Students in Hungary report Anti-Semitism on the rise in Eastern Europe

A Hungarian Holocaust memorial. File photo.
A Hungarian Holocaust memorial. File photo.

Seventy years ago, Eastern Europe hosted the most concentrated form of anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) the world has seen in hundreds of years.

A full generation after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in 1945, much of the Western world lives under the impression that anti-Semitism died as a victim of World War II. We might easily believe that dangers for Jews have been erased by a sense of guilt hanging over Europe. Surely, Nazism was the last great form of Western anti-Semitism.

The persecution suffered by Hungarian Jews that Winston Churchill called “the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world” is subtly appearing again.

Only last fall, the radical right-wing political party Jobbik held an anti-Jew rally in front of Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest synagogue. Members of the party, which is currently the third largest in the country, burned an Israeli flag over the cemetery housing the remains of Jews who were killed during the Nazi occupation of Budapest.

In the summer of 2012, Hungarian football fans booed the Israeli national team at a match between the two countries in Budapest. They chanted “sieg heil,” a Nazi slogan, during the playing of the Israeli national anthem.

But what is the reason for this post-Communist resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiment?

The history of Jews in Europe is a touchy subject; many Eastern Europeans prefer not to talk about it, as there is a strong sense of guilt regarding their role in World War II.

Anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Communism, however, is far more acceptable.

Recently, the amount of ethnic Jews in the Communist Party has risen in Eastern Europe, and this makes it harder for Eastern Europeans to distinguish between Soviets and Jews.

Last week, the U.K.’s Daily Mail published an editorial accusing prominent Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband of “hating Britain” because of his Jewish ethnicity and Marxist political beliefs.

In Hungary, the powerful political party Jobbik describes itself as both “anti-Bolshevik” (anti-communist) and “anti-Zionist” (against Jewish culture).

In Lithuania, 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Rachel Margolis, an ethnic Jew, is currently under investigation for “partisan activities” and “terrorism” she allegedly committed while participating in anti-Nazi resistance movements during the World War II.

The anti-Communism/anti-Jewish feeling is now so strong in certain parts of Eastern Europe that the one Hungarian student who agreed to answer questions asked to remain anonymous out of fear of being “blacklisted” for her Jewish sympathies.

At this point, it is probably easy to dismiss the socio-political upheaval in Eastern Europe as a short-lived, regional phenomenon. But tensions have a way of spreading despite all efforts to contain them, as the recent history of Eastern Europe only too clearly demonstrates.

Americans are particularly prone to believing that anti-Semitism is an issue of the past. They have preserved memories of World War II in the form of memorials and sunken battleship parks. Things like fascism and Jewish genocide are unchangeable, immovable and relegated to the past.

Even Calvin students hold on to that wishful thinking without realizing it. Coming to Eastern Europe this semester for Calvin’s study abroad program in Budapest, Hungary, students were surprised: pleasantly, by the cosmopolitan nature of the region’s big cities, and unpleasantly, by signs of the sneaking return of the ghost of the Holocaust.

Yet anti-Semitism is a chimera: it is not always easy to define what constitutes an anti-Semitic remark, the way it is easy to point out racism or sexism. The issue is compounded with the geographic and cultural limitations of Americans.

At the very least, people can be aware; they must rid themselves of the dangerous notion that Western anti-Semitism has been defeated. The moment they allow themselves to think that they are safe from it is the moment when it will creep back in and take hold of us.

About the Author

Rachel Hekman

Rachel Hekman is a junior from Dallas, Texas and a Chimes staff writer for the 2012-13 school year. She is studying history and religion, two of the greatest and most stressful subjects at Calvin, and enjoys keeping up on current events. Someday she'll take Le Roy's job and then rule the world.

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