Hungarian Jews concerned about toxic referendum discourse

Public debate around migrants during campaign veered towards hate speech, campaigners say

Members of the Hungarian Jewish community have voiced concern about the divisive public discourse that accompanied Hungary’s referendum on the admission of refugees, with some comparing it to the hate speech directed at Jews in the 1930s.

The rightwing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, waged the biggest advertising campaign in Hungarian history in an attempt to convince people to vote against welcoming 1,294 refugees allocated to Hungary under a Europe-wide responsibility sharing system.

Throughout the campaign, Orbán and his allies associated refugees with terrorists. “No one can say how many terrorists have arrived so far among the immigrants,” said a state-sponsored pamphlet sent to every Hungarian household that claimed refugees had turned entire cities in western Europe, including London and Berlin, into no-go zones.

In response to the campaign, András Heisler, the head of Mazsihisz, the largest Jewish umbrella organisation in Hungary, said: “The public discourse regarding migrants has begun to switch over towards the direction of hate speech.”

Citing the “historical experience” of Jews, Heisler feared that the stigmatisation of migrants could lead to the alienation of other Hungarian minorities.

“For us, it is not acceptable to incite hatred against not only Jews but also against Roma people, Christians, gays, or migrants,” Heisler said. “As we know hatred behaves like a virus: it can [slowly] make sick the whole of society.”

Diana Groo, a Hungarian director who makes films about Jewish history, said: “The campaign of hatred reminds me very much of the Nazi propaganda, and the film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). It does remind us of the 1930s.”

Heisler said he agreed with his colleague, Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti, who argued that the rights of refugees should not be up for discussion in a post-Holocaust context. “It should [be] evident in the post-Shoah Europe that those who want to flee should be able to do so,” Heisler quoted Radnóti as saying.

During the referendum campaign the government placed nearly 6,000 anti-refugee adverts in public spaces – five times more than the next-biggest advertising campaign in Hungarian history.

But it was ultimately unsuccessful. More than 98% of participants voted against refugees, but just 40% of the electorate cast valid votes, rendering the process constitutionally null and void, and undermining Orbán’s campaign for a Europe-wide rebellion against the European establishment.

Orbán portrayed the vote as a victory, but on Monday European politicians highlighted that he had failed to secure the 50% turnout needed to validate the process.

“If the referendum had been legally valid, our comment would have been that we take note of it,” the chief spokesman for the European commission, Margaritis Schinas, pointedly said. “Since it was declared legally void by the Hungarian electoral commission, we can now say that we also take note of it.”

Other leading European figures, including the foreign ministers of Italy and Luxembourg, also emphasised that Orbán had failed to encourage enough voters to the ballot box. In Hungary, the low turnout was criticised by the leader of the largest opposition party, Jobbik, a far-right group with even more extreme views than Orbán.

“Since yesterday you have become a failed politician,” Gábor Vona told Orbán in parliament on Monday. “You will not be taken seriously by Brussels bureaucrats … Brussels will ruthlessly exploit your irresponsibility and mistake.”

But the low turnout came as little consolation to liberals and minorities worried by the hate speech stoked by the referendum campaign.

Zsuzsanna Vajna, a Hungarian holocaust survivor, looks photographs taken of her during her internment in 1944.
Zsuzsanna Vajna, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, looks at photographs taken of her during her internment in 1944. Vajna says the current discourse about refugees in Hungary reminds her of the stigmatisation of Jews during her childhood. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

“It’s very dangerous,” said Zsuzsanna Vajna, a Holocaust survivor who nearly starved to death in the Budapest ghetto in 1945. “Hitler was saying the same things in the 30s, inciting hatred against one part of the population. Now [the victims] are the migrants, the Muslims. It’s a very violent campaign that’s been going on for more than a year, and has torn apart a country.”

During the winter of 1944, Vajna was forced to walk at gunpoint with other Jews up and down the banks of the Danube, while Hungarian Nazis shot some of them into the river at random. A few hundred metres from this spot on Saturday, several hundred far-right protesters held an anti-refugee rally in one of Budapest’s most famous squares. Their speeches drowned out a nearby counter-rally organised by a liberal opposition group.


Patrick Kingsley in Budapest and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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