Tapping the ‘hidden spring’ of anti-Semitism in Orban’s Hungary

In today's Hungary, overt anti-Semitism has been supplanted by dog-whistle politics, Holocaust revisionism, and an us-versus-them mentality that has created a rupture between Jewish institutions. And then there is Aurora, the leftist, Jewish activist community defying it all.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — In Hungarian, there is an expression that anti-Semitism is like a hidden spring, often imperceptible yet omnipresent, a source that can be tapped by demagogues, polemicists, and politicians. It is a dangerous source, Adam Schönberger explains, for when it is tapped, it can cause a flood.

Schönberger is a veteran Hungarian activist and co-founder of Aurora, a café and community center operated by Marom, a Jewish youth-group that he also directs. When we meet there on a Monday evening in late August, Aurora, located in Budapest’s Eighth District, is buzzing. Opposition activists type away on laptops in a corner near the bar. Old Hungarian men and young German tourists drink beers beneath walls plastered with posters and stickers — calls for a slam poetry contest, radical anti-war slogans, exhortations to veganism. In the courtyard, the organizers of Budapest Pride, Hungary’s largest LGBTQA+ event, are taking a cigarette break.

Aurora is a space that defies easy definition. More than just a bar and café, it is a venue for underground music and parties, an occasional art gallery, a meeting place for activist groups, home to the offices of human rights NGOs, and a prayer space that hosts regular Jewish services. During the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, when thousands of asylum seekers were stuck in Budapest, barred from continuing on to Western Europe, Aurora became a shelter. “A lot of families lived here temporarily,” Schönberger tells me. “It was one of the major clothes storage [points]. It was one of the centers.”

“We said there are no concerts until this situation is solved. This place will be a shelter until we find a place for these people,” Schönberger recalls. “And we were the only Jewish organization that did that — that actually addressed the issue.” Other Jewish groups shied away from publicly aiding the refugees, he says, “because it was too political.”

A view of the cafe inside the Aurora Jewish activist space in Budapest. (Joshua Leifer)
‘More than just a bar and café, Aurora is a venue for underground music and parties, an occasional art gallery, a meeting place for activist groups, home to the offices of human rights NGOs, and a prayer space that hosts regular Jewish services.’ (Joshau Leifer)

With its combination of radical, queer politics, punk sensibility, and secular Jewishness, Aurora sits at the fault-lines of contemporary Hungarian politics. Under the regime of Viktor Orbán, elected with a super-majority in parliament for a third consecutive term, Hungary in the midst of a dramatic slide into authoritarianism. Eszter Susán, who co-founded the space with Schönberger, says Aurora “is one of the last bastions of resistance.”

It was a difficult summer, and an even more difficult year, for the resistance. In the span of two weeks last August, the government ramped up its attacks on all things liberal in higher education, ending funding for gender studies courses at state-run universities and forcing Central European University (CEU), a private university founded by billionaire George Soros, to suspend its programs for asylum seekers and refugees. CEU is currently fighting to remain in Hungary after legislation intended to close it down passed last year. On the university’s buildings in downtown Budapest hang blue signs that read, in English and Hungarian, “#IstandwithCEU.”

Roughly a month earlier, the Hungarian parliament passed a package of laws, which it named “Stop Soros,” after the liberal financier and Holocaust survivor who funds a range of NGOs and civil society groups — and whom Orbán accuses of attempting to undermine the Hungarian nation-state. The new laws make it crime, punishable by a year’s imprisonment, to aid asylum seekers — like what the members of Aurora and other activists did in 2015.

The passage of the “Stop Soros” laws followed a year of what Aurora co-founder Susán calls the “hate campaign” against the 87-year-old Hungarian-Jewish billionaire. In 2017, the government paid for giant posters and billboards in public spaces that depicted a sneering George Soros with the words, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh” and “99 percent reject illegal migration.” Many were graffitied with the words “dirty Jew.”

The posters prompted Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, to write on Facebook that the campaign recalled “sad memories, but also sow hatred and fear” — a criticism that Israel’s Foreign Ministry later rejected in an official statement that accused Soros of also undermining Israel’s government.

Andras Heisler, president of MAZSIHISZ, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, issued an open letter asking Orbán to stop the Soros campaign and remove the billboards. The official position of MAZSIHISZ is that the anti-Soros campaign was “not formally anti-Semitic,” but that its effect was “to fuel-up anti-Semitic moods.” Several days following his open letter, Heisler remarked that Israel’s defense of Orbán’s campaign against Soros had left many Hungarian Jews “disappointed.”

Orbán’s response was to double down. He refused to remove the billboards, citing his “duty” to protect Hungary from illegal immigration.

