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BUDAPEST, Hungary – Right-wing extremists shout Nazi salutes and attack a man they believe is Jewish. Black-booted militants frighten aging Holocaust survivors. Writings of authors linked to a pro-Nazi regime are recommended reading for school children. Hungary is seeing a rise in anti-Semitism, something the prime minister is now vowing to fight.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a gathering of Jewish representatives Sunday that anti-Semitism is "unacceptable and intolerable." The meeting of the World Jewish Congress is being held in Budapest to draw attention to a rise in anti-Semitism in this Eastern European country. Here's a look at recent developments:
Much of the recent trouble began with Hungary's 2010 election, when disillusioned voters made the extremist right-wing party Jobbik the third-largest force in Parliament. Though Jobbik doesn't have the power to pass laws, it gained a stage for its anti-Semitic — and anti-Gypsy — rhetoric.
Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi called last year for lists to be drawn up of government members and lawmakers with Jewish origins, claiming they could present a "national security risk."
The party also had an affiliated militia, the Hungarian Guard, whose members marched in black uniforms reminiscent of the Nazi era, intimidating Roma and elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors in Budapest and in villages. Orban's government banned the Guard but its members still show up at Jobbik events.
On Saturday the party staged an "anti-Zionist" demonstration to protest the presence of the World Jewish Congress. A police attempt to ban the rally was overturned by the court. "Only a show of strength is effective against the unscrupulous Zionist advance," Gyongyosi told 1,000 people at the rally.
THE PRIME MINISTER
Orban's party, Fidesz, competes for some of its votes with Jobbik and has been accused during three years in power of doing too little to fight Jobbik's anti-Semitism. Recently, however, Orban has taken several steps, like a ban on certain public uses of Nazi and communist symbols such as the swastika and the red cross, and tighter controls on hate speech.
The accusations that Orban is not tough enough on extremism mark the dramatic transformation of a leader who rose in politics as an outspoken young activist against Soviet-backed communism to a leader regularly chastised by the European Union for policies deemed autocratic. With an overwhelming majority in Parliament, Orban has pushed to centralize power, expanding his and his party's control over the media, the central bank and other institutions.
ATTACKS IN HUNGARY
In past months vandals have damaged Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials and sprayed swastikas on synagogues in Hungary.
The chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Association, which promotes tolerance, was also beaten and had his nose broken by thugs at a Budapest sports stadium. Thugs attacked Ferenc Orosz on April 28 after he asked them to stop shouting the "Sieg Heil" Nazi salute during a soccer match. Although Orosz is a Calvinist, he said his attackers believed he was Jewish. The men also poured beer on Orosz's 21-year-old son. Police are investigating the case.
BOOKS AND STATUES
Orban's government has also drawn criticism for adding authors linked to anti-Semitism to the country's school curriculum. Among them is Jozsef Nyiro, a writer who served as a lawmaker in the Hungarian parliament during its World War II alliance with Nazi Germany.
Objections have also been made to the government's failure to step up against a growing cult around Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary's autocratic leader from the 1920s through most of World War II. Horthy statues and busts have been unveiled in several towns.
JEWISH LIFE IN HUNGARY
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, says "there is much more Jewish life but there's also more hatred, more anti-Semitism" in Hungary. He fears Jews will start to leave the country if things fail to improve.
Rabbi Slomo Koves of the Chabad Lubavitch Community also mentioned the deteriorating public discourse in Hungary but highlights some of the new laws meant to crack down on hate speech. While listing examples of expanding Jewish life in Hungary — new schools, reopened synagogues, popular cultural festivals — he warned against drawing too close parallels between anti-Semitism now and that of the Holocaust era.
"We are holding far from that and I don't like these types of metaphors because they are pretty dangerous," Koves said. He said he preferred to focus on educating youth about the Holocaust while depending on the new laws to counter anti-Jewish outbursts.
Even if he was more critical, Lauder was also hopeful that the atmosphere will turn for the better for the estimated 100,000 Jews in Hungary, the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.
"If Hungary had less anti-Semitism, it could blossom," Lauder said.