Sunday, 17 February 2013

Safe European home? If you’re Jewish, that ain’t necessarily so

The most chilling thing about Michael Dugher MP’s timely piece on “mainstream” anti-Semitism is that it needed to be written. Anti-Semitism in Britain, as I wrote in the New Statesman last February, is sadly a phenomenon no longer confined to the fringes of politics.

But our worries pale into insignificance when we look at some other countries close to home. One of the most disturbing pieces of news on racism I have seen in recent years came last week, not from some country of desperate poverty, but from within that cosy little nest of tolerance and democratic values and that we like to think is the European Union.


Oskar Deutsch, leader of Vienna’s Jewish community, recently welcomed Jewish families emigrating from Hungary, reports Jewish News One (JN1). But there was an unpleasant undercurrent to it all: the families are emigrating because they do not want to live with the anti-Semitism which is now rife in Hungary. And one hundred and fifty families are crossing the Austrian border each year to Vienna, to escape it.

It is also worth pointing out that neither are they emigrating to a country which is perfectly safe for Jews: Deutsch has also reported a doubling in anti-Semitic incidents in Vienna over the last twelve months. But it still seems better than where they are coming from.
Much of Europe, particularly its central areas, has had a weakness for anti-Semitism for much of the twentieth century, if not long before. 

In the case of Hungary, it never really went away during the Communist era, and has now been stirred up again by the racists of the far-right Jobbik party, often quietly egged on by the nationalist Fidesz government of Viktor Orban (although they are also, to be fair, none too keen on Muslims or Roma people either). They have been accused, fairly, of trying to whitewash the country’s role supporting the Nazis in WWII, including putting a fascist writer from the period in the national curriculum for schools.

For another rather sick example, the government, according to Wikipedia:
“ 'sought in late 1998 to ease the collective conscience of the nation by offering to compensate survivors by paying approximately $150 for each member of their particular immediate families, assuming that they can prove that their loved ones were in fact victims of the Holocaust’, while offering 33 times this amount to relatives of the victims of the Communist era.”
It is abundantly clear that this had nothing to do with relative suffering, and everything to do with implying that the Holocaust was an over-exaggerated tragedy whose victims were rather looking for compensation in bad faith. In 2011, as anti-Jewish sentiment in Hungary increased, Orban’s government stopped paying even that.

The stomach-churning Jobbik, meanwhile, with over 10% of parliamentary seats, is brutally open about its aims, and:

“the party provoked outrage when it recently called for a list of the country’s Jews to be drawn up as a matter of national security.”
And we all know where that leads.

One hundred and fifty families still represent just a trickle out of the reported 90,000 Jews in Hungary; but a group which is leaving purely because of a tragic, age-old phenomenon born of bigotry and ignorance. Large numbers of right-thinking Hungarians are disgusted, but they do not run the country.

If things do not change, how long before that trickle turns into a flood, we wonder? Figures for the whole of Austria are not given, but a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that arrivees would only need to rise to a few thousand people each year, to reach proportionate levels to the German-Jewish exodus of the 1930s. 


A thought to bear in mind as you sit snugly on cold winter evenings in – as the Clash’s Joe Strummer once called it – your “safe European home”. Right now, not everyone else in the EU feels as safe in theirs.


This piece first published at LabourList

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