Jewish body to meet in Hungary despite anti-Semitism

Accused of presiding over growing anti-Semitism, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is unlikely to receive a standing ovation on Sunday when he addresses a World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest.

"The number of anti-Semitic or anti-Roma statements increased dramatically in recent years, and some of them have come from senior members of the prime minister's party or his government," WJC head Ronald Lauder said in a hard-hitting recent newspaper opinion piece.

The aim of taking the unusual step of meeting in Budapest was to "send a strong signal that Hungary ... is on a dangerous track," he said.

A study by Andras Kovacs from the Central European University shows that 24 percent of people in EU member Hungary had anti-Semitic prejudices in 2011, up from 10 to 15 percent in most of the previous 20 years.

Kovacs pins much of the blame on Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic party which won 17 percent of the vote in 2010 elections, one of whose deputies recently called in parliament for a list of Jews for "national security reasons".

Other recent incidents include Hungary's chief rabbi being verbally abused on a Budapest street, anti-Semitic chants at a football match against Israel and pig's trotters being placed on a statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Budapest Jews in World War II.

"Anti-Semitism doesn't seem to be something to be ashamed of anymore," says Attila Juhasz, a political analyst with Political Capital.

"Most people wouldn't emigrate unless the situation gets worse, but emigration does now get talked about," said Janos Gado, an editor with Jewish newspaper Szombat whose name is on lists of Jews on far-right websites.

Older members of Hungary's Jewish community, thought to number up to 100,000 in total, one of the biggest in Europe, are particularly fearful, he said.

The government says it has a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Semitism. It points to a hike in pensions for Holocaust survivors, Holocaust memorial events and legislation outlawing denial of the Shoah, which claimed the lives of 600,000 Hungarian Jews.

"We Hungarians will protect our Jewish compatriots," Orban said in December. Last month he moved to stop a far-right motorbike rally -- with the motto "Step on the Gas" -- from roaring provocatively past Budapest's main synagogue.

But for critics, Orban's embrace of nationalist rhetoric has created an atmosphere in which anti-Jewish sentiment can thrive. Lauder calls it a "subliminal message to Jobbik supporters."

"They often speak out against foreign banks and foreign companies acting against Hungarian interests, which can be understood by the far-right that Hungary must be protected against Jews," Gado said.

"I don't believe the government is anti-Semitic," says Ferenc Raj, a rabbi, "but they have allowed anti-Semitism to enter the public domain".

Raj wonders, for example, why the government gave a TV presenter, an archaeologist and a musician known for anti-Semitic remarks state awards in March, although one was later retracted after protests.

Another rabbi, Zoltan Radnoti, says the government has tacitly nurtured nostalgia for Miklos Horthy, the autocrat who led the country into World War II as an ally of Hitler.

Orban's friendship with Zsolt Bayer, a right-wing journalist currently under investigation by the country's media watchdog for racist comments, has also caused unease.

Parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover meanwhile was at the centre of a storm last year over his role in the attempted burial of the ashes of Jozsef Nyiro, an author with Nazi associations who is now on school reading lists.

"These acts have poisoned the atmosphere. The basis of not repeating the Holocaust is education but such moves make it harder to educate children," said Peter Feldmayer, head of Hungary's largest Jewish body MAZSIHISZ.

There are some grounds for optimism, however. In parallel with the hostility, local Jews say their community is as vibrant as ever.

"There are cultural festivals, Orthodox rabbinical circles and reform Jews, ultra-liberal groups and young activists taking part in city politics. There is even a female rabbi," Gado says.