Hungary is a quiet Jewish success story

Unlike in the rest of Europe, Jews are safe and thriving in Hungary.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hold a joint press conference at the Parliament building in Budapest on July 18, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hold a joint press conference at the Parliament building in Budapest on July 18, 2017. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Michael O’Shea
Michael O'Shea

At a U.N. event aimed at combating antisemitism last month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated, “a Holocaust memorial was vandalized in Hungary” as she recited a list of recent antisemitic incidents. Hungarians were perplexed because no such incident occurred. It actually took place in Sweden.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations struck the remark from the transcript on its website. As of this writing, however, the United States has not publicly acknowledged the mistake or apologized for it, despite Hungarian demands.

It’s difficult to understand how Thomas-Greenfield could have gotten wrong a central fact like the country where the incident occurred or why diplomats would stubbornly avoid apologizing for it. Alas, it was likely not an innocent mistake, as the U.S. State Department has an established track record of vilifying Hungary.

Americans who only learn about Hungary from The New York Times or The Washington Post are likely to find antisemitism consistent with their impressions of the country. This is a shame. I spent the last year living in Hungary and found a small Jewish success story in the heart of Europe.

Unlike nearby countries to which Jews travel by the thousands to trace their ancestral roots—Poland, Lithuania and Romania, for example—Hungary has a strong Jewish community today. Jewish and Israeli restaurants and cafes are among Budapest’s most popular establishments. Visibly Jewish locals and tourists are regularly seen on the streets of Budapest. Jewish leaders join their Christian counterparts for invocations at public events.

Hungary’s stance towards Israel is a significant aspect of Hungarian-Jewish affairs. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose coverage in Western media belies his country’s small size, has been a loyal friend of his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu and a consistent pro-Israel voice in the European Union, which is frequently antagonistic towards the Jewish state. Now Hungary is poised to become the first European country to move its embassy to Jerusalem, a decision E.U. officials quickly criticized.

The prospective embassy move is a reminder that Hungary is a significant player in European-Jewish affairs. The country has a reported Jewish population of approximately 100,000, enough to crack the top 15 in the world. Assimilation, cultural-religious definitions and state atheism during the Communist era all hinder census efforts, but Hungary certainly has the largest Jewish community in central Europe. Net migration is nearly impossible to measure, but a widespread impulse for emigration is absent, in contrast to many parts of Europe.

The elephant in the room is the absence of Muslim mass migration to Hungary. Put simply, a kosher shop owner or a man wearing Orthodox attire confronts a different set of considerations from his counterparts in Paris or Berlin.

Jews have emigrated from France, home of Europe’s largest Jewish population, to the extent that French is now frequently heard on the streets of Israel. In Sweden, antisemitism and emigration pressure have been growing for years. Some 60% of Swedish Jews profess fear of openly identifying as Jewish. Children at one Swedish Jewish school even play behind bulletproof glass.

A German government official has controversially advised Jews not to wear the kippah in public for safety reasons. Recent notable shootings at Jewish sites have occurred in Brussels, Copenhagen and Paris.

Nothing like this has occurred in Hungary.

“We have approximately 100,000 people who claim themselves Jews, and in Hungary, there are no issues in practicing their religion. If you wear a [kippah] in Hungary, nobody cares,” said László Szabó, a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States.

“Hungary is probably the safest place for Jews in Europe at the moment,” said Slomó Köves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Local and foreign Jews are noticing.

Budapest’s Jewish landmarks are concentrated in the city’s popular Jewish quarter. Its crown jewel is the Dohány Street Synagogue, the second-largest in the world. Just a stone’s throw away is the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Jewish tours of the neighborhood are available in numerous languages.

In a less commercial setting, one of the region’s most famous Holocaust memorials is the “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” a collection of 60 pairs of sculpted period-appropriate shoes. It commemorates the Jewish victims who were made to remove their shoes before being shot and hurled into the Danube River by agents of the fascist Arrow Cross Party in the winter of 1944-45.

Further afield, beyond the city’s tourist districts, is the small but powerful Holocaust Memorial Center. Upon entering the museum, one must pass through metal detectors at a security station familiar to Americans; it is a reminder that, though Budapest might be safe for Jews, it is easily accessible from places that aren’t. My guide was non-Jewish and too young to remember the communist regime, let alone World War II atrocities. A school trip to the museum captivated him and he has made the study of Hungary’s Jewish community into his life’s work.

The tiny village of Mád, in the northeastern part of the country, is significant for Jews. Though its Jewish community no longer exists, it has a beautifully restored synagogue and a nearby museum of Jewish life in the region. A tablet inscribed with the names of pre-war synagogue congregants is particularly poignant. When I visited, a group of Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jews was exploring the museum, a sign that not only Hungarians are enjoying the country’s Jewish heritage.

The southeastern city Szeged, famous for its paprika, features another gem with its art nouveau city synagogue, the fourth-largest in the world. The nearby town of Makó used to contain prominent Neological and Orthodox synagogues, the latter of which has been restored thanks to government support.

“The more we rebuild, the more will come,” said Rabbi Köves, who has overseen a revival of faith among numerous Hungarian Jews who were raised in secular households. Increasingly, they are finding meaning in long-dormant communities that are re-establishing themselves.

“Jews in Hungary are not considered minorities,” said Szabó. “They are considered Hungarian. It is just a feature of them that they follow the Jewish faith, and there is nothing special about them, unlike other Western countries.”

In the present environment in Europe, Szabó’s assessment feels triumphant.

Hungary isn’t about to replace Israel or the U.S. as a global center of Jewish life, but it warrants recognition for what it is: a humble 21st-century success story on a continent that has witnessed a nightmarish century of Jewish suffering. Those willing to look deeper than popular surface-level narratives will find much Jewish vitality in this oft-maligned corner of Europe.

Michael O’Shea is an alumnus of the Hungary Foundation and Mathias Corvinus Collegium’s Budapest Fellowship Program, through which he conducted research at the Danube Institute. His articles have appeared in Newsweek, The Federalist, The Washington Examiner, The European Conservative, The Hungarian Conservative and Visegrád Post.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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