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May 21, 2019 - Zoltán Kovács

Parallel universes: These two depictions of Jewish life and anti-Semitism in Hungary couldn’t be any more different

One of them credible, the other not so much.

Yesterday, the Financial Times published an opinion piece under the headline, “Jewish life in Budapest is enjoying a renaissance.” A well-known author, international correspondent, and long-time Budapest resident, Adam Lebor confesses “I don’t have any Hungarian roots, other than by osmosis, but I have always felt at home in Budapest.” 

He writes movingly of the Friday evening Shabbat service at Budapest’s Frankel synagogue where he married his wife and which hosts “a warm community in which we have always felt welcome.”

LeBor does not ignore the tough topics, like the long shadow of the Hungarian Holocaust and the debate over historical figures like Miklos Horthy, but he also presents a refreshing depiction of today’s Budapest, where “Jewish life,” he writes, “is enjoying a renaissance.

“Schools, community centres, social and welfare organisations and synagogues catering for all levels of observance are flourishing. Estimates of the numbers vary. Depending on definitions there may be between 100,000 and 200,000 Hungarian Jews, or people with Jewish ancestry, the vast majority living in Budapest — one of the largest communities in Europe.”

And he contrasts this with the situation in the US and other European capitals.

“It is not Budapest where worshippers at a synagogue are shot dead, as happened in April this year and October 2018 in the US; or where 39 per cent of Jews say they have experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the past year, as is the case in Belgium. Nor was it Budapest where Jewish members of parliament were offered bodyguards to attend their own party conferences, as were Jewish MPs at the Labour party conference in the UK last year. In fact, reported hate crimes against Jews are declining in Hungary.”

Consider that description of Budapest by someone who has lived and worked here for years and compare it to the editorial published last week in the Wall Street Journal, which took issue with President Donald Trump receiving his “dubious Hungarian friend,” the prime minister of Hungary.

The author’s major grievance? Anti-Semitism. William Galston, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution and former Clinton appointee, takes issue with the revised public-school curriculum and claims, among other things, that the “Orbán government has also systematically attempted to whitewash Hungary’s anti-Semitic past.” 

Writing perhaps from a Brookings Institution office on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, he failed to mention that it was an Orbán Government that made Holocaust education a mandatory part of the national curriculum, that our new constitution specifically identifies the Jewish community as a constituent part of the Hungarian nation, and that Prime Minister Orbán was the first Hungarian prime minister to speak explicitly of Hungary’s guilt, saying that “Hungary sinned when instead of protecting the Jews, we chose to collaborate with the Nazis.”

Descriptions like those in this WSJ editorial are growing tired. They’re real problem is with George Soros and the failure to acknowledge his political interference, instead insisting that any criticism of Soros equals anti-Semitism. But these relentless attempts to paint the Orbán Government and Hungary as anti-Semitic just don’t square with what’s really happening.

At the end of his piece, LeBor recounts a visit to Budapest from an Orthodox Jewish friend and says that he was a bit anxious about the fact that he walked around the city wearing a kippah. LeBor writes: “What was the reaction?” I asked him. “Did anyone make remarks?” “Yes,” he replied. “A random stranger said, “Shalom”.