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Why Hungary’s Jews Are the Safest in Europe

Jewish life across Europe is increasingly militarized, but not in Budapest.

Chancellor Scholz Receives Hungarian Prime Minister Orban
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Turning down Krystalgade, the security barrier sticks out like a sore thumb. It resembles a military checkpoint, out of place in a cobblestoned neighborhood of Copenhagen. Surely the machine guns, the bollards, and the security cameras must indicate the residence of a senior politician or royal family member. 

It is actually something far less noteworthy: the simple presence of Danish Jews. The Great Synagogue of Copenhagen had twice been the target of terrorist attacks. Palestinian militants bombed the shul in the 1980s, and thirty years later an Islamic fundamentalist shot and killed a community member. Copenhagen’s renowned synagogue is now a militarized place of worship.

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There is nothing exceptional about Copenhagen. As I learnt during my recent travels across a dozen European countries, the securitization of Jewish life across the continent is the norm, not the exception. Every Shabbat service I attended, whether it was in Prague or London or Majorca, required submitting passport photos, documentation of my connection to the Jewish community, and sometimes even a rabbinical reference. Today, European Jews can effectively only practice their religion behind a defensive fortress. I call it Stockade Judaism.

And for good reason. Virtually every one of the countries I visited has experienced violent outbursts against local Jewish communities. Swedish synagogues have been firebombed. A 16-year-old Syrian migrant and three accomplices planned to attack the Jewish community in Hagen, Germany, on Yom Kippur. Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Frenchwoman, was thrown from her Paris flat to her death to shouts of “Allahu Akbar.” The courts ruled that the assailant “was not responsible for his actions because his consumption of marijuana had induced a psychotic episode.” British authorities dropped charges against men driving through London screaming “Fuck the Jews,” “Kill the Jews,” and “Rape their daughters.” To be a Jew in Europe these days looks rather grim. 

That is, apart from Hungary. 

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has become a polarizing issue across the American political spectrum. For many, he represents nothing more than an articulate and calculating fascist. However, among a growing and influential cohort of American conservatives, Orbán has come to represent a valuable counterpoint, a muscular and unapologetic alternative to an ossified Republican Party stuck on corporate tax rates. 

It is here amidst debates over immigration, identity, religion, and sexual politics that many have turned to the Jewish Question as a key barometer of Orbán’s success. Despite what even his most vociferous critics might say, Orbán has seemingly stumbled upon the secret sauce for keeping his country’s Jews safe during a time when virtually every other European country is inundated with skyrocketing levels of antisemitism.

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Rod Dreher was among the first commentators to draw attention to the unique absence of antisemitism in Hungary, pointing to the now-famous 2018 European Union report on antisemitic experiences and attitudes. Hungarian Jews reported the lowest levels of fear when it came to verbal abuse or physical violence amongst the dozen European countries polled. Compared to the enlightened Western European countries of France, Germany, and Belgium, Hungarian Jews seemed to living in a completely different universe. Nearly 60 percent of French Jewish respondents worried about being the victim of antisemitic abuse themselves, and 70 percent worried that a family member would be. Germany was marginally better with rates hovering between the high 40s to low 60s. Hungary boasted numbers in the low teens to high 20s.

Reality bears out these concerns. Hungarian Holocaust researcher László Bernát Veszprémy argued in Newsweek recently that while many European nations were shattering their antisemitic records, Hungary was generally placid. “Different organizations measure different numbers, but they all agree that in 2020 no more than 70 such events happened, of which only one was physical,” Veszprémy wrote. 

For perspective, in 2021, the UK experienced 2,255 antisemitic attacks. Germany eclipsed its 2020 antisemitic incident rate only ten months into 2021, totaling 1,850. Neighboring Austria went from 257 antisemitic episodes in 2020 to 562 in the first half of 2021 alone—this with a Jewish community numbering between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Hungary, by comparison, has a Jewish community estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000.

When I visited Budapest this summer amid a sweltering European heatwave, I was pleasantly surprised not to be greeted by the over-militarized presence I had come to know when walking through other European Jewish communities. Such a phenomenon, in and of itself, would be unthinkable for the Jews of France, Germany, or the UK. Tourists can usually spot when they’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a city’s Jewish Quarter by the visible military presence in the neighborhood, but not in Budapest. 

