Hungarian Jews concerned about anti-Semitic protests

prague | Peace has been restored to Budapest after violent anti-government protests tinged with anti-Semitism, but some Jews, particularly the elderly, worry about the impact of the turbulent political climate on Hungary’s Jewish community.

“Older Jews feel worried, even threatened. They saw some men on the television wearing the old Hungarian Nazi uniform,” said Ferenc Olti, a banker and longtime Jewish activist.

Demonstrations against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany broke out early last week after a speech he gave to his Socialist Party in which he said he and other party officials had lied to voters “morning, evening and night” was made public.

Earlier this month, the country’s economic forecast had to be revised downward as the country’s budget deficit ballooned to 10.1 percent of its GDP, the highest in the European Union.

Protests, led by a few thousand right-wing extremists and soccer hooligans, became violent last week, with attacks on the state television station and some 200 arrests.

A protestor was reported to have saluted Hitler, while others expressed support for the Arrow Cross, the wartime Hungarian party that murdered thousands of Jews during World War II. One protester reportedly displayed a sign that read “Jews to Auschwitz.”

Later in the week, there was a peaceful demonstration of about 40,000 in front of the Parliament seeking the prime minister’s resignation.

It was the largest public protest since the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian revolution, but as of midweek only a few hundred people were picketing the Parliament building in Budapest.

Gabor Szanto, editor of Szombat, a Hungarian Jewish magazine, said, “Jews were afraid something would happen to them over Rosh Hashanah, but there was no incident, so things have calmed down.”

Whether the protests continue will largely be determined by the results of the upcoming municipal elections, which coincide with Yom Kippur Eve.

If there is a win for incumbent Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky, a supporter of the prime minister, further protests are doubtful, analysts say. But if Demszky loses to his right-wing opponent, the prime minister’s critics will feel emboldened, and demonstrations may begin anew.

Szanto, however, said many on the right do not want the stain of anti-Semitism on their campaign. “There were some phrases uttered by protesters at the earlier demonstrations, like ‘dirty Jews,’ but it was very rare,” he said.

A protest leader who opposes the prime minister called Szanto and “and told me that I should inform him of anti-Semitic activity by demonstrators so that it would be stopped,” Szanto said.

Several observers said that although the main right-wing opposition party in Hungary, Fidesz, is not anti-Semitic, it has some anti-Semitic members and is supported by several media outlets that have printed anti-Jewish editorials.

The vast majority of the estimated 100,000 Jews in Hungary support one of the two left-oriented parties in the prime minister’s coalition, Szantos estimated.

Olti, 57, does not take comfort in the dwindling number of protesters. Unlike Szanto, he argues that the expression of anti-Jewish feelings is tolerated and even encouraged by Fidesz.

“During the larger protests, Fidesz parliamentary members spoke under the Hungarian Nazi flag. They said nothing against it, even though it was next to them,” Olti said.

But a Hungarian Jew in her early 30s didn’t see what the fuss was about.

“I don’t feel anti-Semitism on the street, the extremist right people don’t protest against the Jews and any Jewish interest,” Agnes Szalai wrote in an email. Szalai lives in Prague but was home in Budapest for the Jewish holidays.