He intensified his anti-Soros rhetoric in the lead-up to last spring’s general elections. “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” he declared in a speech in March. “Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the world.” The only word missing was “Jew.” Then, in April, shortly before the elections, a Hungarian magazine published the names of more than 200 people that Orbán had deemed “mercenaries of Soros.”

The Hungarian prime minister, it seemed, was tapping the hidden spring.


Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán visits Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018. 'It is true that Orbán has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. Yet he has undeniably used dog-whistle anti-Semitism for political gain.' (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán visits Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018. ‘It is true that Orbán has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. Yet he has undeniably used dog-whistle anti-Semitism for political gain.’ (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Schönberger is reluctant to label Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign anti-Semitic. “I wouldn’t say that it was anti-Semitic propaganda,” he says. “It was propaganda that was able to evoke a lot of anti-Semitic feeling.” He is not alone.

For Gabor Gyori, a think tank analyst who closely monitors right-wing anti-Semitism, to ask whether the Soros campaign is anti-Semitic is to ask the wrong question. “The question could only be decided by getting into Viktor Orbán’s mind,” Gyori explains. “For Orbán the issue is purely instrumental. I don’t think that Orbán is a racist, but [I do] think, and this is fairly obvious, that he has been using dog-whistle tactics — he has been using racism as an instrument.”

Gyori and Schönberger both stress that the explicit target of the government’s Soros posters was not Jews but migrants, which makes it no less worthy of condemnation. “The essence of the campaign — and it’s not only George Soros but the way refugees were portrayed — is so deeply anti-humanitarian that it is completely irrelevant whether it’s also anti-Semitic or not,” Gyori remarks.

The correct, and more important, question, Gyori says, is to ask how the uses of anti-Semitism in Hungarian politics have shifted under Orbán. “This kind of dog-whistle has always existed,” he observes of the anti-Soros campaign. What has changed is that explicit anti-Semitism, particularly its vulgar, classical forms, has almost disappeared from mainstream politics.

“In the right-wing media in Hungary, anti-Semitic rhetoric, anti-Semitic tone, anti-Semitic content was always admissible,” Gyori tells me. “And then, suddenly, it turns off in the last few years, like a spigot.”

But closing a spigot doesn’t stop the water flowing underneath.

It is true that Orbán has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. His government made denial of the Nazi genocide illegal in 2010. He reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would show “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism during a friendly meeting between the two in Israel last July. His administration boasts of its contributions to the Hungarian Jewish community and positions itself as the Jewish community’s protector, not only from domestic anti-Semitism but from what it describes as the threat posed by Middle Eastern migrants. Zoltán Kovács, a spokesman for the prime minister, credits the Orbán government’s policies — and its migration policy in particular — with making Hungary “one of the safest places for European Jews.”

Yet Orbán has undeniably used dog-whistle anti-Semitism for political gain — and not just the anti-Soros billboards. In a widely-criticized campaign speech in June 2017, Orbán praised Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s anti-Semitic interwar leader who allied with Hitler, as an “exceptional statesman.” A year earlier, in 2016, Orbán’s government awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the country’s highest honors, to Zsolt Bayer, a prominent xenophobic, anti-Semitic journalist who is also a founding member of Orbán’s Fidesz party. Bayer has previously accused “Brooklyn Jews” of causing the 2008 financial crisis, referred to Jews as “stinking excrement,” and written that “in the case of driving over a Gypsy kid, we should step on the gas.”

Orbán’s government, like others in Central and Eastern Europe, has also made Holocaust revisionism official policy, arguing that Hungary should not be held responsible for crimes committed during the German occupation. For example, a state memorial, erected in 2014 and  dedicated to “the victims of the German invasion,” depicts Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel under attack by a bronze eagle representing Nazi Germany; there is no reference to the Horthy regime or to the record of Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis. Activists have maintained a years-long demonstration, featuring pictures of Holocaust victims and documentation of Hungarian collaboration, in front of the memorial, which they say falsifies history.

The demonstration of the Archangel Gabriel sculpture in Budapest. (Joshua Leifer)
The ongoing demonstration against the Archangel Gabriel sculpture in Budapest, which seemingly abrogates Hungary’s responsibility for collaboration with Nazi forces during the Holocaust. (Joshua Leifer)


What, then, to make of anti-Semitism in Orbán’s Hungary, where explicit philo-Semitism meets coded anti-Jewish sentiment, where some Jews are vilified (e.g. Soros) while others (e.g. Netanyahu) are celebrated, where Holocaust denial is illegal, but Holocaust revisionism is state policy? Or, perhaps, Orbán’s philo-Semitism and dog-whistle anti-Semitism are actually less different than they seem, both fed by the same hidden spring?

Orbán’s “anti-anti-Semitism refers to two topics, very adroitly chosen,” says Hungarian philosopher and former dissident G. M. Tamas. “To Israel, as being embattled by Islamic hordes and barbarians and so on and, second, the Holocaust as perpetrated by Germany. But nothing to do with the present.”

