“Death to the Jews!” “Auschwitz isn’t this way!” “We’re taking you to a free campsite, with heating!” “No return ticket!”
Slogans like these were heard in the streets of Budapest last year, when the Hungarian capital was invaded by a demonstration by the extreme right.
As police looked on arms folded, one journalist who was filming had his nose broken in five places.
We met up with him six months later. He is still waiting for any charges to be brought, after having filed two complaints against his attackers, and the police.
“I looked over our videos of the past years, when they are shouting for example anti-semitic or anti-gypsy words. In the past it was a bit more covered. But now it’s really direct. It shows maybe it’s more “OK” now to speak directly and to speak with hate,” says Barna Szasz.
This rise in extremism fuelled a record turnout for the ‘March for Life’ in Budapest on April 21st, the traditional march in memory of the more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust in World War Two.
It is also one of the reasons why the World Jewish Congress’ Plenary session, normally held in Israel, is coming to Budapest this year.
Anti-semitic incidents have risen in the last few months in Hungary, which has Central Europe’s largest Jewish community.
This is on top of a rising number of regular attacks against Roma peoples. The blame is often laid at the door of the extreme right-wing Jobbik party, the country’s third-largest political force.
One of its leaders made the headlines last winter when he called for a list to be made of members of parliament, the government, and civil service who were Jewish and could represent a threat to national security.
Public outrage followed. He retorted by claiming he was not anti-semitic and was only looking at double nationality issues.
“Any citizen of a country that completely disregards international law and commits genocide 24 hours a day against the Palestinian people means a national security risk anywhere in any country that they go to. This is the reason why Hungarian-Israeli citizenship is of particular interest to us. And also because Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, back in October 2007, talked about my country, Hungary, as the target of Israeli Jewish businessmen and financial people. And this was all in the context of colonisation and building empires,” insisted Marton Gyongyosi.
This is an embarrassment for the Hungarian government, when it is trying to strengthen good relations with Israel.
Beyond political considerations, measures to combat racism and anti-semitism will be reinforced, promises the Speak of the Hungarian parliament, where new house rules have been introduced.
“Recently we reinforced our position on hate speech through the fourth amendment of the Constitution. With these changes, we can silence any MP whose speech harms the dignity of the parliament, or can hurt other people or groups of people. We can also expel them from a session, and the third measure can be a financial penalty,” said Laszlo Köver.
One journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous, insisted this will not be enough to beat a spreading disease. He is on a list of Hungarian Jewish figures that does the rounds of extreme-right internet hate sites, where he is the subject of frequent attacks.
“The commentaries were extremely aggressive, including the regret that the job of Auschwitz was not finished and things like this. The truth is that my feeling of security has disappeared. Not in everyday life, I’m not afraid on the bus or in the subway. But I’m very uncertain about my future. And I have to tell you that I regard it much more as a European phenomenon,” he said.
For the director of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Mazsihisz, the country still needs to come to terms with its history before mentalities can change.
“In Germany people are confronted with their past. Not here.There are things that cannot be tackled with laws. The most important thing is for things to be clear in people’s minds. We need to discuss everything from the past. The only thing that can help us is education, educating the young,” said Gusztav Zoltai.
Recent recommendations from the Education Ministry, for example adding authors known for their anti-semitism during World War Two to the school syllabus, sparked protests.
It was a suggestion, not an obligation, but for the director of a Budapest secondary school that does not make the decision neutral.
“When the Education Secretary presented her new programme she stated one objective was to reinforce national identity. We can clearly say these authors are not major ones, and for this reason we can imagine their inclusion is for political and ideological reasons,” said Lajos Molnar.
Another novelty is the introduction next year of religious education classes at state schools. As an option, they can be replaced by classes in ethics. Isztvan is a representative of a national parent’s
network. The simple fact that pupils can be classified worries him.
“I don’t think that politicians have to pay for church, to organise religious education inside a normal elementary school. World War Two was a shock to all of us. Even today, many of our children and elders don’t want to tell anyone what is their religion,” said Isztvan Neubauer.
The holding of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest has reignited the debate about who is responsible for the wounds of the past. An anti-Zionist demonstration is planned on the eve of the Congress.
A Jobbik MP is organising the protest. She said it was to clarify the role of Hungary’s Jews in 1919 and 1945, painful years for her country, and also to speak about Jobbik’s current fears.
“I’m an architect, working in urban development. And it’s breathtaking to see how many big speculators are around us in this market, representing Israeli investors. It should be clear that these real estate investments may have serious consequences in the long term. It’s not only that many houses will be built. But it can lead to a change of population. It might lead to a large scale displacement,” says Eniko Kovacs Hegedusne.
One concerned group is Marom, a Jewish association that tries to build bridges with all sections of Hungarian society via cultural activities. It is one way of fighting against all forms of racism, which has worsened as the economy has slumped.
“We are closely working with a lot of civil organisations. With Roma organisations, with LGBT organisations, and of course a lot of organisations that deal with social problems. If we are able to strengthen solidarity in society, we will be able to fight against those groups that you know.. basically they are alone in society. They are alone with their hate ideas,” said Marom’s Budapest director Adam Schonberger.
But just how alone are they, and they do they have influential friends? Several figures in the world or arts, media or science, known for their anti-semitic views, were recently granted controversial national awards. Some in the Hungarian government appear to walking an ambiguous line, and playing a double game that could sour the country’s politics.