Why Hungarys Jews Are the Safest in Europe – The American Conservative

Posted By on October 19, 2022

Turning down Krystalgade, the security barrier sticks out like a sore thumb. It resembles a military checkpoint, out of place in a cobblestoned neighborhood ofCopenhagen. Surely the machine guns, the bollards, and the security cameras must indicate the residence of a senior politician or royal family member.

It is actually something far less noteworthy: the simple presence of Danish Jews. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen had twice been the target of terrorist attacks. Palestinian militants bombed the shul in the 1980s, and thirty years later an Islamic fundamentalist shot and killed a community member. Copenhagens renowned synagogue is now a militarized place of worship.

There is nothing exceptional about Copenhagen.As I learnt during my recent travels across a dozen European countries, the securitization of Jewish life across the continent is the norm, not the exception. Every Shabbat service I attended, whether it was in Prague or London or Majorca, required submitting passport photos, documentation of my connection to the Jewish community, and sometimes even a rabbinical reference. Today, European Jews can effectively only practice their religion behind a defensive fortress. I call it Stockade Judaism.

And for good reason. Virtually every one of the countries I visited has experienced violent outbursts against local Jewish communities. Swedish synagogues have been firebombed. A 16-year-old Syrian migrant and three accomplices planned to attack the Jewish community in Hagen, Germany, on Yom Kippur. Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Frenchwoman, was thrown from her Paris flat to her death to shouts of Allahu Akbar. The courts ruled that the assailant was not responsible for his actions because his consumption of marijuana had induced a psychotic episode. British authorities dropped charges against men driving through London screaming Fuck the Jews, Kill the Jews, and Rape their daughters. To be a Jew in Europe these days looks rather grim.

That is, apart from Hungary.

Viktor Orbns Hungary has become a polarizing issue across the American political spectrum. For many, he represents nothing more than an articulate and calculating fascist. However, among a growing and influential cohort of American conservatives, Orbn has come to represent a valuable counterpoint, a muscular and unapologetic alternative to an ossified Republican Party stuck on corporate tax rates.

It is here amidst debates over immigration, identity, religion, and sexual politics that many have turned to the Jewish Question as a key barometer of Orbns success. Despite what even his most vociferous critics might say, Orbn has seemingly stumbled upon the secret sauce for keeping his countrys Jews safe during a time when virtually every other European country is inundated with skyrocketing levels of antisemitism.

Rod Dreher was among the first commentators to draw attention to the unique absence of antisemitism in Hungary, pointing to the now-famous 2018 European Union report on antisemitic experiences and attitudes. Hungarian Jews reported the lowest levels of fear when it came to verbal abuse or physical violence amongst the dozen European countries polled. Compared to the enlightened Western European countries of France, Germany, and Belgium, Hungarian Jews seemed to living in a completely different universe. Nearly 60 percent of French Jewish respondents worried about being the victim of antisemitic abuse themselves, and 70 percent worried that a family member would be. Germany was marginally better with rates hovering between the high 40s to low 60s. Hungary boasted numbers in the low teens to high 20s.

Reality bears out these concerns. Hungarian Holocaust researcher Lszl Bernt Veszprmy argued in Newsweek recently that while many European nations were shattering their antisemitic records, Hungary was generally placid. Different organizations measure different numbers, but they all agree that in 2020 no more than 70 such events happened, of which only one was physical, Veszprmy wrote.

For perspective, in 2021, the UK experienced 2,255 antisemitic attacks. Germany eclipsed its 2020 antisemitic incident rate only ten months into 2021, totaling 1,850. Neighboring Austria went from 257 antisemitic episodes in 2020 to 562 in the first half of 2021 alonethis with a Jewish community numbering between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Hungary, by comparison, has a Jewish community estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000.

When I visited Budapest this summer amid a sweltering European heatwave, I was pleasantly surprised not to be greeted by the over-militarized presence I had come to know when walking through other European Jewish communities. Such a phenomenon, in and of itself, would be unthinkable for the Jews of France, Germany, or the UK. Tourists can usually spot when theyve unwittingly stumbled upon a citys Jewish Quarter by the visible military presence in the neighborhood, but not in Budapest.