The shift away from open anti-Semitism, he adds, is largely “the imposition of tactical principles.” The right — and specifically the far-right — is in power, so there’s little to be gained by appealing to the extreme, most anti-Semitic fringe. Jobbik, the formerly neo-Nazi party, reinvented itself as a center-right party, leaving Orbán’s Fidesz the natural home of the far-right.

“I don’t think the anti-Semitism issue was going to yield him [Orbán] anything anymore,” Gyori agrees. “The people for whom this is the major issue — they’ll be voting for him anyway.”

“I think that he’s taking a very instrumental view of anti-Semitism,” Gyori adds. “For a while it was useful in consolidating the right behind him. At this point, he doesn’t need it.”

But while the dog-whistle anti-Semitism in contemporary Hungarian politics may be instrumental — a means of drumming up support from the right and proving nationalist bonafides — it is far from innocuous.

“There is this old Hungarian saying, ‘Don’t pretend to be a fool because you will become one,’” Tamas tells me. “That’s happening — don’t pretend to be a fascist because you might become one.”

“There is a deep, deep undercurrent of anti-Semitism here,” Tamas says. “The words are there. The allusions are always understood.”


Understandably, not everyone is satisfied by the explanation that Orbán’s anti-Semitism is purely instrumental and a mere matter of tactics.

Zsofia Kata Vincze, professor of ethnology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, sees both the philo- and the anti-Semitism as products of Orbán’s nationalist, exclusivist ideology — an ideology built on the distinction between an “us” and a “them,” between Hungary as a Christian nation and non-Christian “others,” often portrayed as trying to undermine it.

“Positive treatment along with a redoubled patriotic ethnic nationalism and the use of a culturally loaded double speak,” she wrote in a recent paper, “has resulted in the emergence of a pervasively anti-Semitic public discourse which has penetrated every level of society.”

“The anti-Semitic language, the anti-Semitic narrative, is brought into the nationalistic narrative,” Kata Vincze explains when we meet in her office at the university. “This aspect of us versus them. Us — Hungarians. Us — the loyal people of Hungary. Us — the ones who want to protect the borders, that stand up for our country, to protect the Christian nation.”

“This is very important: to keep Hungary Christian,” she adds, pointing to changes Orbán’s government made to the Constitution in 2011. The amended preamble, Kata Vincze says, imagines the nation based on Christian values and excludes the newcomers — the Roma and the Jews.

The public support for the Jewish community and other religious minorities, state-funding for synagogues and other communal institutions, the pledges to defend the Jews from the threat posed by Muslim migrants — all of this reinforces the “us/them” distinction between Hungarians and “others,” Kata Vincze says. It amounts to a form of segregation.

“In order to segregate the minorities, they so-called protect them,” she explains. “They have separate TV shows for minorities…and they call them different nationalities. The Jews are not called a different nationality because they didn’t accept this label,” but they are treated like a one.

Orbán’s affinity for Netanyahu and Israel stems, in part, from a shared political orientation. When Netanyahu visited Budapest in July 2017, the first by an Israeli prime minister since the collapse of the Communist regime, “they found a common language very easily,” Kata Vincze recalls. “They kept talking about mutual values, which are nationalism, exclusivism” and, respectively, “Hungarian purity, Jewish purity…against the Others.”

Zionism also harmonizes with Orbán’s ethno-culturalist nationalism on another level, Kata Vincze adds. It marks Jews as members of the Jewish nation — as Jewish rather than Hungarian. A Zionist, pro-Israel politics maintains and even strengthens, the distinction between who is truly Hungarian and who is not.

More than Orbán’s support for Israel and friendship with Netanyahu, who has his own reasons for allying with Hungary — namely, to prevent the EU from sanctioning Israel over its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians — it is Orbán’s embrace of Chabad, the Hasidic missionary group, that exemplifies this approach.

The close ties between Chabad and the Orbán government “is actually a reinforcement of the idea of ethno-culturalism,” observes Kata Vincze. “We Hungarians look like this, you Jews look like that…You can point them out. These are the Jews: they should have separate high schools, they should have separate universities, they should have separate communities.” The conspicuous differentness of Hasidic Jews — identifiable by their black hats, long coats, and beards — marks them as separate from true Hungarians. Hungarian-ness as opposed to Jewishness, “us” as distinct from “them.”

