Ancient Fear Rises Anew

Resurgent anti-Semitism, coupled with a moribund economy, has many Hungarian Jews wondering if it's time to leave their country

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Janos Marjai / MTI / AP

A protester wears a yellow Jewish star as thousands attend a demonstration against Nazism in Budapest in December

The tables at Macesz Huszar were packed on a recent snowy afternoon in Budapest. The two-month-old restaurant's hip clientele looked like the usual foodie elite, whipping out smartphones to photograph their meals. But it wasn't culinary innovation that was drawing the crowds; it was the humble matzo-ball soup. A Jewish (but not kosher) bistro, Macesz Huszar offers delicious proof of the renaissance of Hungary's once vibrant Jewish culture, which was nearly destroyed by the Holocaust and the communist era that followed. Yet as one table happily tucked into plates of goose-skin cracklings and an egg-and-duck-liver salad known as Jewish egg, the conversation focused not on the country's Jewish revival but on whether Hungary was once again becoming hostile to Jews.

It might seem like an odd question. Budapest has Central Europe's largest population of Jews, an estimated 100,000, with dozens of synagogues, prayer houses, art galleries, wine bars and community centers. Yet thanks to a declining economy and growing anti-Semitism, more and more Jews are either leaving Hungary or considering it. The number of those who have actually emigrated is still relatively small--an estimated 1,000 over the past year, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, known as Mazsihisz--but in Facebook forums, at synagogues and over casual dinners at Jewish bistros, the question looms large. "You look around at your friends," says Dani, a 36-year-old architect who requested that his last name not be used, "and they're all asking, Is it time to go?"

They have reason to wonder. In June, Budapest's retired chief rabbi, Jozsef Schweitzer, was accosted by a man who said he "hates all Jews." In October two men attacked Jewish leader Andras Kerenyi, kicking him in the stomach and shouting obscenities at him. When Kerenyi's assailants were arrested, an online radio station praised the attack, calling it "a response to general Jewish terrorism." In December, Balazs Lenhardt, an independent Member of Parliament, burned an Israeli flag in front of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry during an anti-Zionist protest--one in which participants shouted, "To Auschwitz with you all." In the past several months, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized, Holocaust monuments have been damaged, and swastikas have been painted on synagogue walls. On March 14, professors at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest found stickers affixed to their office door that read, "Jews! The university belongs to us, not you! Regards, the Hungarian students."

Isolated anti-Jewish events occur occasionally throughout Europe, but the frequency of these incidents in Hungary has accompanied a measurable darkening of public opinion. Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest's Central European University, found that from 1992 to 2006, levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary remained relatively stable. About 10% of adults qualified as fervent anti-Semites, another 15% had some anti-Semitic feelings, and 60% of the population was not anti-Semitic at all. But beginning in 2006, when Hungary's economy began to deteriorate and far-right parties began to rise, the intolerance started to intensify. By 2010 the percentage of those who qualified as fervent anti-Semites had risen to as high as 20%, and the percentage who said they held no anti-Jewish feelings had dropped to 50%.

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