Budapests Jewish Quarter is anchored by three synagogues corresponding to different factions of Hungarian Jewish life that emerged following a theological schism in 1869. Today it forms what is popularly called synagogue triangle. The most famous is the Dohny Street Synagogue of the Neolog movement, positioned theologically between Masorti and Orthodoxy, built in the mid-nineteenth century. It is the largest synagogue in all of Europe (and second largest in the world) renowned for its Moorish architectural inspiration.

I spoke with the synagogues Chief Rabbi, Rbert Frlich, at Solinfo Caf in the heart of the Jewish Quarter on a sunny August Tuesday morning. The rabbi had beat me to our meeting and was gracious despite my running behind. Before I could get out a single question, Frlich insisted, First, what do you want? Do you want a coffee or drink or something? Choose something! I ordered a cappuccino and we kibbitzed about my trip until our drinks arrived. Frlich is big and gregarious, comfortable professing his unabashed love for Las Vegas (a first among rabbis I know) in one breath and joking about Hungarian politics in the next.

I asked the rabbi what he made of American conservatives recent fascination with his beautiful little country. Was there really such little antisemitism? Is Viktor Orbn as scary truly as many make him out to be? They [Jews] are afraid, Frlich asserted, saying it was a misconception to see Hungarian Jews safely nestled in Budapest. Theres no violent antisemitism here. That means there are no physical attacks against Jews or synagogues. But the verbal antisemitism is growing. When the economic system is down, hatred grows. And they always have somebody to blame. The main enemy is the Jewish banker, the Jewish tradesman.

When I asked Frlich to explain why, when much of Western Europe was experiencing record-shattering levels of antisemitism, Hungary was rather tranquil, he wasnt sure what explained its unique success. I cannot find any reasons for that. Maybe we just got lucky. Maybe the zero tolerance [policy] the [Orbn] government says it has against antisemitism is at least useful in preventing physical attacks.

I found out that the stereotypical joke about the Jewish penchant for disagreementyou ask two Jews and get three opinionswas an understatement in Hungary. It was more like ten opinions. One man with whom Frlich has had an on-again, off-again relationship is Andras Heisler, the vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), the representative body of the local community. They have butted heads on various occasions, recently over Hungarian legislation concerning gay marriage.

To my question of whether there was any relationship between Muslim immigration and violent antisemitism, Heisler felt the premise limiting. I do not consider the situation of countries with large Muslim community (comprising several million people sometimes), with significant national minorities from their former colonies comparable to Hungary, he wrote to me over email.

Heisler sees Jewish life in Budapest in more comfortable terms than Frlich. In Budapest, where 90 percent of the countrys Jewish population lives, we can walk freely, wear our yarmulkes and celebrate, observe our holidays. However, Heisler echoed Frlichs ambivalence about Orbns efforts to combat antisemitism. Prejudiced views are strongly present in Hungarian society, and often politicians use ambiguous language that helps the growing far right to gain further ground. Much remains to be done by the society and our politicians as well in order to achieve the zero tolerance proclaimed by Viktor Orbn.

The coarsening of public discourse remained a point of concern for both men. The prime ministers long-running public feud with Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros has led many to accuse Orbn of dabbling in antisemitic tropes. In one notable speech leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, Orbn described Soros efforts encouraging multiculturalism and Muslim immigration along such lines. We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world. Others, however, have challenged what James Kirchick calls the sanctification of Soros whereby any criticism of the man is labelled antisemitic.

Orbns ongoing tiff with Soros wasnt the first time he had waded into territory that frightened Hungarian Jews. Two weeks before my arrival in Budapest, Orbn gave a speech in which he decried the bastardization of cultures. We do not want to become a mixed race, Orbn stated during a stump speech in neighboring Romania. Debates over the context of Orbns statement as well as its translation remain contested. Hungarian Jews were not pleased. Nonetheless, such rhetoric is in line with earlier statements Orbn has made describing Muslim migrants as invaders despoiling the countrys cultural roots.