A billboard advertizing a Chabad high school in Budapest. 'The close ties between Chabad and the Orbán government 'is actually a reinforcement of the idea of ethno-culturalism,' observes Kata Vincze.' (Joshua Leifer)
A billboard advertizing a Chabad high school in Budapest. ‘The close ties between Chabad and the Orbán government ‘is actually a reinforcement of the idea of ethno-culturalism,’ observes Kata Vincze.’ (Joshua Leifer)

The profile of Chabad in Hungary, known as EMIH (the United Hungarian Jewish Congregation), has risen rapidly under Orbán. EMIH initiatives have garnered significant government support — from a massive state loan to open the new Milton Friedman University, to be run by EMIH, to a joint state-EMIH venture to open a new kosher slaughterhouse. At the same time, EMIH founder Shlomo Köves has emerged as a prominent defender of Orbán and the Fidesz government. Köves refused to condemn the Soros campaign as anti-Semitic and, last February, he appeared on an election flyer of a Fidesz-aligned candidate in the Budapest municipal elections. When Viktor Orbán visited Israel last July, Köves appeared alongside him — a MAZSIHISZ representative did not.

The most recent, and perhaps the biggest, insult to MAZSIHISZ came early in September, when the government announced the planned opening of a new Holocaust museum, named the “House of Fates” — to be run by EMIH. From its name — implying that the systematic murder of over half a million Hungarian Jews was simply a matter of fate — to the involvement of revisionist historian Maria Schmidt, the museum has been a source of major tension between Orbán and MAZSIHISZ, which objected strongly to its portrayal of history.

They are not alone. Yad Vashem disassociated itself from the planned museum in 2014, and Yad Vashem Senior Historian Robert Rozett recently called the museum’s depiction of Hungary as “a nation of rescuers” a “grave falsification of history.” The “House of Fates” will be unique as an ostensible Holocaust museum opened despite the objections, and without the participation, of the majority of the local Jewish community.

All of this is a source of immense frustration for many, particularly MAZSIHISZ, which claims to be the primary representative of Hungarian Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal and secular. MAZSIHISZ officials see Orbán’s support for EMIH as an attempt to fracture the Jewish community and supplant it with a less critical organization — part of Orbán’s larger attempt to replace the country’s post-Communist elite with a new “national bourgeoisie,” a caste of business elites loyal to Orbán and his government’s goals.

Schönberger is even more critical of Chabad. They have built “a Potemkin village” Jewish community, he tells me. “A Jewish community that is in danger but that has been saved by the government. And the biggest threat, of course, are the refugees.” It is not just that Chabad has given cover to the government’s coded anti-Semitism — which it has — but that Chabad has enlisted the Jewish community in defense of Orbán’s anti-refugee policies.

“It’s so condescending,” Gyori says of Orbán’s claim to be a defender of the Jewish community. “The irony of this is really very difficult to describe. Viktor Orbán as the protector of Hungarian Jewry — it’s completely absurd.”


'Some, like the Auróra activists, have embraced an oppositional identity in response, one that does not shy away from Jewishness, and which finds in 'otherness' a foundation for solidarity with society’s other Others.' (Photo of the entrance to the Aurora activist space, by Joshua Leifer)
‘Some, like the Auróra activists, have embraced an oppositional identity in response, one that does not shy away from Jewishness, and which finds in ‘otherness’ a foundation for solidarity with society’s other Others.’ (Photo of the entrance to the Aurora activist space, by Joshua Leifer)

What Kata Vincze calls the “reemergence of the Jewish Question in post-2010 Hungarian public discourse” has confronted many Hungarian Jews with a difficult choice.

“In such a virulently nationalist environment, it’s very hard to embrace your Jewish identity and your Hungarian identity at the same time,” Gabor Gyori laments. “It has split the Jewish community to some extent” into people who are active in the Jewish community, “who are mostly just Jewish, [for whom] that’s the dominant layer of their identity,” he continues, “and then people who are not Jewish, even though they may be in terms of their ancestry.”

It is a choice — between one’s Jewish identity and one’s national identity — that emancipation, liberalism, and secularism were supposed to have made irrelevant. And yet Orbán’s commitment to illiberalism and ethno-nationalism have made it not only relevant again but urgent.

Some, like the Auróra activists, have embraced an oppositional identity in response, one that does not shy away from Jewishness, and which finds in “otherness” a foundation for solidarity with society’s other “Others.”

Daniel Monterescu, a professor at CEU, describes the emergence of this oppositional identity as part of a complex process. “On the one hand you have the radicalization of public and political discourse. On the other hand you have minorities — gender minorities or Jews or Roma — who finally say, ‘Fuck you, enough is enough.’ And they organize and say things that they never said before.”

“I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Monterescu adds, “to see different minorities trying to define themselves in more assertive terms.”

Reflecting on how Auróra started, Eszter Susán tells me that she and Schönberger felt compelled to address issues that affected the Roma community and other minorities “because we think that minorities can learn from each other, and that we can all unite and that we will be stronger — that we can build a Hungary that’s more colorful.”

It will not be an easy task.

Top photo: A view of the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as The Great Synagogue, in Budapest, Hungary. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)