Cemeteries and Holocaust memorials are vandalised and rabbis insulted in the streets. A Jewish leader is beaten up at a football match. Phrases like “Jewish filth” are bandied around at rallies. In parliament, a far-right MP calls for a list of MPs of Jewish origin to be drawn up in case they present a threat to national security. In synagogues, some Jews are asking one another: is it time to go?
Anyone who thought that anti-Semitism was part of Europe’s dark past but had no place in its present or future should pay heed to what is going on in Hungary, where the World Jewish Congress opened yesterday as a gesture of solidarity with what it sees as a beleaguered community.
As in Greece, where the far-right bully boys of Golden Dawn make political hay by blaming all Greece’s disasters on illegal immigrants, Hungarian populists have come from nowhere in only a few years by attributing all their country’s ills to the enemy within – in this case, half-a-million Roma and 100,000 Jews.
The comparisons sometimes drawn between Hungary today and Hitler’s Germany, fortunately, remain far-fetched. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is authoritarian and nationalistic but not fascistic. The fact that he was keen to deliver the opening address to the Jewish Congress in Budapest showed how embarrassed he felt by the coarse demagoguery of the ultra-right Jobbik party and the violence of some supporters.
But Hungary’s European partners should not let Mr Orban off the hook, however emollient his speech to the Jewish guests in Budapest. It should be made clear to him that his government’s inflammatory rhetoric about unnamed “foreigners” supposedly trying to take over Hungary is unacceptable in a modern European democracy.
The Prime Minister needs to be reminded that his party’s flirtation with the memories of dubious pre-war Hungarian nationalists, like the country’s old royalist dictator, Admiral Horthy, has cleared a political space in which the thugs of Jobbik feel free to act and spread their venomous gospel.
Mr Orban should have started talking about his feelings of solidarity with Hungarian Jews some time ago, when the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary began. Instead, as part of his bidding war for the far-right vote, he stayed silent. Now he is playing catch-up, banning Jobbik rallies and hurrying anti-hate-speech amendments through parliament.
It is better to act late than never at all. But the lesson of all of this, which is not restricted to Hungary, is that emulating the politics of far-right parties in an attempt to poach their voters rarely achieves much. It simply exacerbates the problem as the racists – who remain quiescent when isolated – up the ante and become more aggressive once they feel that the political establishment is courting them.
Decades after the Nazi Holocaust decimated European Jewry and reduced it to a fragment of its former size, it is shaming and shocking that we still have to deal with the scourge of anti-Semitism anywhere in Europe. Would that it were just an isolated remnant in a landlocked country on the Danube. But, as the regular attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in France – mainly by Muslim extremists – go to show, that is not the case.
There are some faint signs that Europe is starting to take the recrudescence of anti-Semitism more seriously. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner is investigating the rise of racist hate speech in Greece and is considering an inquiry in Hungary. Hopefully this is just the start of a more concerted approach towards an evil that is rearing its head once more.