Sunday, January 27, 2013

Has Hungary forgotten the Holocaust?

Has Hungary forgotten the Holocaust?

Ruthie Blum

An international delegation of parliamentarians went to Budapest this week to express concern and offer help to combat rising anti-Semitism.

The distinguished historian Professor Robert Wistrich has described anti-Semitism as "a kind of barometer to us and to the nations, both of what is wrong — because it is often a symptom of major pathologies in a given society — and a warning signal of catastrophes to come. … Rather than deluding ourselves that it is a passing storm, if we could only see it as a galvanizer, we could put our energies to more constructive use, and understand that fighting it, too, is part of a wider struggle for continual self-betterment."

It is such an attitude that has been a driving force behind much of the work of Italian MP Fiamma Nirenstein, chairwoman of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians and steering committee member of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism.

Her focus is global, with an emphasis on Europe, where the marriage of jihadist Islam and radical leftism has been taking its toll not only on Jews, but on the fabric of many democratic societies as a whole.

Sadly, none of this is particularly newsworthy anymore. In Israel, our eyes practically glaze over when we read about another synagogue desecration or other act of anti-Semitism beyond our borders. We are always under enemy attack for being Jews, though we rarely think of it as anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is "irrational hatred" of Jews; Arab terrorism has a "cause" for which we "share culpability." Some among us even believe that if Israel would only give in to all Palestinian demands, the violence against Jews in Europe would cease.

Imagine the relief among liberals, then, when Hungary made headlines for the electoral success of the openly fascist Jobbik party, which occupies a whopping 17 percent of the parliament, and for the outrageous statements of its members.

You see, Hungary — the country responsible for the slaughter of 600,000 Jews during the Holocaust — has no Muslims to speak of. And the anti-Semitism that has come to the fore there emanates from the extreme Right. This is something all Israelis feel comfortable denouncing unequivocally.

Nirenstein, however, makes no such ridiculous distinction. As far as she is concerned, anti-Semitism of any flavor is a poison that has to be confronted and eradicated, to prevent history from repeating itself.

To this end, she has organized many parliamentary delegations aimed at tackling the issue. The most recent of these was to Hungary. Over the weekend, she led a group of parliamentarians from Europe and Israel to meet with government officials, opposition representatives, and members of the Jewish community in Budapest. The trip was purposely scheduled to precede International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It was no small feat getting Knesset members to participate, as the mission set out less than two days after the Israeli elections. Those who did manage to make it to Hungary were not re-elected. To their credit, they did not allow their personal disappointment to diminish their interest in the influence of the Jobbik party, established a decade ago by a group of university students.

Among other of abhorrent activities, Jobbik's founder created a civil "militia" that wears military-like uniforms sporting the insignia of the Hungarian fascists who abetted the Nazis in the mass extermination of Jews.

Though each official with whom we met on Friday stressed that this militia had finally been outlawed, I personally witnessed a group of its "soldiers" in full regalia, looking with disgust at the famous "Statue of Shoes" along the Pest side of the Danube. This minimalist monument is a touching memorial to the Jewish men, women, and children who were shot and thrown into the river during World War II, many of whom were still alive when they hit the water. The menacing presence of the Jobbik thugs had a sullying effect. But, as a local guide explained, the police are as powerless about this as they are indifferent to it. So much for legislation.

The political system, too, appears to suffer from similar helplessness. In 2010, Jobbik became the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament. Unlike in Israel, Hungary has no law that enables the banning of a political party. And the only punitive procedure that can be implemented legally is a temporary suspension of certain MPs from the halls of parliament. This is pretty mild, considering that, during Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip two months ago, Jobbik foreign affairs spokesman Márton Gyöngyösi made a speech calling for the compilation of a list of all Jewish government officials, whose "questionable loyalty" made them "a national-security threat."

Though both the center-right government and the socialist opposition condemned his remarks, no MPs even stormed out of the room when he made them. This could have been due to their lack of attention to the proceedings. Indeed, many parliamentarians on the mission bemoaned the fact that it is common for parliament members of all countries to ignore what is going on during sessions, because they are busy catching up on their correspondence.

Still, that a Hitler-like oration could go on unnoticed is a bit hard to believe.

Because of the lukewarm response from parliament, members of the Hungarian Jewish community filed a complaint against Gyöngyösi for incitement to hatred. But the chief prosecutor rejected the case, on the grounds that his words did not constitute incitement.

Many other anti-Semitic incidents have taken place in Hungary, but perhaps the most famous occurred at a soccer match in August between the Israeli and Hungarian national teams. During the game, Hungarian fans turned their backs during the playing of Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, and hurled epithets such as, "Go back to Auschwitz and Buchenwald!"

The international football federation, FIFA, fined the Hungarian Football Federation $40,000 and ruled that Hungary would have to play its next match with no viewers. One member of the Socialist party explained that this was a pretty harsh punishment, both financially and in terms of morale, because the game at which there will be no fans in the stands "is a really crucial one." Oh, dear.

Hyperaware of the fact that no country likes to be lectured about its internal affairs, all members of the delegation led by Nirenstein stressed repeatedly that they had not come to preach, but rather to assist in any way they could — "to work together" — to eliminate this dangerous phenomenon. This clearly contributed to the generally positive atmosphere of the meetings. But numerous excuses were made for the existence and popularity of Jobbik (which, by the way, comprises and is supported by disgruntled socialists who have admiration for and ties to Iran).

One such "clarification" was that the party is more anti-Roma (Gypsy) than anti-Semitic. Another was that Jobbik supporters are poor people who don't know any better. The idea — ho hum — is that if their economic plight improves, they won't lean towards radicalism. Yeah, right. Tell that to the bin Ladens.

We were also cautioned against "singling out" Hungary as having a problem, since "other European countries are afflicted with worse anti-Semitism."

The only convincing analysis we were given is that Hungary never confronted its past or atoned its sins. Indeed, it moved from fascism to communism without a breather, and has yet to mature into its own democratic identity.

The question remains as to whether it can do so without taking down the Jews in the process.

Today, the world is commemorating the genocide of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Let us all refrain from making a mockery of the phrase "never again" by acknowledging that the past is far from behind us.