This past Sunday, Agence France-Presse reported that 10,000 people held a protest rally outside of Hungary’s Parliament to condemn a shocking statement made during a parliamentary session the week before by Marton Gyongyosi, leader of the extremist right-wing Jobbik party. Gyongyosi had declared to the country’s legislative body that a “list of Jews” who he believes pose a “national security risk” should be compiled.
The rally, called “Mass Protest against Nazism,” was organized by a Jewish group and a Pentecostal-Evangelical church. In a rare display of unity amongst Hungarian politicians, leading figures from both the right and left appeared together on the same platform at the rally. Some demonstrators wore yellow stars pinned to their clothes and carried Hungarian flags, while one banner read “Jobbik are the real national security risk to Hungary.”
According to media reports, Antal Rogan, leader of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party’s parliamentary caucus, told the protestors that all the genocides of the 20th century had begun with lists. “No one should be allowed to violate the dignity of others, or stigmatize them with threatening lists,” he said, adding that he always brought his children on the annual “Walk of Life” Holocaust commemoration in Budapest.
Rogan’s speech, however, raised the ire of some demonstrators who turned their backs on him in a sign of protest. The Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has often been accused of adopting populist, anti-Semitic and anti-minority rhetoric to stoke xenophobia within Jobbik’s voter base. “You created Jobbik, Viktor,” shouted one protestor.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who many think could challenge Orban in the next elections in 2014, said this was not the time for blaming either the previous government or the present one. “Now is the time for unity against hatred,” he said.
Attila Mesterhazy, leader of the largest opposition party, the Socialists, called on Fidesz to help “quarantine” Jobbik and called on Orban to directly condemn Jobbik in Parliament. “Once and for all, Viktor Orban should with his own voice, decisively, categorically, and clearly, distance himself from and condemn Jobbik,” he said. Police removed a small group of counter-demonstrators shouting “Filthy Jews” as they attempted to disrupt the protest.
Gyongyosi, 35, the leader of the Jobbik party – the third-largest opposition party in the Hungarian parliament – voiced his inflammatory sentiments during a parliamentary debate following a discussion of the recent fighting in Gaza, when the Hamas terrorist organization launched a week-long war against Israel. According to published reports, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Zsolt Nemeth said Budapest favored a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict as it would benefit Jews and Palestinians in Hungary and Israelis of Hungarian descent.
Harshly criticizing the foreign ministry for what he perceived to be their support for Israel and their failure to step up in defense of the aspirations of Palestinians in Gaza, Gyongyosi proclaimed, “I think such a conflict makes it timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary.” He added, “I know how many people with Hungarian ancestry live in Israel, and how many Israeli Jews live in Hungary.”
Last week, in a more immediate emotional outburst in response to Gyongyosi’s unsettling statements, hundreds of outraged demonstrators gathered outside the Hungarian Parliament to express their anger. Many of the demonstrators wore the iconic yellow stars forced upon Europe’s Jews in the 1940s by the Nazis, while chanting “Nazis go home” at members of Jobbik, the extremist party headed by Gyongyosi. “I am a Holocaust survivor,” said Gusztav Zoltai, the executive director of the Hungarian Jewish Congregations’ Association. “For people like me, this generates raw fear.” Though he dismissed Gyongyosi’s anti-Semitic comments as opportunistic politicking, he added, “This is the shame of Europe, the shame of the world.”
Protester Andras Fodor, 28, said: “I thought we were done with this in our history … If you say things like that, you don’t belong in Parliament.”
Jobbik, or “The Movement for a Better Hungary,” is a Hungarian radical nationalist political party that was founded in 2003. It has been described by scholars and various media sources as “fascist, Neo-Nazi, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and homophobic.” Jobbik’s ideology is predicated on right-wing populism, a strategy that relies on a combination of ethno-nationalism with anti-elitist populist rhetoric and a radical critique of existing political institutions.
Since registering as a political party in 2003, Jobbik has garnered increasing influence in Hungarian society as it radicalized gradually, vilifying Jews and the country’s 700,000 Roma population. The group gained notoriety after founding the Hungarian Guard, an unarmed vigilante group reminiscent of World War II-era far-right groups. It entered the Hungarian parliament in the 2010 elections on a campaign drawing on suspicion of Roma and Jewish minorities and attracting support from voters frustrated by the economic crisis plaguing Europe. It now holds 44 of the 386 parliamentary seats.
Opponents have condemned Jobbik’s frequent anti-Semitic slurs and tough rhetoric against the Roma minority and have charged Gyongyosi with using such hate-filled epithets as a way of scoring points ahead of national elections scheduled to take place in 2014. Polls indicate that more than half of Hungary’s electorate is undecided about who they will cast their votes for in the upcoming election and having retained its voter base, some analysts say Jobbik could hold the balance of power in the elections.
Gyongyosi is the son of a diplomat who grew up in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and India — and whose office is decorated by Iranian and Turkish souvenirs. He graduated with a degree in business and political science from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland in 2000. Having worked for four years at the Dublin office of KPMG, Gyongyosi then returned to Budapest in 2005 and has been active in Jobbik since 2006. He became their leader in parliament in 2010.
The center-right government of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban issued a statement the day after the new incident occurred, condemning Gyongyosi’s remarks. “The government strictly rejects extremist, racist, anti-Semitic voices of any kind and does everything to suppress such voices,” the government spokesman’s office said. According to Reuters, parliamentary speaker Laszlo Kover, who is from the ruling Fidesz party, also issued a statement in which he condemned the inflammatory statements and called for stricter house rules that would sanction such behavior.
