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Rise of conservative right alarming Hungary’s Jews

PRAGUE – The radical far-right Jobbik party is poised to emerge in next month’s elections in Hungary as a potent force in Parliament, and the prospect is ringing alarm bells in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community.

“It’s scary,” said Vera Szekeres-Varsa, a Holocaust survivor and former chair of the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International. “It’s not like 60 or 70 years ago, but it’s still scary.”

Jobbik, whose formal name is the Movement for a Better Hungary, campaigns with fiercely populist rhetoric that capitalizes on seething voter resentment and foments fear and hatred of the mainly impoverished population of Roma, or Gypsies. Targeting what it calls “Gypsy criminality,” Jobbik also warns against “foreign speculators,” including Israel, it says want to control the country.

“Hungary belongs to the Hungarians” is a party slogan.

“Jobbik frequently uses anti-Semitic rhetoric, not directly but through code words and references, as well as symbols and appearances,” said Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at the Central European University who long has tracked nationalist and anti-Semitic trends. “This is frightening for the Jewish population.”

While the conservative Fidesz party is expected to score an overwhelming victory in the April 11 first-round Parliamentary vote — ousting the widely unpopular Socialists, who have been in power since 2002 — Jobbik is expected to make a strong showing and enter the Hungarian Parliament for the first time. Jobbik surged out of the far-right fringe to grab 15 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections last June.

Aside from Jobbik’s growing strength, Hungarian Jews are concerned that Fidesz may compete with Jobbik for votes by shifting some of its own positions more to the right.

For Hungary’s Jews, who overwhelmingly vote for the center-left parties, including the Socialists, the rise of the conservative right is concerning.

“I think they will have to make gestures to the far right,” Adam Schonberger, 30, an activist with the Conservative Jewish youth organization Marom, said of Fidesz. “What really worries me is that in the upcoming parliament there could be no real representative of liberal or minority values.”

A poll of decided voters published March 18 in the HVG weekly showed Fidesz with 57 percent support, the Socialists with 21 percent and 18 percent for Jobbik.

“It is possible that Jobbik will get close to or even more votes than the Socialists,” Kovacs said. “Fidesz for sure will have a majority, and may get a two-thirds majority. This will represent a substantial change in the electoral landscape.”

A two-thirds majority would enable Fidesz, led by the charismatic Viktor Orban, to amend the constitution and push through changes affecting the electoral law, the size of parliament, presidential powers, local governments, and other issues.

No single party has held that concentration of power since the fall of communism — or before that, since the Nazi-allied regime of Miklos Horthy.

Fidesz enjoys some Jewish support and is not considered to be anti-Semitic. It was a Fidesz-led government that instituted Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. Yet some Jobbik officials and Fidesz have collaborated on the local level.

While Fidesz has ruled out a coalition with Jobbik if Fidesz does not achieve a two-thirds majority on its own, a poll last December indicated that some 300,000 right-wing Fidesz supporters might be ready to shift their backing to Jobbik. Fidesz may attempt to forestall such defections by hardening some of its own positions.

Support for Hungary’s center-left parties has plummeted due to the economic downturn and a recent spate of high-profile corruption scandals. In one case, several Socialist politicians were implicated in a racketeering scandal involving the Budapest public transport agency. In another, the Socialist mayor of Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, the Seventh District, was arrested on bribery and other charges relating to real estate deals.

“The collapse of the liberal and center-left parties is of particular concern to Hungary’s Roma and Jews, who are targeted verbally — and in the case of the Roma, also sometimes physically — by right-wing sympathizers,” said historian Michael Miller, who teaches in the Jewish Studies department at the Central European University.

Last year a landmark court ruling banned the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitary wing, whose black-clad members marched through Roma villages bearing red-and-white striped flags and other symbols reminiscent of the World War II Arrow Cross, Hungary’s homegrown Nazi-allied fascists.

