Liberal Hungarian Jews swing far-right

  • JTAHungary
(JTA) In 2011, Hungary’s largest Jewish group called on the justice ministry to ban the far-right Jobbik party, describing it as “anti-Semitic” and “fascist”.
by CNAAN LIPHSHIZ | Aug 15, 2019

Now some in the Jewish community, and even inside Mazsihisz (a liberal-leaning federation of Hungarian Jewish organisations) see Jobbik as a legitimate partner for effecting democratic change, in spite of its blunt racism.

Years ago, opposing Jobbik was natural for Mazsihisz. Jobbik’s virulent incitement has made it an outlier, even among European ultranationalist movements.

In spite of some attempts at rehabilitation, racism still appears to be part of Jobbik’s political DNA. Its current leader, Tamas Sneider, is a former skinhead who confessed to beating a Roma person in 1992 with metal cables in an allegedly racist attack. In a 2013 speech in parliament, Jobbik’s second in command, Marton Gyongyosi, called for drawing up a list of all Hungarian Jews because they are “security risks”.

But the political landscape has shifted. There is growing frustration with the ruling party, the right-wing Fidesz, and its iron grip on power. Anti-Fidesz left-wingers, including within Mazsihisz, have turned toward Jobbik as a potential partner.

This process has resulted in an unlikely alliance ahead of local elections in October featuring Jobbik and left-wing parties that once were among its harshest critics, including the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Democratic Coalition.

Under the arrangement announced last month, all opposition parties would endorse whichever candidate polls suggest is likeliest to win a given constituency. In other words, left-wing parties would urge their supporters to vote for Jobbik candidates where they are likeliest to win, and vice versa.

Many observers are stunned by the co-operation between ultranationalists and their formerly staunch opponents. World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder wrote in February that reports of the alliance “deeply troubled” him.

But to many Hungarians who have had enough of Fidesz rule under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the deal makes sense.

A masterful politician with nationalist populist tendencies, Orban has had an unshakable hold on Hungary’s politics for more than nine years thanks to a series of landslide electoral successes after first serving as prime minister from 1998 to 2002. He has made Fidesz so powerful, the party has received triple the votes of the runner-up in every parliamentary election since 2010.

Against this backdrop, Jobbik and left-wing parties hope their newfound partnership will deliver the first major blow in nearly a decade to Orban’s hold on power.

The Orban years have been bad for liberals. He has cracked down on human-rights groups, immigration, the rule of law, higher education, and the free press. But his populist shift has harmed Jobbik, too, having stolen its base. Jobbik crashed in this year’s European Parliament elections, receiving only 6% of the vote compared to 14% in the 2014 elections.

In response, Jobbik has pivoted from promoting crude anti-Semitism to competing for mainstream voters.

Gabor Vona, the party’s previous leader, sent a Chanukkah greeting to Jewish groups in 2016. The next year, he said Jobbik would drop its anti-Israel line, and “treat Israel as any other country”.

In 2014 and 2015, Vona had vowed to “immediately resign if somebody found out I had Jewish ancestry.” But in a 2017 interview with the Forward, Vona said, “Over the past two or three years, I made it clear that there is no place for any racism or anti-Semitism in the party.”

That claim was a dramatic shift for Jobbik, whose nationalist line has become more inclusive and focused on Fidesz’s corruption scandals. But given the party’s history, liberal and Jewish community leaders dismissed Vona’s recent statements.

As Jobbik tried to soften its image, the Orban government’s relations with Mazsihisz became more fraught than ever. In 2014, the Jewish group suspended its contacts with government officials because of a Budapest statue that it said whitewashes Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust. Other Jewish groups disagreed with that position.

Last year, Mazsihisz accused Orban of inflaming anti-Semitic sentiments with a media campaign against George Soros, a liberal Jewish philanthropist and vocal critic of Orban. Many Hungarian Jews also disputed that allegation.

Debate over the left-Jobbik alliance erupted last year in the Jewish community when a local Jewish leader endorsed a Jobbik mayoral candidate named Attila Kiss. The Jewish leader said Jobbik “is not a Nazi party”.

But in 2009, Kiss had called on fellow city councillors to “take up sickles and hacks” and “exorcise the synagogue”. Mazsihisz filed a criminal complaint against Kiss, accusing him of incitement to racist violence, but it was dismissed by local prosecutors.

Mazsihisz distanced itself from the endorsement of Kiss. But, tellingly, the group’s statements did not condemn Jobbik specifically, and spoke only of the organisation’s commitment to nonpartisanship in general.

Another potential sign of warming relations between Jobbik and Mazsihisz came in 2017, when Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, the chairman of Mazsihisz’s rabbinical council, called a rival rabbinical group “Jobbik bashers”.

“For the past three, four years, Mazsihisz has indeed been much less critical of Jobbik,” Peter Feldmajer, a former Mazsihisz president, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Someone [at Mazsihisz] has figured out that the left-wing opposition must join forces with Nazis to overthrow Fidesz.” Feldmajer criticized the new alliance, calling it “a disgrace and a betrayal”.

Mazsihisz has denied endorsing the deal between the left wing and Jobbik, and says it is not allied with any party.

“We have never had, we don’t have, and we will not have any relation with Jobbik,” Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler told JTA.

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