September 27, 2011
In Hungary, focus on internal issues, not Israel
There have been no rallies, no ad campaigns, no testy community discussions here on the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.
On an issue that roused Jews elsewhere in the world, both pro and con, Hungary’s Jewish community has stayed mostly silent. The year-old Israeli Cultural Institute held a lecture on Palestinian statehood about three weeks ago, but nothing else was planned.
Adam Schonberger, the 30-year-old executive director of the Conservative youth group Marom Budapest, said the community just isn’t focused on Israel.
“I think the whole question is based on the very limited influence of Hungarian Jews,” he said. “Although there are many groups and many aims, it’s still a very limited community. They are not dealing with any kind of Jewish issue, except if the far right-wing parties are harming the interests of the Jews. That’s it.”
Janos Gado, the editor of Szombat, a monthly Jewish newsmagazine based in Budapest, says it’s not that Hungarian Jews don’t love Israel—it’s just that they’re too busy fighting among themselves.
“All of their energy is consumed by infighting,” he said.
The muted response is a function of a Jewish community in a deep struggle over its own identity and leadership, as well as a reflection of the extent to which Hungarian Jews are assimilated.
Though Hungary’s 100,000 Jews make up Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish community—after France, Britain and Germany, respectively—they are unusually splintered. Budapest alone has 20 religious communities from four denominations, according to a study released in mid-September by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
Since the fall of communism in 1991, Hungary’s Jewish community has seen significant changes. The proliferation of younger, more grassroots-oriented Jewish groups over the last decade has challenged the community’s historical leadership structure.
Schonberger blames the community’s fragmentation for the relative silence on Palestinian statehood. A handful of Zionist groups, operating under the umbrella of the Hungarian Zionist Federation, released a statement, but it didn’t attract much attention.
That’s because, he said, it didn’t have the backing of Hungary’s main Jewish organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known by its Hungarian acronym, Maszihisz.
Maszihisz President Peter Feldmajer said he met with Hungary’s prime minister and foreign minister to express the Hungarian Jewish community’s position on the Palestinian push for statehood. That position, he said, is that of the European Jewish Congress: “Any unilateral steps are bad steps, and we will be further from real peace.”
Feldmajer said ordinary Hungarian Jews aren’t that concerned with Israel.
“For the Hungarian Jewish community, it’s not in the spotlight. Most of the Jewish people have a special connection with Israel, but there’s no direct opinion on the details,” Feldmajer said. “In Hungary, I suppose it’s not good to make a rally in the streets.”
Gado says Hungarian Jews are quite assimilated, and Jews on the grassroots level aren’t drawn to Zionism.
“The word Zionism is a harsh word in our contemporary, liberal, left-wing, human rights-ist world. It’s rather a negative word, an insult,” he said. “The organized Jews, yes, they are officially committed to Israel.”
But “the average Jew,” he said, “is much more committed to left, liberal, minority, human-rights values than Zionism.”
Certain events can stir the community to take more public action, Feldmajer said. During the last Gaza war, Maszihisz officials wrote Op-Eds and helped organize a rally near Budapest’s Israeli Embassy.
“But it was a very clear thing—there were missiles from Gaza and Israel should defend herself,” Feldmajer said. “It was a clear situation and we could communicate to the Hungarian people that Israel had a right to defend.”
Gado says Israel isn’t intertwined with Jewish identity in Hungary in the same way it is in the United States.
“Hungarian Jews are just like Hungary itself, focused on themselves,” Gado said. “Israel and Palestinian membership in the U.N., it remains something very distant and not very important.”