A little more than a year ago Krisztina Morvai, who later was elected one of Jobbik’s three European Parliament members, lashed out at Israel for its offensive in Gaza.

“The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas,” she was quoted as writing on a closed e-mail list. “I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’ “

At a party rally March 15, Jobbik’s 31-year-old leader, Gabor Vona, told thousands of followers that Hungary must seek independence from “Washington, Brussels,” — that is, the European Union — “Tel Aviv” and other powers.

Web sites and publications linked to Jobbik are much more explicit, bashing Israel and employing vicious anti-Semitic invective that evokes Nazi-era propaganda.

“Hungary is a Jewish colony” was the headline of an interview on one such Web site with the brother of one of Jobbik’s vice presidents.

Kovacs says he believes Jews are fearful of Jobbik’s gains but are less worried that they will translate into anti-Jewish policies. About 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, most of them in Budapest.

“With Jews, there is no practical social tension,” Kovacs said. “The anti-Jewish discourse is rhetorical — but there are no anti-Jewish political demands. There are, however, radical anti-Roma demands, like cutting social benefits or segregation in school.”

Still, he said, “Loud verbal anti-Semitism can lead to a very polarized and intense atmosphere, which in turn could facilitate, for example, anti-Jewish street violence.”

Szekeres-Varsa said the cumulative impact was very unsettling.

“I don’t see a direct threat, but there is an appalling atmosphere,” she said. “The air is stinking, and there is great uncertainty.”

Schonberger called Jobbik “a very aggressive, radical, arrogant party.”

“If they are able to make other people stupid and soulless, that is the worst,” he said. “We have to maintain our consciousness and keep our two feet on the ground.”

Schonberger, who organizes a youth-oriented Jewish music festival each summer, said he already was looking ahead at ways to promote civic activism to bolster liberal values. This year’s festival, he said, will include programs aimed at encouraging dialogue and cooperation with Roma and other minorities.

“We have to start something, we have to help each other,” he said. “We need to help make a better Hungary.”



Yavneh play honors ‘unlikely hero’ of the Holocaust

Philip Meyer is the older Pinchas. Jeanette Friedman
The entire cast is onstage for the finale. Jeanette Friedman

Charles and Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum traveled from Geneva and Jerusalem to Paramus last Thursday to watch the Yavneh middle school graduating class perform “The Unlikely Hero,” a play honoring their father, Pinchas Rosenbaum, who saved Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. In this production, Pinchas the younger was played by Leora Hyman and the older by Philip Meyer. The script was written and the scenery was designed and painted by members of the graduating class.

The script was adapted from interviews commissioned by the two brothers and their sister Leah, lifelong friends of Yavneh’s Rabbi Shmuel Burstein. Though he knew the family, the teacher first heard the story 25 years ago at dinner honoring the memory of Pinchas Rosenbaum, who died in 1980. According to Charles Rosenbaum, his father rarely spoke about his rescue efforts. But as his children traveled the world, they were approached by those he rescued who told them their stories.

Burstein, a teacher of Tanach and Jewish history at Yavneh, noted that “Pinchas Rosenbaum was a personal hero of mine. My great attachment comes from his overwhelming love, passion, and willingness to risk all for his fellow Jews, regardless of where they stood on the political or religious spectrum. He fulfilled, in all its meanings, the commandment not to stand idly by your brother’s blood.”

Moshe Rosenbaum gave Burstein the interviews and Dominique Cieri, an actress, playwright, and director engaged by Yavneh for the project, drew up an outline. The students then wrote the play, together with Cieri and Burstein.

Leora Hyman is the young Pinchas. Courtesy Leora Hyman

When the play opens, Pinchas, son of the rebbe of Kisvarda, Hungary, is learning about his illustrious “yichus,” his lineage, and is reminded of his obligations to their tradition. Rosenbaum is the descendant of a long line of ultra-Orthodox rabbis that included the Maharal of Prague. The promising student is sent to Rabbi Josef Elimelech Kahane, the Ungvar rebbe, played by Oriel Farajun, who like his father and most ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Hungary, was anti-Zionist.

