LONDON — Once again, Hungary's record on human rights is under fire. In a report released today, Human Rights Watch details threats to a wide range of freedoms since the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban forced through major constitutional changes after it took office in 2010.
One of the rights under threat, according to the report's author Lydia Gall, is freedom of religion.
Under the new constitution, which came into effect in 2011, all religious groups had to be re-certified by the government. Religious institutions are a major conduit for dispersing social funds in Hungary. The reason given by the government for the re-certification is that it wanted to be sure that those who claim religious status really are faith organizations before they receive funds.
But, Gall says, "There was no transparency to the process." The government failed to make its criteria clear. "The result was that many churches were summarily deprived of their status as religious institutions."
No mosques or Sikh gurdwalas were re-certified. Even the Methodist church was denied religious status initially, although it was restored after a year long appeal process.
The Orban government argues that the religious institutions certified represent the faiths of 95 percent of Hungarians who go to church and denies they are discriminating against any religious minority.
As a member of the European Union, Hungary is obligated to uphold freedom of worship for all its citizens.
Since his Fidesz party gained power, Orban has been skillful at sanding the rough edges of its right-wing nationalist agenda by avoiding populist demagoguery and making sure that he is always within a legal framework as he asserts greater government control over the press, the courts and religion.
He is aided indirectly by the existence of Jobbik. The third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, Jobbik has been called by critics a neo-Nazi, neo-fascist party. Jobbik disputes these labels. It also rejects the charge that it is anti-Semitic but the record of many of its politicians says otherwise.
Judi Szima, a Jobbik candidate for the European Parliament wrote in 2009, "Given our current situation, anti-Semitism is not just our right, but it is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and we must prepare for armed battle against the Jews."
In November last year a Jobbik member of the Hungarian Parliament, Marton Gyongyosi, demanded the creation of a list of Jewish politicians to identify potential "national security risks."
The Jewish community in Hungary is at a loss about how to deal with the situation. Its members do not know just how hard to push back. Last week, the World Jewish Congress held its annual meeting in Budapest. A few days before, despite a court-ordered ban, Jobbik held demonstrations against the WJC meeting. One speaker called the meeting a "Jewish attempt to buy up Hungary."
Prime Minister Orban addressed the Congress. He condemned anti-Semitism around Europe but somehow did not mention Jobbik nor condemn their rally.
This caused outrage among some delegates but the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Peter Feldmajer, told the German magazine Der Spiegel, "In our view there are no anti-Semites in the Hungarian government," he says. "But we certainly see anti-Semitic tendencies in the government majority." Most Jews in Hungary don't feel endangered, Feldmajer added. "However, among most of the members of our community the increasingly intense right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic attacks are creating very uncomfortable feelings."
On Monday it was announced that Feldmajer and his entire leadership team had resigned following a vote of no confidence by his board. The primary reason: his unwillingness to challenge Orban on anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism without Jews is one of the stranger post-Soviet phenomena of central and eastern Europe.
Once the heartland of world Jewry, the Holocaust effectively eradicated the Jewish presence from Hungary deep into the Ukraine — yet anti-Semitic attitudes persist. It's as if Jew-hatred was an inherited part of the social culture.
Szabolcs Hegyi, of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, notes, "Anti-Semitism appeared right after the transition [from communism]. Unfortunately, in the meantime it didn't disappear. Indeed, it has been increasing and growing."
In the years before the war, Hungary had a large Jewish community, mostly living in and around Budapest. Twenty percent of the population of the city in 1930 was Jewish. Today it is 0.5 percent. Nevertheless, Hungary still has the largest Jewish community left in the region, around 100,000 people. It also has the most entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes.
A survey last year for the Anti-Defamation League asked people around Europe, from east to west, a series of questions based on old anti-Semitic canards. Among them: "Do you think Jews have too much power in the business world?" Seventy-three percent of Hungarians surveyed said yes, by far the highest figure of any nation.
The failure of Orban's government to challenge these attitudes is deeply troubling to Hungary's EU partners as well as to the Jewish community. Hegyi has a simple explanation as to why Orban resists denouncing anti-Semitism: "There are votes in it," he says.