On the face of it, there is no obvious reason why a drab rustbelt town in Hungary’s former mining area should seek links to a city in a hardline Islamic Republic 2,000 miles away. But this is no ordinary cultural exchange programme, and friendship has very little to do with it. Instead, the real purpose of Jobbik’s links to Iran is to show their mutual loathing of the Jewish state of Israel, which the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notoriously declared should be “wiped from the pages of history”.
In many other countries in Europe, such a scheme might be dismissed as just petty town hall posturing, a Far right version of the “Loony Left” gesture politics practised in British town halls in the 1980s. But it is particularly sensitive in Hungarian towns like Tiszavasvári, where anti-semitism has seen Jews wiped from the pages of history once before.
Inquiries by The Sunday Telegraph via official Holocaust archives show a dozen names of Jewish victims from Tiszavasvári, part of the mass extermination programme that gave Jews in the Hungarian countryside only a one in ten chance of survival in 1944, Some simply disappeared, while others like Andor Krausz, a 30-year-old bookbinder, and Rozsi Gruenweld, a 48-year-old shoe merchant, were murdered in Auschwitz, along with among more than 400,000 other Hungarian Jews.
A Jobbik supporter, the tattoo reads ‘My Honor is Loyalty’ (Reuters)
It was one of the most intensive anti-Jewish campaigns of Holocaust, and while it was conducted during Hungary’s period of Nazi occupation, it was done with the active connivance of the Hungarian state.
” You can see Jobbik’s true nature through this,” said Peter Feldmajer, the President of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, which today represents an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews, nearly 90 per cent of whom still refuse to disclose their Jewishness publicly. “They hate the Jewish people, and so does the Iranian government, and that is why they have formed this allegiance. [.......]
Such concerns will loom large in the minds of delegates of the World Jewish Congress, which opens amid tight security today at the Soviet-era Budapest Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the Danube.
Normally the Congress meets in Jerusalem, but this year it has deliberately chosen to convene in the Hungarian capital to highlight what its president, the billionaire philanthropist and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, describes as a “dramatic” rise in anti-Semitism in Hungary.
Much of the blame for that is attributed to the Jobbik party, which was founded just ten years ago yet now represents the third-largest faction in politics, with 47 of 386 parliamentary seats.
Also in Mr Lauder’s sights, though, is the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose ruling centre-right Fidesz Party competes for many of the votes that Jobbik now vies for, and who has been criticised for not taking a firm enough stance against anti-Semitism.
The Congress meeting adds to a growing sense of political isolation in Hungary, where earlier this year, the European Union said that Mr Orban’s party was placing too many curbs on the judiciary and media, measures it said could ultimately disqualify the country from EU membership.
While Mr Orban insists the measures have been necessary to end decades of corruption and inefficient government under his predecessors, the fear is that such measures are making it all the easier for groups like Jobbik to gain a foothold. A ban on the Jobbik party holding a counter-demonstration at the World Jewish Congress’s presence in town has only added to their sense of grievance.
Roughly translated as “the Movement for a Better Hungary”, Jobbik’s success has far outstripped similar movements in neighbouring former Communist states. Its appeal in towns like Tiszavasvári has been based partly on confronting problems associated with the country’s half-million strong Roma community, whom many Hungarians see as crime-prone and welfare-dependent.
But as the global banking crisis has hit Hungary hard, leaving more than 1 in 10 jobless, Jobbik has also revived a folk devil at the opposite end of social spectrum – the wealthy, all-controlling Jews, who were traditionally influential in the finance world.
Barely a month now passes in Hungary without a fresh furore over some anti-Semitic incident. Jewish community leaders have been attacked in the street and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. Far-Right biker gangs have also held ugly counter demonstrations to anti-Semitism rallies, entitled “Step on the Gas” days. Mr Gyongyosi, the Jobbik MP, was castigated recently for saying that a “security” register should be created of Hungarian MPs and civil servants who were of “Jewish origin”.
The Hungarian national football association, meanwhile, was recently fined after fans shouted anti-Semitic slogans during a recent World Cup qualifier. And only last week, the leader of the Raoul Wallenberg Association, a charity named after a businessman who rescued many Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary, was beaten up after telling skinhead thugs to stop chanting “Seig Heil” at a soccer match.
True, while verbal abuse has apparently increased, incidents of actual violence are still relatively rare in Hungary: Mr Feldmajer recollects only around 50 physical attacks in 20 years. And it is fair to say that the bootboy image by no means fits all of Jobbik’s supporters, many of whom are respectable working people whose motivations sound little different to the average UKIP supporter. The talk is of frustration with politically correct attitudes to crime and immigration, of children no longer being taught Hungarian history in schools properly, and of a loss of faith in mainstream political parties, whose economic record since communism’s collapse is patchy at best.
Typical is Sipos Ibolya, 55, a cheerful schoolteacher who is Jobbik’s deputy mayoress in Tiszavasvári. The twinning arrangement with Iran, she insists, is not borne of anti-semitism, but simple national self-interest.
“Economically, the Israelis do have too much power in Hungary,” she said.
There was a similarly mixed picture at a Jobbik May Day fair last week, which combined elements of Glastonbury festival with a historical re-enactment society. In front of an open-air stage, burly men tattooed with skulls, crossbones and the odd swastika sat listening to bands play right-wing folk music, whose choruses of “we are all one blood” had them singing along. The sideshows, meanwhile, were devoted to displays of swordsmanship, archery and whipcracking, skill practised by the ancient Hungarian tribes whom many Jobbik supporters see as the country’s true forefathers.
But what was billed as a day of harmless, Far-Right family fun also had its darker side. At least one book stall had Hitler’s Mein Kampf on sale, and when it caught the attention of the Sunday Telegraph’s photographer, a youth was overheard was overheard saying “What are these Jews doing here?” What alarms Hungarian liberals, though, is the way that under Mr Orban’s government, such events have become part of the political mainstream. Songs by Far Right bands now do well in the charts, with one group, Carpatia, even receiving an official award, and last year, Hungary’s state-funded New Theatre planned to stage a play about a group of powerful Jews who plot the country’s downfall. Although it was eventually pulled after an outcry from anti-racism activists, it is hard to imagine such a production getting anywhere near a theatre in many other European countries.
Nonetheless, after the trauma of the Holocaust, most of Hungary’s remaining Jews have an all too well-developed sense of perspective about Jobbik. In the old Jewish quarter of Budapest, a maze of cobbled streets, synagogues and smart restaurants, few are planning to take to the streets to mount their counter-Jobbik protests. For one thing, Jews here have learned the hard way to keep a low-profile, and for another, the feeling is that while anti-Semitism comes and goes, it never disappears entirely.