Hungary’s Jewish leaders fear attacks

What was originally meant as a Purim spiel in a Hungarian Jewish newspaper set off a commotion in diplomatic circles and the Israeli and Hungarian media, focusing attention on anti-Semitic threats to the local Jewish population ahead of that country’s March 15 national holiday.

The original piece in the Ujelet ‘s Purim edition quoted Hungarian Jewish community president Peter Feldmejer as saying that Hungarian Jews should flee the country before that date, for fear of anti-Semitic violence.

That article led to Ma’ariv running a story on the matter, stressing the threat and warning to Hungarian Jews, which stirred concern here for their safety. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reacting to the Ma’ariv piece, then ran its own story, under the headline: “Hungarian Jews urged to leave for Passover.”

However, Feldmejer told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from Budapest Thursday that his warning was “a joke, but we have had violence on this day before.”

Feldmejer, while admitting his initial intent, nevertheless told the Post that Hungarian Jews “should stay at home and not go outside during the holiday, but if they do want to celebrate in public, they should go to the countryside, and not stay in Budapest.”

Asked why he had joked about such a serious matter, Feldmejer said that he had simply been trying to focus attention on the problem.

After Feldmejer took the time to admit what had really happened to Israeli government sources, they confirmed that the “warnings” which had spurred the Ma’ariv piece need not be taken so seriously.

A government source in Jerusalem said that while there has been anti-Semitism activity in Hungary recently – such as dozens of neo-Nazis and fascist demonstrators at a massive anti-government protest in October – the anti-Semitism there is no worse than anywhere else in Europe. “Things need to be kept in proportion,” the source said.

Nonetheless, in an interview with Israel Radio Thursday afternoon, Feldmejer said community officials were still afraid that the anti-Semitic nationalists who generally demonstrate during national holidays would try to attack Jews and or Jewish institutions on that day.

Indeed, Eran Elbaz, director of the Jewish Agency’s representation in Eastern Europe, confirmed that while the original call by Feldmejer might have been meant “as a joke,” nonetheless “in every joke there is an element of truth. The goal of the comment was to draw attention to the problem of anti-Semitism in Hungary.”

Those concerns were underscored by Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany himself, who highlighted the plight of Hungarian Jews in a recent interview with The Times of London. “There is something horrible happening,” he said. “There have never been so many anti-Semitic remarks as now, [and] we are seeing things we haven’t seen in 50 years.”

He noted that the Hungarian opposition party recently staged a demonstration in the Parliament square in which the names of “alleged Jewish politicians” were read out, to detract support from Gyurcsany’s current Socialist government.

The prime minister believes that the rise of anti-Semitism in his country is due to his main rival’s attempt to use anti-Jewish propaganda as a political tool to disrupt his government’s course towards modernization. According to Gyurcsany, the opposition party Fidesz, led by Viktor Orman, has gravitated towards the far-right extremism rooted in the Hungarian political Right, and could lead Hungary towards isolated nationalism, which he said is taking hold in other European countries such as Poland and some of the Balkan states.