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Budapest postcard: thoughts about the non-Jewish problem of anti-Semitism

by Shmuel Rosner

August 6, 2014 | 4:22 am

Photo by Shmuel Rosner

I needed to spend a day in Budapest, in the middle of a Middle East war. Not a bad deal, as the city is beautiful. Not a bad deal for a writer in search of stories too. Hungary is home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe, and it is also home to many anti-Semitic hacks and bullies. With the war as background, confusing more than clarifying, many observers might mistakenly make the simple connection: war-Israel-bias-against-Jews. But as Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote today – “it would be a mistake, though, to assume that events in the Middle East are the primary driver of European hostility to Jews. The reality is that anti-Semitic attitudes are far more widespread and mainstream than European governments would like to admit”.

1.

I went to see the new statue in the middle of Budapest that has been irritating Jews and non-Jews. It depicts the Angel Gabriel, Hungary’s supposed guardian angel, being tormented by an eagle that is supposed to represent Nazi Germany. The sculptor says that the “work was intended to serve as a reconciliation between Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians”. If that was really the intention, it didn’t exactly work. If that was really the intention, the need to build the statue over night becomes unclear. When I was there, protesters threw eggs at the statue – they claim that the statue is not much more than a blunt attempt to whitewash Hungary’s true past.

It is “Heavy-handed in its symbolism, kitschy in its execution”, as one writer has already said. To this I might add: the Hebrew sentence that was inscribed on it is sloppily erroneous. It is reverse in order – instead of saying “in memory of the victims” it says “the victims in memory of”.

But not every kitschy statue makes people attend a daily protest: “protesters who spend their afternoons surrounding the statue say the monument is a historical outrage: that it whitewashes the deep and troubling role Hungary's Nazi-sympathetic government played in the deportation of a massive number of Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, and depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of the Third Reich -- not as the collaborator it was”.

The Budapest Times published an editorial the other day, putting things quite succinctly:

While the negative aspects of the monument are quite clear, it is still a mystery what were the “good intentions” that the government wanted to realize with the statue in District V’s Szabadság tér. There are many theories and interpretations though. Even if we take a closer look we cannot find any reason that would justify all the damage that the project has caused. 

2.

As Jews and non-Jews gathered around the statue, they could talk about the even more recent controversy concerning Hungary and the Jewish past and present: the appointment of an ambassador to Italy who thinks that Jews are the “agents of Satan”. The ambassador, thankfully, quit. Of course, it is better not to have him as ambassador of any country – but has his decision to step down made the state of Jews in Hungary any better?

3.

Newsweek’s Adam LeBor who lives in Budapest, made some headlines last week with his cover story about the current fleeting of European Jewry. Many Israelis find it puzzling that Jews still live in Europe to begin with, so their flight is hardly a surprise for them, just a belated action that should have taken place long ago. Still, as LeBor reports, Budapest “is home to a dozen working synagogues, a thriving community centre, kosher shops, bars and restaurants and each summer hosts the Jewish summer festival, which is supported by the government and the municipality. District VII, the traditional Jewish quarter, is now the hippest part of town, home to numerous bohemian ‘ruin-pubs’.”

I saw it with my own eyes, and I still wouldn’t live within walking distance from that statue.

4.

I once did an interesting exchange of emails with LeBor for Jewcy about a book he wrote. We discussed Genocide, the Jews’ responsibility to fight Genocide, and the incompetence of the UN. LeBor is clearly a fighter for greater causes, at times lost causes.

So I would also hesitate to live close to a city in which a mayor, just yesterday, “held a mock-execution in which effigies of the Prime Minister and former President of Israel were hanged, in what he claims was a protest against the war in Gaza”. I would, LeBor clearly wouldn’t. This probably makes him a braver Jew, less diasporish in his fear of gentile hatred.

5.

Thinking about anti-Semitism and the fate of European Jewry, is just another opportunity for me to present you with the work that my JPPI colleague Dov Maimon so ably does. Here is a paragraph from a presentation from a year ago:

European Jewry is thus at a critical point, possibly a watershed, in its history. Faced with a European model that provides little place for strongly affirmed identities and that the recent demographic shifts have made stricter than ever, they have to make a life choice. They can subscribe to this model and become cultural Jews only. This will allow them full membership in European societies, but it comes at the cost of their own Jewishness. Indeed, as we have shown, an identity based solely on culture has little chance of being sustainable. By accepting the reduction of their Jewish identity to its cultural dimension, the integrated Jews, voluntarily or not, are willing to put it at risk for integration's sake. They accept being not Jews, but Europeans. As for the Jews who give preference to their Jewishness, they have no choice but to live in the enclave or to find opportunities to live their identity more fully elsewhere.


The decision is thus in the hands of European leaders. If nothing is done, the more practicing Jews will relocate in self-segregated neighborhoods, the more nationalistic ones will relocate in Israel, the more ambitious will seek more promising horizons farther afield, while the masses who do not make these choices will drift toward assimilation.

6.

Last thought: I’ve been working in recent days on an article I need to write about Israel’s prophet-philosopher-scientist, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Leibowitz was a renowned public figure and made an astronomical number of appearances before various crowds. So I’ve been watching videos and paying attention to what he says about anti-Semitism: Anti Semitism is not a Jewish problem – it is a gentile problem.

On a philosophical level, that makes a lot of sense. On a practical level, less so.

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