Budapest’s Jewish Quarter is anchored by three synagogues corresponding to different factions of Hungarian Jewish life that emerged following a theological schism in 1869. Today it forms what is popularly called “synagogue triangle.” The most famous is the Dohány Street Synagogue of the Neolog movement, “positioned theologically between Masorti and Orthodoxy,” built in the mid-nineteenth century. It is the largest synagogue in all of Europe (and second largest in the world) renowned for its Moorish architectural inspiration.

Dohany Street Great Synagogue, Budapest (Photo by: Hugh Rooney/Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

I spoke with the synagogue’s Chief Rabbi, Róbert Frölich, at Solinfo Café in the heart of the Jewish Quarter on a sunny August Tuesday morning. The rabbi had beat me to our meeting and was gracious despite my running behind. Before I could get out a single question, Frölich insisted, “First, what do you want? Do you want a coffee or drink or something? Choose something!” I ordered a cappuccino and we kibbitzed about my trip until our drinks arrived. Frölich is big and gregarious, comfortable professing his unabashed love for Las Vegas (a first among rabbis I know) in one breath and joking about Hungarian politics in the next. 

I asked the rabbi what he made of American conservatives’ recent fascination with his beautiful little country. Was there really such little antisemitism? Is Viktor Orbán as scary truly as many make him out to be? “They [Jews] are afraid,” Frölich asserted, saying it was a misconception to see Hungarian Jews safely nestled in Budapest. “There’s no violent antisemitism here. That means there are no physical attacks against Jews or synagogues. But the verbal antisemitism is growing. When the economic system is down, hatred grows. And they always have somebody to blame. The main enemy is the Jewish banker, the Jewish tradesman.”

When I asked Frölich to explain why, when much of Western Europe was experiencing record-shattering levels of antisemitism, Hungary was rather tranquil, he wasn’t sure what explained its unique success. “I cannot find any reasons for that. Maybe we just got lucky. Maybe the zero tolerance [policy] the [Orbán] government says it has against antisemitism is at least useful in preventing physical attacks.” 

I found out that the stereotypical joke about the Jewish penchant for disagreement—you ask two Jews and get three opinions—was an understatement in Hungary. It was more like ten opinions. One man with whom Frölich has had an on-again, off-again relationship is Andras Heisler, the vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), the representative body of the local community. They have butted heads on various occasions, recently over Hungarian legislation concerning gay marriage

To my question of whether there was any relationship between Muslim immigration and violent antisemitism, Heisler felt the premise limiting. “I do not consider the situation of countries with large Muslim community (comprising several million people sometimes), with significant national minorities from their former colonies comparable to Hungary,” he wrote to me over email.

Heisler sees Jewish life in Budapest in more comfortable terms than Frölich. “In Budapest, where 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population lives, we can walk freely, wear our yarmulkes and celebrate, observe our holidays.” However, Heisler echoed Frölich’s ambivalence about Orbán’s efforts to combat antisemitism. Prejudiced “views are strongly present in Hungarian society, and often politicians use ambiguous language that helps the growing far right to gain further ground. Much remains to be done by the society and our politicians as well in order to achieve the ‘zero tolerance’ proclaimed by Viktor Orbán.”

The coarsening of public discourse remained a point of concern for both men. The prime minister’s long-running public feud with Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros has led many to accuse Orbán of dabbling in antisemitic tropes. In one notable speech leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, Orbán described Soros’ efforts encouraging multiculturalism and Muslim immigration along such lines. “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Others, however, have challenged what James Kirchick calls the “sanctification” of Soros whereby any criticism of the man is labelled antisemitic. 

Orbán’s ongoing tiff with Soros wasn’t the first time he had waded into territory that frightened Hungarian Jews. Two weeks before my arrival in Budapest, Orbán gave a speech in which he decried the bastardization of cultures. “We do not want to become a mixed race,” Orbán stated during a stump speech in neighboring Romania. Debates over the context of Orbán’s statement as well as its translation remain contested. Hungarian Jews were not pleased. Nonetheless, such rhetoric is in line with earlier statements Orbán has made describing Muslim migrants as “invaders” despoiling the country’s cultural roots.