The play shows how young Pinchas learns about Zionism from neighborhood boys and rebels against what he is being taught when he sees how his fellow Jews are victimized by anti-Semites. At the outset, the students in his class argue with him, Rabbi Kahane argues with him, and all quote passages from the Talmud to determine whether it is it more important to save lives by fleeing to Palestine or to wait for the messiah to establish a haven for Jews.

The unlikely hero, Pinchas, receives his rabbinical ordination at 18, joins the religious Zionists, and does not allow neighborhood anti-Semites to bully him. Then he is arrested and sent to a labor camp. His family is deported to Auschwitz while he is a prisoner. Distraught, he escapes, disguises himself in a Nazi uniform, and begins saving Jewish lives by “capturing” Jews. He brings them to the Glass House, a haven protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and to other safe houses under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who disappeared into a Soviet prison. Pinchas tries to convince his own father to save himself and the family, but his father refuses to abandon his community and insists on being deported with them.

Burstein said that “all sides of the issues of Zionism and non-Zionism had to be explored through the life experiences of those who lived with Pinchas, including the views of the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and the Zionists.”

“It was so refreshing to see those youngsters act in such a meaningful and sincere way,” said Moshe Rosenbaum. “It was clear that for them, it meant everything.”

One point didn’t come out during the play, said Rosenbaum. “My father was very concerned about the safety of non-Zionist Orthodox Jews who came to the Glass House and were pushed away by the Zionists. He tried to keep them safe by creating a space where they could learn and pray without being harassed.” Their leader, Rosenbaum said, was a descendant of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, who is now in Jerusalem.

“I was proud to play the part of a real hero,” said Leora, “but I don’t think I would be brave enough to do what he did. The lesson I learned is that when you put your mind to something, and if it’s really important to you, you can make it happen.”

Philip, who played the older Pinchas, said, “It was an honor to portray a heroic person who made such a difference during a dark time in Jewish history. Since the play was a group effort, it made a great graduation project. We came together to make it happen, just like Pinchas Rosenbaum worked with his group, which made it easier to save Jews…. A lot of what happened back then doesn’t apply anymore, but what we can learn from this great tzaddik, what we should keep close to our hearts, is that we should help our fellow Jews and stand up for what we believe in.” (Both “Pinchases” are from Teaneck.)

Oriel, who played the Ungvar rebbe, had this to say: “I felt that Rabbi Kahane overreacted when he yelled at Pinchas not to become a Zionist and that he should have listened to Pinchas’ ideas. He seemed like a good teacher … but … look, when we went to the Israel Day Parade we saw the Neturei Karta protesting on the side, so I know there are people who still feel that way today.”

Oriel, who is from Fair Lawn, continued, “Pinchas took risks and succeeded in saving hundreds.… We American Jewish kids were never in such a situation so we never had to take huge risks…. It’s hard for us to know if we would do such things. I am not sure that I would, but I hope I would be able to risk my life to save others. In its way, the play prepares us for the future. It shows us the world is good but that there are lots of bad things going on. We have to look out for each other, and not just think — we have to take action.”

Charles Rosenbaum said the play was beautiful. “It was very emotional — the students did it with so much warmth, and made me very happy I came. They are just amazing. My father spoke about the past only reluctantly — perhaps it’s because he died so young (at 57) and the wounds were still too fresh. Though he did not tell it to us directly, it is our obligation as the second generation to tell it. By writing and producing this play, this obligation has passed to the third generation, who are now telling the story to future generations.”


Europe’s Jewish revival

In Hungary, community’s focus is on internal issues

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011
The Israeli Cultural Institute hosts many events, like the kickoff party for the Hanoar Hatzioni Zionist youth group seen here, but it mostly steered clear of the fray on the Palestinians’ U.N. statehood bid. Alex Weisler

BUDAPEST, Hungary — There have been no rallies, no ad campaigns, no testy community discussions here on the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.