Consequently, many remain skeptical of the governments latest efforts to restore old synagogues and cemeteries as mere window dressing obscuring deeper intolerance. During my conversations with members of the Jewish community, many pointed to the tough economic moment having brought displays of swastikas and other anti-Jewish graffiti out into the open. Heisler feared that although violent antisemitism may have abated, Hungarian authorities were drawing a not-so-subtle distinction between good Jews and bad Jews.

The part of the good Jews is played by the Orthodox Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) led by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Slom Kves. Community statements condemning Orbns mixed race speech are telling. Frlich denounced the speech as a violation of human dignity and morals, while his Orthodox counterpart Kves walked a more delicate line, calling his choice of words unfortunate. These small nuances bely a more foundational rift pitting the communitys historic Mazsihisz leadership against the newer and increasingly dynamic upstart EMIH. In recent years, the movements have found themselves at cross-purposes over their support for the Orbn government, Holocaust commemoration, and Muslim migration.

At many turns where Frlich and Mazsihisz go one way, EMIH often goes the other, inflaming communal tensions. In 2019, joint Israeli-Hungarian plans to retrieve remains of Holocaust victims in the Danube River left the two communities on opposite sides of the debate. The Orthodox supported the initiative, backing the repatriation of victims bodies to Israel, while Mazsihisz believed such rescue attempts were unproductive.

Two years later, the groups came to blows over the citys $30 million new Holocaust museum. Known as the House of Fates, construction was completed back in 2015 but it still has yet to open its doors to the public because of infighting between Mazsihisz and EMIH over Hungarys complicity in the Holocaust and its portrayal within the museum. Boycotted by the former, Orbns government handed over control of the project to the latter in 2018.

Compounding theological differences are yawning political ones. When I spoke virtually with Kves before the Jewish High Holidays this September, his prognostication of the situation sounded completely different than Frlich or Heislers. For Kves, the improvement of Jewish life in Hungary directly flows from Orbns policies. Everyday opinions have changed thanks to Orbns embrace of Israel, making Hungary one of the Jewish states staunchest defenders in the EU.

Unlike his co-religionists, Kves felt strongly that the absence of Muslim immigrants in Hungary had a huge impact, which you cannot underestimate. Kves pointed to the German governments antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein warning Jews in 2019 to avoid wearing kippot everywhere all the time in Germany. Kves felt the causation was clear. Why is it? Clearly because there were over a million Muslims that came into Germany. By comparison, The fact that the Orbn government made it very clear [not allowing the migrants], I think definitely had a huge impact. We have to admit this. Political correctness, Rabbi Kves felt, was obstructing many peoples ability to acknowledge this basic reality. In conversations hed had with liberal Hungarian friends, they had said as much to him.

The 2018 EU survey gave a resoundingly clear answer to the question of who is committing antisemitic attacks in Europe. When asked by researchers to identify perpetrators, the average across the dozen sampled countries for Muslim extremist was 30 percent, followed by left-wing political at 21 percent. Right-wing political was in the bottom four answers at 13 percent.

This shouldnt have come as a surprise to many politically reasonable people. But progressive shibboleths have tarred basic observations about reality as xenophobic and racist.

What would a fair accounting of the spike in antisemitism in Europe really look like?

For starters, we might look at polling data on widely held Islamic beliefs about Jews. Gnther Jikeli, a leading scholar of antisemitism, combed through data from a 2014 Fondapol survey compiled in France and the results are shocking. Of the sampled French Muslims, a majority believe that Jews exploit the Holocaust for political gain, Jews wield too much financial power, too much media power, and too much political power. Slightly less than half believe there is a Zionist conspiracy on a global scale.

Even French extremists on the left and right dont hold such views to the same extent. Across these basic questions, French Muslim usually are two to three times more likely to agree with an antisemitic statement than the general population.

These views appear to be a significant characteristic of European Muslim communities in general, and recent immigrants from the Middle East in particular. Over half of 800 migrants surveyed in Bayern, Germany, in 2018 expressed similar support for conspiracies of Jewish global power. A 2017 research study from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that a quarter of British Muslims believed the Jews exploit the Holocaust for selfish reasons, 14 percent feel the Holocaust is exaggerated, and eight percent believe it is an outright myth. These are multiples higher than the general population and skew heavily by religious observance. Lszl Bernt Veszprmy compiled many such polling figures in an article on this subject for The European Conservative.

