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Young Jews' festival challenges Hungary discrimination


"Gypsy, Jewish & Gay" boasted a concert-goer's T-shirt at the Bankito festival in northern Hungary, a strong political message in a country accused of rising anti-Semitism and criticised for discriminating against minorities.

The picturesque village of Bank, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Budapest, plays host every July to what began as a Jewish music festival popularly named "Jewstock" -- alluding to the legendary mud-incrusted Woodstock rock music event of 1969.

But the lakeside festival has grown into a forum for civic activism, a place where all minorities are welcome.

"Bankito is a safe space, here you can freely be whoever you are, whatever group you belong in," said Adam Schonberger, 33, the son of a rabbi and the director of Marom, the group of young secular Budapest Jews behind Bankito.

"We imagined an ideal world that we would want to live in and then set about creating it.... It's a community of subcultures, with a trace of Jewish flavour," he told AFP at this year's event.

Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing government brought in a new constitution rooted in a conservative Christian worldview.

Critics, including the European Union, said it was undemocratic, discriminated against homosexuals and homeless people, and offered little protection to Hungary's large Roma and Jewish minorities who are often on the receiving end of prejudice and sometimes violence.

"The government has a majoritarian vision of Hungary," Schonberger said. "Anyone who doesn't share their view is excluded."

And this is where Bankito tries to make an impact.

Besides the concerts -- featuring all types of music, from experimental and electronic to Roma -- Bankito's programme included alternative theatre, art exhibitions and dozens of workshops on political and social issues like education reform, media censorship, hate speech and anti-Semitism.

Young Jews tend to avoid mainstream political parties in Hungary but are very active in civil society, said 29-year-old Tamas Buchler.

"We have very strong values when it comes to democracy, human rights, fighting against racism, and active citizenship. It's something that we all share," said Buchler, who runs Minyanim, a group training young eastern European Jews to become community leaders.

Although the organisers do not want to force a Jewish identity on the festival, "the two or three Jewish-related programmes per day are important as we want to show that Jews are also part of Hungarian society," said Schonberger.

Physical or verbal attacks on Hungary's Jews, estimated to number 100,000, have increased in recent years although they remain rare.

In May, the World Jewish Congress held an assembly in Budapest to show its solidarity with the country's Jews, and Orban called for "zero tolerance" of anti-Semitism and racism.

However, the premier's Fidesz party has often been accused of ambivalence on Roma and Jewish issues, with some saying the party is seeking to woo voters from Jobbik, an openly anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party, ahead of general elections in 2014.

At Bankito, young Jews said they had other problems than anti-Semitism.

Judit Mokos, a 21-year-old student and volunteer with Jaffe, a charity helping poorer Jewish families, was concerned about what she called an "anti-intellectual atmosphere."

"I study Humanities, which the government thinks is no longer important and it has cut its funding. I'm not sure I see my future in Hungary at all."

For Schonberger, lack of democracy and public apathy were the twin dangers.

"If something is unjust or unfair here, only a few hundred go on the streets rather than the thousands in Turkey or Bulgaria," he said.

"Bankito is about getting more people to participate, be it in the arts or in civil society."

For Ima, a 23-year-old participant from Romania, the festival was already a big step, and she said she doubted such an event could be held in her home country.

"The Jews in Hungary are definitely out of their ghetto," she said.