On an issue that roused Jews elsewhere in the world, both pro and con, Hungary’s Jewish community has stayed mostly silent. The year-old Israeli Cultural Institute held a lecture on Palestinian statehood about four weeks ago, but nothing else was planned.

Adam Schonberger, the 30-year-old executive director of the Conservative youth group Marom Budapest, said the community simply is not focused on Israel.

“I think the whole question is based on the very limited influence of Hungarian Jews,” he said. “Although there are many groups and many aims, it’s still a very limited community. They are not dealing with any kind of Jewish issue, except if the far right-wing parties are harming the interests of the Jews. That’s it.”

Janos Gado, the editor of Szombat, a monthly Jewish newsmagazine based in Budapest, says it is not that Hungarian Jews do not love Israel — it is just that they are too busy fighting among themselves. “All of their energy is consumed by infighting,” he said.

The muted response is a function of a Jewish community in a deep struggle over its own identity and leadership, as well as a reflection of the extent to which Hungarian Jews are assimilated.

Although Hungary’s 100,000 Jews make up Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish community — after France, Britain, and Germany, respectively — they are unusually splintered. Budapest alone has 20 religious communities from four Jewish streams, according to a study released in mid-September by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, Hungary’s Jewish community has seen significant changes. The proliferation of younger, more grassroots-oriented Jewish groups over the last decade has challenged the community’s historical leadership structure.

Schonberger blames the community’s fragmentation for the relative silence on Palestinian statehood. A handful of Zionist groups, operating under the umbrella of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, released a statement, but it did not attract much attention. That is because it did not have the backing of Hungary’s main Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known by its Hungarian acronym, Maszihisz, Schonberger said.

Maszihisz President Peter Feldmajer said he met with Hungary’s prime minister and foreign minister to express the Hungarian Jewish community’s position on the Palestinian push for statehood. That position, he said, is that of the European Jewish Congress: “Any unilateral steps are bad steps, and we will be further from real peace.”

Feldmajer said ordinary Hungarian Jews are not that concerned with Israel.

Said Gado, “The word Zionism is a harsh word in our contemporary, liberal, left-wing, human rights-ist world. It’s rather a negative word, an insult. The organized Jews, yes, they are officially committed to Israel.”

But “the average Jew,” he said, “is much more committed to left, liberal, minority, human-rights values than Zionism.”

Certain events can stir the community to take more public action, Feldmajer said. During the last Gaza war, Maszihisz officials wrote Op-Eds and helped organize a rally near Budapest’s Israeli Embassy.

“But it was a very clear thing — there were missiles from Gaza and Israel should defend herself,” Feldmajer said. “It was a clear situation and we could communicate to the Hungarian people that Israel had a right to defend.”

JTA Wire Service


Europe’s Jewish revival

Turning to Herzl for a better future

Alex WeislerCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011
Israelis retracing Zionist leader’s footsteps in search of inspiration
The klezmer fusion band Butterfly Effect entertaining Israelis on Herzl tour at Fogashaz, one of the “ruin pubs” of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Alex Weisler

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Sometimes it takes a Zionist organization to show Israeli Jews that Israel is not the only place where Jews have a future.

At least that is what the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and Habonim Dror, the labor Zionist youth organization, managed to do with a whirlwind trip this month for about four dozen Israelis that retraced the footsteps of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, through Europe.

The idea of the trip, which took the Israeli 20-somethings through four countries in five days, was to consider whether and how Herzl’s Zionist ideals can help Israel resolve the troubles it is now facing. The trip, however, also was about helping young Israelis move beyond an Israel-only view of world Jewry, organizers said.

Deborah Laks, a Costa Rica native who now lives in Tel Aviv, said the tour convinced her that Jews can make a home in Europe.