Hungary represents the mirror image of what is unfolding across Western Europe. The notable finding of the 2018 EU survey (which few still truly appreciate) is that Hungarian Jews are actually the most likely to identify someone with a right-wing political view as the assailant in antisemitic attacks. Thats due to the largescale absence of Muslim communities in Hungary. Fittingly, the countries with the highest shares of rapidly growing Muslim communitiesFrance, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UKhave become incubators of the most violent displays of antisemitic attacks since the end of the Holocaust.

The cyclical nature of European antisemitism, clustering around times of conflict, explains why Hungary has been largely immune to the worst aspects of European antisemitism in 2021. When Rod Dreher interviewed a French journalist whod been in Hungary during the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict, the man noted that life in Budapests Jewish Quarter was business as usual. When the violence started, I expected to see police guarding the synagogues and Jewish businesses. None showed up. I saw men wearing kippahs walking down the street looking unworried. Then it hit me: it doesnt happen here.

Thats not always the case.

Getting to the bottom of my cappuccino, I asked Rabbi Frlich whether Hungarian Jewish life had become more precarious in recent years. Now they [Jews] take their kippahs off. Theyre more afraid. They put on a hat and not just because of the sun, Frlich joked. They dont speak so loud when they talk about their Jewishness. I heard similar sentiments when I spoke with another member of the Mazsihisz community who wished to remain anonymous. If you see someone wearing a kippah, its an American, Israeli, or Chabadnik, the man noted: in other words, the uninitiated new arrivals. Its not because there are so many violent attacks but because I am a third generation Holocaust survivor. When a Jew tells a fellow Jew such things its difficult not to take those fears seriously.

I left Budapest ambivalently. The brutal heat wave had begun to flag, and the thermal baths were still calling my name. As I boarded my BB train at the Keleti train station bound for Graz, Austria, and five hours of rolling Hungarian countryside, I didnt know what to make of Hungary, its Jewish community, or Orbn. On one hand, many Hungarian Jews were clearly worried about the eroding political discourse in Hungary that is causing the community, overwhelmingly left-leaning, to remain skeptical of Orbns entreaties.

Any yet I couldnt help but consider the other half of the coin. Perhaps Rabbi Kves and the Orthodox community werent simply political opportunists and court jesters as their enemies claim. Setting aside the broader socioeconomic policies of the Orbn government, and looking specifically at the matter of antisemitism, it seems statistically indisputable that Orbns policies have enabled Hungarian Jews to avoid the horrendous terrorism of Western Europe. Returning to the 2018 EU Study, Hungary ranked number one of a dozen member states in terms of Jews not avoiding wearing, carrying, or displaying in public things that could identify a person as Jewish. France, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark were among the worst. This is more than happenstance: it is the largescale absence of Muslim communities in Hungary.

Such findings are deeply unpalatable for many Hungarian Jews to contemplate. Especially for a community emerging from the embers of the Holocaust, there is a tragic irony: Yes, we were once strangers in a strange land and so should reciprocate and be kind to newcomers and refugees. But what if those newcomers dont take such a shine to you? What if they come with religious and cultural baggage that directly endangers your community?

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The answer, as one Jewish acquaintance I interviewed in Budapest noted, depends on which Chief Rabbi you ask. The only problem, he joked, is that almost all rabbis in Budapest call themselves Chief Rabbis.

I confess, after my travels, on this specific question I fall in the Kves camp. That doesnt translate into a wholesale endorsement of Orbns policies. Hungary isnt a utopia that we should look to uncritically. But, as a growing number of American intellectuals have argued, perhaps there are some merits to learning from a proudly Christian and explicitly conservative country.

Rather than listening to the predictable headlines of hard-right and fascist, more commentators should visit this landlocked country with an open mind. That might lead them to see an imperfect country navigating the defining questions of our age, one worthy of a fair shake before its thrown in the basket of deplorables alongside Belarus, Iran, and North Korea.

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Why Hungarys Jews Are the Safest in Europe - The American Conservative

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