Consequently, many remain skeptical of the government’s latest efforts to restore old synagogues and cemeteries as mere window dressing obscuring deeper intolerance. During my conversations with members of the Jewish community, many pointed to the tough economic moment having brought displays of swastikas and other anti-Jewish graffiti out into the open. Heisler feared that although violent antisemitism may have abated, Hungarian authorities were drawing a not-so-subtle distinction between “good Jews” and “bad Jews.” 

The part of the “good Jews” is played by the Orthodox Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) led by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Slomó Köves. Community statements condemning Orbán’s “mixed race” speech are telling. Frölich denounced the speech as “a violation of human dignity and morals,” while his Orthodox counterpart Köves walked a more delicate line, calling his choice of words “unfortunate.” These small nuances bely a more foundational rift pitting the community’s historic Mazsihisz leadership against the newer and increasingly dynamic upstart EMIH. In recent years, the movements have found themselves at cross-purposes over their support for the Orbán government, Holocaust commemoration, and Muslim migration. 

At many turns where Frölich and Mazsihisz go one way, EMIH often goes the other, inflaming communal tensions. In 2019, joint Israeli-Hungarian plans to retrieve remains of Holocaust victims in the Danube River left the two communities on opposite sides of the debate. The Orthodox supported the initiative, backing the repatriation of victims’ bodies to Israel, while Mazsihisz believed such rescue attempts were unproductive. 

Two years later, the groups came to blows over the city’s $30 million new Holocaust museum. Known as the “House of Fates,” construction was completed back in 2015 but it still has yet to open its doors to the public because of infighting between Mazsihisz and EMIH over Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust and its portrayal within the museum. Boycotted by the former, Orbán’s government handed over control of the project to the latter in 2018.

Compounding theological differences are yawning political ones. When I spoke virtually with Köves before the Jewish High Holidays this September, his prognostication of the situation sounded completely different than Frölich or Heisler’s. For Köves, the improvement of Jewish life in Hungary directly flows from Orbán’s policies. Everyday opinions have changed thanks to Orbán’s embrace of Israel, making Hungary one of the Jewish state’s staunchest defenders in the EU. 

Unlike his co-religionists, Köves felt strongly that the absence of Muslim immigrants in Hungary had a “huge impact, which you cannot underestimate.” Köves pointed to the German government’s antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein warning Jews in 2019 to avoid wearing kippot “everywhere all the time in Germany.” Köves felt the causation was clear. “Why is it? Clearly because there were over a million Muslims that came into Germany.” By comparison, “The fact that the Orbán government made it very clear [not allowing the migrants], I think definitely had a huge impact. We have to admit this.” Political correctness, Rabbi Köves felt, was obstructing many people’s ability to acknowledge this basic reality. In conversations he’d had with liberal Hungarian friends, they had said as much to him. 

The 2018 EU survey gave a resoundingly clear answer to the question of who is committing antisemitic attacks in Europe. When asked by researchers to identify perpetrators, the average across the dozen sampled countries for “Muslim extremist” was 30 percent, followed by “left-wing political” at 21 percent. “Right-wing political” was in the bottom four answers at 13 percent.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to many politically reasonable people. But progressive shibboleths have tarred basic observations about reality as xenophobic and racist. 

What would a fair accounting of the spike in antisemitism in Europe really look like?

For starters, we might look at polling data on widely held Islamic beliefs about Jews. Günther Jikeli, a leading scholar of antisemitism, combed through data from a 2014 Fondapol survey compiled in France and the results are shocking. Of the sampled French Muslims, a majority believe that Jews exploit the Holocaust for political gain, Jews wield too much financial power, too much media power, and too much political power. Slightly less than half believe “there is a Zionist conspiracy on a global scale.”

What would a fair accounting of the spike in antisemitism in Europe really look like?

Even French extremists on the left and right don’t hold such views to the same extent. Across these basic questions, French Muslim usually are two to three times more likely to agree with an antisemitic statement than the general population. 