“What I’ve seen of young Jews and what they’re creating in Europe — they’re more useful here than they would be in Israel,” Laks said. “If they go to Israel, who’s going to do it here?”

The bus tour started with Herzl’s birthplace in Budapest before moving on to Vienna, where Herzl studied law; Basel, Switzerland, where the First Zionist Congress was held; and Paris, where Herzl covered the infamous Dreyfus Affair as a correspondent for an Austrian newspaper.

“Zionism in its very essence is a concern with Jewish peoplehood. That’s not going to happen only in the land of Israel,” said David Breakstone, vice chairman of the WZO, which helped organize the trip. Funding came from Habonim Dror and the participants themselves.

Before the trip, Breakstone said, many participants believed they would see only “abandoned synagogues and Jewish graveyards. But the focus of our trip is Jewish future and Jewish revival, not persecution and the Holocaust.

“We certainly weren’t trying to encourage anyone to devalue the importance of aliyah, but I think it’s important that they understand that those who do not move to Israel are not necessarily abandoning a Jewish future.”

The trip also was meant to help participants forge a personal connection with Herzl’s life and writings.

“For us, it’s very important that Herzl be understood not just as this incredible historical figure that started the Zionist movement, but also as a man of values whose ideas continue to be compelling today,” Breakstone said.

The WZO’s first Herzl-centric European tour was held just over a year ago, but it was not focused on Israelis. Participants on this month’s Israel-focused trip said the tour helped them think about old questions in new ways.

“The question of whether or not Europe can be a home for Jews — Herzl asked that question in 1890, but now it’s 2011,” said participant Tamar Levi, a Vancouver native who now lives in Hadera, Israel. “It’s a post-Holocaust reality, but the question for them,” she said of European Jews, “is still very present in their lives.”

In Budapest, the group visited the iconic sites of historic Hungarian Jewry, like the city’s mammoth Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in the world, and the cast-iron Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube depicting the shoes of those shot into the river between 1944 and 1945.

They also met, however, with nine young Hungarians leading the charge to revive Jewish life in the Hungarian capital, which has seen an astonishing Jewish revival in the two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The group also went to listen to a klezmer fusion band in one of the city’s “ruin pubs,” hipster hotspots housed in abandoned buildings in the Jewish Quarter.

Breakstone said the trip complements a larger Herzl revival under way in Israel, with Tel Aviv graffiti featuring modern twists on his famous slogans, a college activist group called If You Will It and a satirical TV show featuring an actor dressed as Herzl serving in a Dr. Phil-type role.

Ten years ago, he said, Herzl was barely mentioned in any real way; now he is again part of Israeli culture and politics.

“This is all part of a reaction to people waking up and saying, where did we go wrong?” Breakstone said. “We’re kind of rudderless. We need to find some direction again.”

Zionist organizations such as Habonim Dror and WZO see Herzl’s vision of an Israel focused on human dignity and social justice as the answer. They see trips like the Herzl European tour as the perfect way to energize young Israeli Zionists about the man and his legacy.

“There’s a need to replace the old guard with a new generation,” said Silvio Joskowicz, Habonim Dror’s secretary-general. “We’ve come here to receive inspiration for what we must do. We didn’t just come here for a history tour.”

JTA Wire Service


Europe’s Jewish revival

Is Jewish life in Hungary and Poland sustainable?

Ruth Ellen GruberCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary — It is not easy to decipher the complicated trajectory of Jewish life in post-communist Europe.

“There are claims and counterclaims about contemporary European Jewish life,” said Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). “At one end of the spectrum there are reports of a remarkable renaissance of activity; at the other, there is a strong narrative of decline.”

Boyd’s institute recently published a pair of reports written by local researchers in Hungary and Poland that offer a more nuanced view. The reports looked at the development of Jewish life in these two countries since the collapse of communism and examined the challenges their Jewish communities face going forward.

