Under tight security and alongside protest, World Jewish Congress gathering highlights region’s growing anti-Semitism.
Budapest, Hungary — Close to the parliament building, dozens of shoes from a bygone era stand at the edge of the Danube River, the focal point of this picturesque central European city.
It was on this riverbank that Nazi soldiers shot Hungarian Jews before throwing them into the river. The shoes, which have become a memorial site, are just one of the many reminders that almost half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
While the Budapest municipality has worked hard to help restore what was once the Jewish ghetto, now a major tourism site renamed the Jewish Quarter, there are other, more worrying reminders of the city’s Nazi past.
Last Shabbat, when local Jews and participants in the World Jewish Congress’ annual meeting — held this year in Budapest to show solidarity with Hungarian Jews — were praying in one of Budapest’s stately synagogues under super-tight security, hundreds of supporters of the far-right Jobbik party held an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rally near the parliament building.
The protest, initially banned by the police at the behest of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, ultimately received a green light by a Budapest court.
Several hundred demonstrators, many in paramilitary uniforms or with tattooed arms bared, cheered when Gabor Vona, Jobbik’s chairman, declared, “Budapest is not for sale. The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale.”
Hungary’s far right has charged Israelis with trying to control Hungary by gobbling up its real estate. According to The New York Times, some foreign Jews have made or planned investments in Hungary, but those are dwarfed by far larger deals from other European and American businesses.
Saturday’s Jobbik demonstration was just one of a growing number of anti-Semitic events and incidents, many of them organized by political parties with neo-Nazi leanings, sweeping Europe, according to WJC officials and its European delegates. A new WJC report reveals that their anti-Semitic speeches and demonstrations are by no means a fringe phenomenon.
The Golden Dawn party in Greece, and Jobbik in Hungary “have either achieved double figures in elections or are polling at such levels in opinion surveys,” the report notes. “Both have seen their support rise dramatically, from small beginnings.”
Whereas Golden Dawn won just 0.1 percent of the vote at the 1994 European elections, it won 7 percent of the vote in 2012. In April 2013, it polled at 11-12 percent. Its members make the Heil Hitler salute at rallies. They see themselves as the defenders of the Greek race against Jews and non-white immigrants.
In 2010, Jobbik received almost 17 percent of the vote in the Hungarian parliamentary elections. It is anti-Semitic, anti-Roma (Gypsy) and anti-immigrant. Its politicians compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust and say Jews are a danger to national security.
The National Democratic Party (NDP) in Germany, which scored 1.5 percent of the vote at the 2009 election, has made fewer inroads into the national political scene “but it is important,” the WJC says, because the German government is conflicted over whether it should be banned.
At the heavily guarded (the staff said unprecedented) Budapest Intercontinental where the conference was held, David Saltiel, president of the Central Board of the Jewish Communities of Greece, told The Jewish Week that Golden Dawn holds special appeal to those hardest hit by the country’s economic depression. The Greek economy has plummeted 20 percent since 2007-08 and overall unemployment stands at 27 percent.
“They say they will help the poor by keeping out immigrants,” Saltiel noted. “They say Jews run the economy. They act and dress like neo-Nazis. They have 18 parliamentary seats out of 300. The Jewish community is worried.”
So, too, is the Jewish community of Munich.
“In the last three, four years we’ve definitely seen an increase,” in anti-Semitism said Charlotte Knobloch, head of Munich’s Jewish community. “There has always been anti-Semitism but it was unspoken. Now it’s public, and we feel it.”
Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor, said as pro-Palestinian groups have become emboldened, so, too, have their anti-Semitic pronouncements.
“They say it’s because of what’s happening in the Middle East but they speak about us, ‘the Jews,’ and not the Israeli people.”
In a tough speech in the presence of the Hungarian prime minister, Ronald Lauder, the newly re-elected president of the WJC, slammed European governments for not doing more to curb verbal and physical attacks against Jews and other minorities.
Lauder, who funds a Jewish school and other Jewish projects in Budapest, appealed to Orbán “to take a firm and decisive lead. The Jewish community need[s] you to take on these dark forces. They need you to be proactive. They need your leadership in this fight.
“We see that more and more people openly deny the Holocaust,” Lauder continued. “We see that a growing number of people actually believe the old canard that Jews control world finance, or the media, or everything. And we see that Jews again are being blamed for economic troubles.”
Orbán, who will be running for re-election next year, and whose own party is vying for some of Jobbik’s voters, said, “we don’t want Hungary to become a country of hate and anti-Semitism,” and asked the WJC delegates for their “help and experience in helping us solve the problem.”
Lauder said he found Orbán’s speech to the plenum, in which the prime minister called anti-Semitism “unacceptable and intolerable,” insufficient.
While he welcomed Orbán’s willingness to speak before the congress and 200 reporters, “we regret that Mr. Orbán did not address any recent anti-Semitic or racist incidents in the country, nor did he provide sufficient reassurance that a clear line has been drawn between his government and the far-right fringe.” (Lauder later issued an apology, acknowledging that Orbán “had indeed said that Jobbik poses a threat to democracy, violates human rights and that the prime minister had taken a clear stand against the far-right party.”)
Peter Feldmajer, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary, was more forgiving of Orbán’s speech, despite the fact that Hungary’s 100,000 Jews feel much less safe than they did even a couple of years ago.
“It was an honest and good speech,” Feldmajer said. “It sets an example for the people of Hungary, and I hope it will be a turning point.”