BUDAPEST, Hungary – Lawmakers wore yellow stars and hundreds of protesters rallied on Tuesday to condemn a far-right politician who called for the screening of Jews for national security risks, part of a wave of incendiary racist comments from a populist party.
Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik party deputy, on Monday criticized Hungary's foreign ministry for what he said was siding with Israel and said the Middle East conflict presented an opportunity to carry out his plans for background checks.
"I think now is the time to assess ... how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk for Hungary," Gyongyosi said.
The Jobbik party has become the second-largest opposition party in Parliament, capitalizing on anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment. Still, the government's majority has given Jobbik little legislative power and the party's anti-Semitic statements are usually reserved for their political rallies and publications. Such direct comments are rarely heard inside the legislature.
"One of our fellow deputies stepped over a line that I thought until now could not happen in the halls of the Hungarian national assembly," said deputy speaker Istvan Ujhelyi, who wore a yellow star while presiding over part of Tuesday's plenary session. "As far as I know I do not have Jewish ancestry, but should Jobbik uncover that I have such roots, I will be proud of them."
Some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, including around a third of the victims who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hungary's Jewish population is estimated at 100,000 today, and while physical attacks are rare, an elderly rabbi was insulted recently near his home and Jewish and Holocaust memorials have been vandalized.
Members of a Jewish organization handed over 386 yellow stars like those Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis to parliamentary officials, one for every deputy in the Hungarian legislature. Hundreds of protesters attended an anti-Jobbik rally outside Parliament promoted on social media.
Gusztav Zoltai, a Holocaust survivor and one of the leaders of Hungary's Jewish community, said he was disappointed about the lack of immediate reaction to Gyongyosi's statements from other politicians present at the time, but was heartened by the crowd attending the rally.
"Much of the country is made up of decent people who protest together with us against these things," Zoltai said.
Parliamentary Speaker Laszlo Kover announced plans to change parliamentary rules and allow sanctions against deputies for statements or acts similar to Gyongyosi's.
Gyongyosi made a qualified apology for his statements Tuesday, saying his call to screen Jews was directed only at dual Hungarian-Israeli citizens.
"Jobbik believes that the national security risk assessment ... is important exclusively in the case of dual citizens," Gyongyosi said in a note posted on Jobbik's website. "I apologize to our Jewish compatriots for my equivocal statement."
"Hungary should not be afraid of Jobbik but of Zionist Israel and those serving it also from here," Gyongyosi wrote.
International Jewish organizations also issued strong rebukes, comparing Gyongyosi's words to those of the Nazis.