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Hungary and the Jews

Opposing views on the state of Viktor Orbán’s country

Susan Rubin Suleiman
May 07, 2020

Since David P. Goldman, in his “Fascist Lit and Hungary’s Future: L’Affaire Nyirő,” cites my recent article in Tablet, in which I reported that the Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész had been kicked off the required reading list for Hungary’s high school students in favor of József Nyirő and two other right-wing writers of the 1930s, I would like to take this opportunity to correct a misapprehension. I did not, as Goldman claims, suggest that “Nyírő has become a poster boy for Hungarian culture.” I did, however, state very clearly the opinion of thousands of Hungarian academics who protested the government’s decision, an opinion that Goldman shares—namely, that Nyirő was a mediocre writer and a disgusting human being (after the war, he was condemned to death in absentia for his political activities), certainly not worthy of his recent promotion to canonical status in Hungarian literature.

Aside from that detail, Goldman’s article makes the important argument that Hungary’s outstanding contributions to world culture (he cites musicians and mathematicians, and could have cited photographers, filmmakers, writers and philosophers as well) are largely the work of Hungarian Jews, many of whom emigrated to the United States and other countries. Waves of Hungarian emigrants, before and after WWI, then soon after WWII (when my family left Hungary), and again in 1956, have marked the tumultuous history of that country, right up to today. Goldman is right that Hungary has a demography problem. Today as before, the brain drain continues, as does the drain of artisans and skilled workers who seek better opportunities elsewhere. But economics are not the only reason why people leave their native land. They choose exile, then and now, for political reasons as well—and the Orbán government has not done much to stem the tide in that respect (to put it mildly). In an earlier Tablet article, I wrote about many Hungarians’ current disenchantment with politics, their sense that the democratic prospects of the 1990s had been systematically stifled since Orbán’s party came to power in 2010. Orbán’s latest power grab, the stunning vote by the Hungarian Parliament on March 30 to grant him unlimited power to govern by decree, with no deadline date, is only the latest of his moves toward autocracy. (Even more stunningly, the Parliament then voted to dissolve itself until further notice!) This was made possible by the COVID-19 emergency as the excuse, and by the two-thirds supermajority—by a single vote—that Orbán’s party, Fidesz, and its ally garnered in the April 2018 election; its supermajority allows Fidesz to steamroll over any and all opposition. Under such circumstances, is it surprising that those who can often leave the country?

As for what this means for Hungary’s Jews, David P. Goldman is a lot more sanguine than I (and many others). As he points out, Orbán is a great supporter of some Orthodox rabbis. The Chabad wing of Orthodoxy, in particular, has received many favors and subsidies from the government, allowing it to found schools and even a university. But this does not mean that Jews occupy a good situation in Hungary. Just think of the anti-Semitism that our very own would-be autocrat, the current occupant of the White House, has helped to bring to light in the United States. Trump himself is not an anti-Semite (as his defenders never tire of repeating, he has Jewish grandchildren), and he has significant support among some Orthodox Jews in our country. But are American Jews overall feeling especially safe these days? My granddaughter’s middle school in liberal Montgomery County, next to Washington, D.C., has had to wash off Nazi graffiti from its walls more than once since 2016.

Autocrats rule by sowing division and fear of “others,” be they immigrants or locals who “don’t really belong.” If American Jews feel totally secure in their sense of belonging—after all, they’re not Asian, nor black nor brown—they should think again. And so should Mr. Goldman.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor emerita at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France.