
Eva S. Balogh : Nora is the daughter of Ivan T. Berend Funny you should mention that. According to antiszemitizmus.hu – which is anything but a Nazi website -, Ivan T. Berend bears a huge responsibility in the revival of anti-Semitism in Hungary: http://www.antiszemitizmus.hu/a+demokracia+vadhajtasai+i+2.html To quote the relevant passage (in the Hungarian original – sorry, I need to get back to work and have no time to translate it for those who don’t read Hungarian): “Az, hogy a volt elit egyes tagjai nem csak az antiszemitizmust, hanem az azzal való vádat is a politikai küzdelmek során alkalmazták, jó példa Berend T. Ivánnak, a Magyar Tudományos Akadémia elnökének a The New Yorker című lapnak adott nyilatkozata: itt az MDF-et antiszemitizmussal vádolta meg. A jeles gazdaságtörténész, az MSZMP-ben magas tisztséget betöltött, így az államszocialista rendszer emberének tekinthető. Berend T. azzal a fogással élt, amiről a bevezetőben már írtunk: a politikai ellenfelet ítélte el, bélyegezte meg egy olyan szótár alapján, amelyet egy amerikai olvasó könnyen meg tudott fejteni s amely stigmatizáló hatású. ” I think you can still read the New Yorker article, which appeared in the November 20, 1989(!) issue, at archives.newyorker.com/?i=1989-11-20#folio=CV1 but you must be a subscriber for full access. Karl… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

@Tyrker

Ivan Berend observed it correctly in 1989. The MDF did have a strong anti-Semitic wing, headed by Lezsak and Csurka.

Lezsak and Csurkists like Mate Kocsis are prominent figures in today’s Fidesz.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest
Karl Pfeifer on media controlled by Fidesz like Echo TV, Magyar Hirlap and Demokrata texts are published which in Germany or Austria only Neonazi publish (Krisztián Ungváry) Sorry Karl, but this sentence of yours borders on the unintelligible. Are you saying that A) according to Krisztián Ungváry, the media outlets you’ve listed publish texts that only neo-Nazi publications would print in Germany/Austria; or B) that Krisztián Ungváry had written neo-Nazi texts that were subsequently (re)published by Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap and Echo TV? If it is version B) that you meant, then I have to say you seem to be totally disconnected with the realities of the Hungarian intellectual scene. FYI, Krisztián Ungváry is a Liberal historian, and I very much doubt he has ever written anything that would only belong in a neo-Nazi publication. The NEONAZI TEXTS ARE PUBLISHED BY FIDESZ CONTROLLED MEDIA I am sorry not to have had the time for a correct translation, Here is the German quote out of Ungvárys Article in Europäische Rundschau Nr. 2 /2013 “In den wesltichen Medien werden die Unterschiede zwischen FIDESZ und Jobbik oft unterschätzt. Aus politischer Sicht steht Jobbik in einem absolutcn Konkurrenzverhältnis zur FIDESZ. Auf ideologischcm Gebiet jedoch sind… Read more »
HiBoM
Guest

tappanch, anti-semitism is such a powerful and loaded term that I think you have to be very careful and transparent about what you really mean when you start calling Jews anti-semitic. I suspect it means something quite different to the way Zsolt Bayer thinks about them! And it is too important a term to sling around casually.

Jano is absolutely spot on, the whole notion of who is and isn’t a Jew is very complex in Hungary. One of the proudest Jews I knew was also one of the most militant catholics! Many people I know call themselves Jewish although few if any have more than one or two Jewish grandparents. Anti-semites don’t seem to care that István Lovas, Tamás Deutsch, Némethné or Szájer have Jewish antecedents, but regard people like Kuncze as a Jew because of their warped perception of the party he led, even though he has no Jewish relatives.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Tyrker :
Funny you should mention that. According to antiszemitizmus.hu – which is anything but a Nazi website -, Ivan T. Berend bears a huge responsibility in the revival of anti-Semitism in Hungary:
http://www.antiszemitizmus.hu/a+demokracia+vadhajtasai+i+2.html

Not only didn’t you have time to translate, but you also didn’t take the time to read András Kovács’ paper.

