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Could Hungarian anti-Semitism get out of control?

BUDAPEST (JTA) — The rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has ratcheted up debate about anti-Semitism in this country and focused attention on the seeming paradoxes of Jewish life here.

On the one hand, a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel described Budapest as “Europe’s capital of anti-Semitism,” where Jews are “being openly intimidated” and making plans to leave the country.

On the other, Hungary is home to a flourishing and multifaceted Jewish life that finds vigorous public expression in religious, cultural and even culinary ways, and also enjoys high-profile government recognition.

I saw this myself at Chanukah when I munched on latkes at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, sampled doughnuts at a sit-down dinner for Holocaust survivors, joined 20-somethings at a riotous klezmer/hip-hop gig, and just missed witnessing the foreign minister, Budapest’s mayor and other VIPs help light a big menorah set up in the center of town.

While anti-Semitism remains a serious concern in this central European country, Budapest-based Jewish writer Adam LeBor wrote in the Economist, the Der Spiegel article was a one-sided screed that portrayed the Jewish experience in Hungary “solely through the warped prism of anti-Semitism rather than its much more complex, and healthy, reality.”

A timely and important new book puts contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism into perspective. Based on studies carried out since the early 1990s, “The Stranger at Hand: Antisemitic Prejudices in Post-Communist Hungary” is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the scope and impact of the phenomenon. It’s just too bad that its $131 price tag will put it out of reach of many potential readers.

Written by Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest’s Central European University who has devoted decades to tracking both the development of anti-Semitism and the development of Jewish life and identity here, the book presents a highly complex and sometimes contradictory picture.

A large part of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is convinced that anti-Semitism has increased in Hungary since the fall of communism, Kovacs writes.

“What is said on the street, written in newspapers, and heard on the radio can and does give rise to concern,” he writes. “Are the fears legitimate?”

The answer, he told JTA in an interview, is a mix of  yes, no and maybe.

Jobbik, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and virulently anti-Roma, or Gypsy, political platform, won nearly 17 percent of the vote in April elections and entered Parliament as Hungary’s third-largest party. But recent evidence shows that it has been losing support amid divisive internal squabbles, and newly imposed legal measures have clamped down hard on its once-feared paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard.

Still, Jobbik did not emerge from thin air, and Kovacs’s book traces the evolution of several anti-Semitic trends against a shifting background of political and social change.

He identifies three main types of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The first is “classic” anti-Jewish prejudice, based on social and religious stereotypes that date back centuries and were kept alive, if suppressed, under communism. The second occurs when anti-Semitism becomes a sort of “language and culture” that fosters a general anti-Semitic worldview. The third is political anti-Semitism, “where political activists discover that they can mobilize certain social groups by using anti-Semitic slogans to achieve their own goals.”

Kovacs’ research shows the recent growth in anti-Semitism to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Surveys show that 10 to 15 percent of Hungarians are hard-core anti-Semites, while another 25 percent nurtures anti-Jewish prejudices to some degree.

Contrary to popular perception, Kovacs said, these figures “have increased to some extent but not dramatically over the past 17 years.”

What is different and much more alarming, according to Kovacs, is how the type and expression of anti-Semitism is changing within that proportion. For one thing, the percentage of political anti-Semites has grown. These political anti-Semites, he said, are “more urban, better educated and relatively younger” than they tended to be in the past.

Jobbik’s key leaders, for example, are youthful, clean cut, and media and Internet-savvy — factors that helped enhance their appeal ahead of the April vote.

Related to this is the way hate speech among the general public has been emboldened by the open use of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric by extreme right public figures. Kovacs calls this a “dangerous dynamic.”

He said young people in particular frequently seem to lose their inhibitions, and their use of slurs against Jews and Roma often goes unchecked by parents, teachers and other authority figures.

“We know that people are much more cautious in expressing their prejudices if they think that it is not legitimate,” Kovacs said. “But when they realize that so-called important people use this language openly, they feel they can use it as well. This is what we feel now in Budapest.”

What follows is unclear. So far, Jobbik’s anti-Jewish rhetoric seems aimed at creating a body of like-minded followers rather than serving as a rallying cry for concrete political action against Jews, according to Kovacs.

But could the extreme right eventually elevate political anti-Semitism into a force with significant mainstream influence?

Kovacs thinks it’s unlikely, but ultimately, he writes in his book, it will depend on how Hungary’s mainstream cultural and political leaders react to any attempts to “transform the prejudice that once affected the margins of Hungarian society into a language, culture and ideology.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at