The reports, Boyd said, “illustrate that both perspectives are correct: While Jewish life has undoubtedly been reinvigorated since the collapse of communism, considerable investment is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of Jewish life in both places.”

Hungary, with an estimated 100,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish population in post-communist Europe outside the former Soviet Union. In Poland, the European Jewish heartland that was home to more than 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, the Jewish population today is estimated at only 8,000-15,000.

The reports were based on personal interviews with a range of Jewish community activists in each country, followed up by focus-group discussions. Their results highlight similarities in the post-communist Jewish revival process, but also illustrate the differences between various Jewish communities.

They also demonstrate the increasing importance of alternative forms of engagement in nurturing identity among younger Jews. These include Jewish community centers, Jewish studies programs, grassroots educational projects such as Limmud, and even initiatives such as Jewish cafes and culture festivals.

The research in Hungary showed a community reinvigorated over the last 20 years, but facing the challenge of low engagement in communal life, with only 10 percent of the Jewish population affiliated with a Jewish organization.

Young people especially appear alienated from established Jewish communal structures, such as the umbrella Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities — or Mazsihisz, to use its Hungarian acronym.

The JPR Hungary report calls for an urgent overhaul of Mazsihisz and the entire institutional system of organized Hungarian Jewry to ensure that decisions on issues affecting the whole community are made in a democratic and transparent fashion.

It also calls for greater religious pluralism and more cooperation and coordination among the plethora of often competing local Jewish groups and initiatives. This, it said, could help foster the emergence and training of a new generation of leaders “who recognize that success in any part of the community should be regarded as success for the whole community.”

“One of our purposes was to present conflicting views on every issue we considered,” sociologist Andras Kovacs, an expert on Hungarian Jewish issues who was one of the co-authors of the report, said. “We wanted to provoke debate.”

In Poland, research bore witness to the rebirth of a community that remains tiny but has a disproportionate impact both at home and abroad, in part due to the importance of Polish Jewish history and heritage to world Jewry.

Because of this, the report said, and “because of the remarkably positive reaction of the Polish state and most of civil society to Jewish interests and concerns,” Jewish programs in Poland “have a very high multiplier effect,” with a direct impact “both on the world community of Jews of Polish origin, and on Jewish and non-Jewish Poles alike.”

Therefore, it said, preservation and study of Jewish heritage — from cemeteries, synagogues and Holocaust sites such as death camps, to archival, museum and library collections — “are of great importance.”

Moreover, it said, while Orthodox Jewry remained the primary established religious stream, only a minority of the community identified with Orthodoxy.

The report urged greater investment in programs supporting Jewish cultural initiatives and non-Orthodox alternative forms of Jewish engagement.

“There is a future for the Jewish community in Poland, but the community will remain small,” Konstanty Gebert, a leading Jewish intellectual and writer who co-authored the report, said. “While the Orthodox part will remain a core of it, it represents only a minority,” he said.

“Culture is a main identity factor for young Jews,” he went on. “The most important things are happening on the interface between the Jewish community and society at large.”

Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said the report gave a good overall picture of Jewish life in Poland today and many of its complexities.

“It accurately portrays Polish Jews as being optimistic and not overly concerned with anti-Semitism, which stands in marked contrast to the rest of Europe,” he sad.

He added, however, “I would have liked to see more focus on the somewhat unnatural structure of the community, where official religious life is Orthodox, but few of the members are. Polish Jewry coming to terms with that situation, and having its institutions more accurately represent the people is to me the greatest challenge we face moving forward.”

The reports were the first two of a series of JPR investigations into contemporary Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Future reports will deal with Ukraine and Germany.

“This research highlights the importance of avoiding generalities about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe,” Sally Berkovic, the chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, said in a statement. “Despite some shared experiences, each Jewish community, with its distinctive characteristics, has responded differently to the challenges precipitated by the fall of communism.”

JTA Wire Service

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