As a matter of fact, the part of the paper you linked to simply points out an important aspect: that as soon as antisemitic discourse became public again, it was the object of political plays beetween the left and the right. Nowhere is it said or even hinted at “Ivan T. Berend [bearing] a huge responsibility in the revival of anti-Semitism in Hungary” – quite the contrary, actually – for as tappanch wrote (and the very paper you quoted confirms), Dr. Berend was spot on. And he payed a hefty price for speaking up.

You may not like the message, but could you please refrain from trying to (character-) assassinate the messenger?

tappanch
Guest

@HiBoM

“Szájer have Jewish antecedents”

Szájer explicitly said at the US Senate hearing, I heard it live, that he LOOKS Jewish, but he has no Jewish connection whatsoever.

(By the way, nobody asked him)

re: Minister Mrs Németh
She worked for an Israeli bank in Hungary in the 1990s, all right, does it make her Jewish?

Minusio
Guest

As my old friend Dani Hirschman (Haifa) always says: “Anti-semitism doesn’t need any Jews.”

Years ago it occurred to me that nowhere conservative politicians (let alone right-wing nationalist) can conduct their political work without using populist means, i.e. they feel the need to appeal to lower instincts. I have seen intelligent conservative, even right-wing extremist politicians (or people, for that matter), but I have never seen any that were also educated, really literate, tolerant, humanistic in the widest sense.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Minusio :
As my old friend Dani Hirschman (Haifa) always says: “Anti-semitism doesn’t need any Jews.”
Years ago it occurred to me that nowhere conservative politicians (let alone right-wing nationalist) can conduct their political work without using populist means, i.e. they feel the need to appeal to lower instincts. I have seen intelligent conservative, even right-wing extremist politicians (or people, for that matter), but I have never seen any that were also educated, really literate, tolerant, humanistic in the widest sense.

´
I disagree, I have met in Austria conservatives who are educated, really literate, tolerant, humanistic in the widest sense.
And I have met socialists who are not.
So lets not make sweeping judgments.

Minusio
Guest

@Karl Pfeifer. I haven’t. But that is my personal experience. I did not mention socialists or liberals.

Guest

HiBoM: “Many people I know call themselves Jewish although few if any have more than one or two Jewish grandparents. Anti-semites don’t seem to care that István Lovas, Tamás Deutsch, Némethné or Szájer have Jewish antecedents, but regard people like Kuncze as a Jew because of their warped perception of the party he led, even though he has no Jewish relatives”.

Hungary seems to be a place where everybody keeps track of everybody else’s grandparents.

tappanch
Guest

@Jean P

When I was a draftee in the Hungarian People’s Army, I remember a fellow soldier from Debrecen telling me that de Gaulle must be Jewish because of his big nose.

This guy had a HUGE nose [and was not Jewish]. 🙂

qaz
Guest

Being anti-Jewish (a more accurate expression than “anti-Semite”) is a characteristic widely shared across the Hungarian political spectrum. The Hungarian “left” in that respect is no better than the conservative-nationalists “right.” By way of example about that “left,” the reason for the failure of Ronald Lauder’s bid to secure a TV frequency in the mid-nineties was the strong personal opposition of Horn to have a TV station controlled by a Jew (other Jews were part of Lauder’s team, including the very talented Gyorgy Balo).

tappanch
Guest

@qaz

There are plenty of countries where there is rampant anti-Semitism nowadays in “leftist” parties, but Hungary is not one of them. Rakosi, himself of Jewish origin, was the only anti-Semite on this side.

Premier Horn had Jewish ancestors on his father’s side, and I do not think it was Lauder’s Jewishness he did not like.

On the other hand, most “rightist” political leaders were anti-Semitic in the 20th century.

Mutt
Guest

qaz :
By way of example about that “left,” the reason for the failure of Ronald Lauder’s bid to secure a TV frequency in the mid-nineties was the strong personal opposition of Horn to have a TV station controlled by a Jew

… and you know this how?

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