These views appear to be a significant characteristic of European Muslim communities in general, and recent immigrants from the Middle East in particular. Over half of 800 migrants surveyed in Bayern, Germany, in 2018 expressed similar support for conspiracies of Jewish global power. A 2017 research study from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that a quarter of British Muslims believed the Jews exploit the Holocaust for selfish reasons, 14 percent feel the Holocaust is exaggerated, and eight percent believe it is an outright “myth.” These are multiples higher than the general population and skew heavily by religious observance. László Bernát Veszprémy compiled many such polling figures in an article on this subject for The European Conservative

Hungary represents the mirror image of what is unfolding across Western Europe. The notable finding of the 2018 EU survey (which few still truly appreciate) is that Hungarian Jews are actually the most likely to identify “someone with a right-wing political view” as the assailant in antisemitic attacks. That’s due to the largescale absence of Muslim communities in Hungary. Fittingly, the countries with the highest shares of rapidly growing Muslim communities—France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK—have become incubators of the most violent displays of antisemitic attacks since the end of the Holocaust. 

The cyclical nature of European antisemitism, clustering around times of conflict, explains why Hungary has been largely immune to the worst aspects of European antisemitism in 2021. When Rod Dreher interviewed a French journalist who’d been in Hungary during the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict, the man noted that life in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter was business as usual. “When the violence started, I expected to see police guarding the synagogues and Jewish businesses. None showed up. I saw men wearing kippahs walking down the street looking unworried. Then it hit me: it doesn’t happen here.”

That’s not always the case. 

Getting to the bottom of my cappuccino, I asked Rabbi Frölich whether Hungarian Jewish life had become more precarious in recent years. “Now they [Jews] take their kippahs off. They’re more afraid. They put on a hat and not just because of the sun,” Frölich joked. “They don’t speak so loud when they talk about their Jewishness.” I heard similar sentiments when I spoke with another member of the Mazsihisz community who wished to remain anonymous. “If you see someone wearing a kippah, it’s an American, Israeli, or Chabadnik,” the man noted: in other words, the uninitiated new arrivals. “It’s not because there are so many violent attacks but because I am a third generation Holocaust survivor.” When a Jew tells a fellow Jew such things it’s difficult not to take those fears seriously. 

I left Budapest ambivalently. The brutal heat wave had begun to flag, and the thermal baths were still calling my name. As I boarded my ÖBB train at the Keleti train station bound for Graz, Austria, and five hours of rolling Hungarian countryside, I didn’t know what to make of Hungary, its Jewish community, or Orbán. On one hand, many Hungarian Jews were clearly worried about the eroding political discourse in Hungary that is causing the community, overwhelmingly left-leaning, to remain skeptical of Orbán’s entreaties. 

Any yet I couldn’t help but consider the other half of the coin. Perhaps Rabbi Köves and the Orthodox community weren’t simply political opportunists and court jesters as their enemies claim. Setting aside the broader socioeconomic policies of the Orbán government, and looking specifically at the matter of antisemitism, it seems statistically indisputable that Orbán’s policies have enabled Hungarian Jews to avoid the horrendous terrorism of Western Europe. Returning to the 2018 EU Study, Hungary ranked number one of a dozen member states in terms of Jews not avoiding “wearing, carrying, or displaying in public things that could identify a person as Jewish.” France, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark were among the worst. This is more than happenstance: it is the largescale absence of Muslim communities in Hungary.

It seems statistically indisputable that Orbán’s policies have enabled Hungarian Jews to avoid the horrendous terrorism of Western Europe.

Such findings are deeply unpalatable for many Hungarian Jews to contemplate. Especially for a community emerging from the embers of the Holocaust, there is a tragic irony: Yes, we were once strangers in a strange land and so should reciprocate and be kind to newcomers and refugees. But what if those newcomers don’t take such a shine to you? What if they come with religious and cultural baggage that directly endangers your community?

The answer, as one Jewish acquaintance I interviewed in Budapest noted, depends on which Chief Rabbi you ask. The only problem, he joked, is that almost all rabbis in Budapest “call themselves Chief Rabbis.”

I confess, after my travels, on this specific question I fall in the Köves camp. That doesn’t translate into a wholesale endorsement of Orbán’s policies. Hungary isn’t a utopia that we should look to uncritically. But, as a growing number of American intellectuals have argued, perhaps there are some merits to learning from a proudly Christian and explicitly conservative country. 

Rather than listening to the predictable headlines of “hard-right” and “fascist,” more commentators should visit this landlocked country with an open mind. That might lead them to see an imperfect country navigating the defining questions of our age, one worthy of a fair shake before it’s thrown in the basket of deplorables alongside Belarus, Iran, and North Korea.

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