In Jerusalem, however, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which works to bring Nazi criminals to justice, criticized the Hungarian government for a tardy response which came more than 16 hours after the incident, and called the failure to penalize Gyongyosi as “a sad commentary on the current rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary.”
In July of this year, the Wiesenthal Center and Gyongyosi went toe-to-toe, when the parliamentarian lashed out at the center for what he called an “outrageous attempt by foreign Nazi-hunters to discredit Hungary in the name of imaginary and artificially-stoked anti-Semitism.” Gyongyosi made his comments in the wake of the arrest of 97-year old Laszlo Csizsik-Csatary, a Hungarian, who was detained on charges of being a Nazi war criminal following a campaign by the Wiesenthal Center. Gyongyosi sarcastically said that “no summer can pass” without the Wiesenthal Center discovering the “most wanted” Nazi criminal living in Hungary, and struck back at a spokesman for the French foreign ministry who had called for Csatáry’s arrest.
Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Wiesenthal Center, said Gyongyosi’s latest statement in parliament was “reminiscent of the genocidal Nazi regime which murdered hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews with the help of numerous local collaborators.” Calling Jobbik the heirs of wartime Hungarian fascists, he added: “Today’s condemnation of the statement by the government is welcome, but the total silence yesterday and the fact that the perpetrator of anti-Semitic incitement will apparently pay no price for his demagoguery will only encourage Jobbik to continue their campaigns of hatred against Hungarian Jews and Roma.”
About 500,000 to 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, according to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest. Some historical accounts reveal that one in three Jews killed in Auschwitz were Hungarian nationals. A number of survivors reached Israel but today, approximately 100,000 Jews still live in Hungary.
Meanwhile, Gyongyosi dismissed demands for his resignation and said his remarks during the debate had been “misunderstood” and claimed that he was referring “only to Hungarians with Israeli passports.”
Hungarian Socialist opposition lawmaker Pal Steiner, himself Jewish, said of Gyongyosi’s statements, “There was little reaction beyond sheer shock. We couldn’t really digest what we’d heard; we’re so used to remarks like this from Jobbik.”
Rabbi Dr. Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, recalled references by Jobbik members to historic Christian bigotry against Jews and wrote: “Jobbik has moved from representing medieval superstition to openly Nazi ideologies.”
He added that Hungary’s Jewish community has also initiated a criminal procedure against Gyongyosi. Asserting that the Jewish community in Hungary had no other recourse but to take this to the courts, Rabbi Dr. Koves told media sources that, ”In a normal country there is some type of moral borderline where you don’t have to go to court because of something that is said in Parliament. All the members of the other parties should stand up and say ‘this is unacceptable, this guy should just leave.’ And it seems like in Hungary there isn’t that healthy moral stance. So that leaves us the only possibility to go to court, and if we don’t succeed in the Hungarian court then we will maybe go to the EU.”
There was no immediate comment from the European Union, which has raised concerns before about intolerance and minority rights in Hungary and about Prime Minister Orban’s own commitment to democracy as critics accuse him of trying to entrench his party’s power.
The Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregration released a statement last week announcing their legal action that read in part, “The fact that a far right party can address Nazi principles in the Parliament is shocking and disappointing for the Hungarian Jewish Community and for every Hungarian Democrat.”
Because the Jobbik party has gained an international reputation for its intolerant policies, famed American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently declined an award from the Hungarian government, saying, “Since the prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the prize in the United States.”
In a startling revelation that came to the fore several months ago, it was discovered that Jobbik parliamentarian and renowned anti-Semite Csanad Szegedi was actually of Jewish ancestry. A founding member of the Hungarian Guard, Szegedi held a 2010 recorded meeting with a convicted felon who tells him of information he has become privy to showing Szegedi is in fact a Jew. According to the Associated Press who broke the story, the tape reveals that Szegedi acts surprised, then begins offering the felon money and a possible European Union job if he hushes up. The felon did not, and the tape was released.
The Wall Street Journal reported that in June of this year, Szegedi was forced to acknowledge his heritage, explaining that his grandparents on his mother’s side were Jewish, making him Jewish according to Jewish law. In fact, his grandmother survived Auschwitz and his father survived labor camps. Now, Szegedi has resigned from all his party positions, though he still wants to retain his seat in the European Parliament. In response, the Jobbik party remained mum on Szegedi’s newly discovered background, although the party cited his attempts at bribing the felon as the reason for their support in him stepping down from his EP seat.
In early August, Szegedi met with Rabbi Koves. National Public Radio reported that Szegedi apologized for any comments he had made that offended the Jewish community, and said he planned on visiting Auschwitz to pay his respects.
Riding on the wave of enormous publicity generated by Gyongyosi’s remarks in Parliament, yet another Jobbik lawmaker, Elod Novak, said during a news conference on November 29th that Katalin Ertsey of the opposition LMP Party should step down because she had an Israeli passport in addition to her Hungarian nationality.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported that Index, a Hungarian news portal, later quoted Novak as saying, “Israel has more deputies in the Hungarian Parliament than they have in the Israeli Knesset,” and this caused the Hungarian Parliament to make “favorable” decisions toward Israel. Novak sent an e-mail to all deputies on November 28th, requesting that in the public interest, they make any dual citizenship public.
AFP quoted Attila Peterfalvi, president of the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority, as saying a lawmaker’s dual citizenship is in the public domain, but the other nationality is not made known. Having to declare that would be a “violation of human dignity,” he said.