András Kovács: Anti-Semitism and the Young Elite in Hungary after 1990

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English

András Kovács

Anti-Semitism and the young élite in Hungary after 1990

It would be difficult to say whether anti-Semitism suddenly increased after the collapse of Communism, or whether previously existing anti-Semitic attitudes and ideologies simply resurfaced openly with the introduction of civil and political rights. Although the open manifestation of anti-Semitism is a significant change compared to the previous period, we can nonetheless claim that anti-Semitic groups have until now hovered on the margin of society. An anti-Semitic political ideology has until now been rejected by all authoritative political powers, including the major national conservative powers, even if only after some hesitation and conflict. The small, openly anti-Semitic and fascist political groups today vegetate on the periphery of political life.

Be as it may, the open appearance of anti-Semitism has caused quite a headache to the approximately 100,000 Jews living in Hungary who fear that what happened at the close of World War 1 after the half-century long ‘golden age’ of emancipation might happen again. At the time, to quote Ezra Mendelsohn, Hungary had been “a unique example of how a country previously ‘good for the Jews’ is transformed, almost overnight, into a country wracked with pogroms and permeated with anti-Semitic hysteria.”

This fear is legitimate, even if there are no signs of any anti-Semitic hysteria. It is legitimate since the open appearance of anti-Semitism has broken the taboo which – owing to the Holocaust – enveloped anti-Semitism in most European countries. In Germany, Poland and Hungary quite a few opinions can be publicly voiced which would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. It is quite possible that anti-Semitism will remain a marginal phenomenon in Hungarian society, but – in view of the traditions of Central and Eastern European history – it is equally possible that in a society in which the transition following the collapse of the Communist system has imposed heavy burdens on quite a high number of people, and even those whose economic and social conditions have not deteriorated dramatically now grapple with previously unknown situations and conflicts, the public appearance of anti-Semitic views paves the way for political movements and groups for which anti-Semitism is a convenient ideology for explaining the world, creating an identity and motivating actions.

There can be no doubt that anti-Semitic prejudices thrive in present-day Hungary. In 1995 we conducted a national representative survey to examine to what extent anti-Semitic prejudices are widespread in Hungary. We found that about 8 per cent of the adult population of Hungary is extremely anti-Semitic: they tend to think of Jews according to prejudiced stereotypes, they feel themselves at a great social distance from the Jews and they are ready to accept anti-Jewish discriminations. A further 17 per cent of the adult population too harbours many anti-Semitic prejudices, although they would not support anti-Jewish discrimination.

In other words, the potential for anti-Semitism is present in Hungary, but what are the chances for the growth of political anti-Semitism in Hungary? The post-Communist countries are currently experiencing processes whose consequences have much in common with the conflicts arising from 19th century modernization. Not only has the previous political system collapsed, but formerly acquired positions and the associated identities have been undermined, the chances for social groups to rise or fall on the social scale have also changed. Earlier social norms and rules have lost their validity and in many cases the consequences of social actions, which were easily calculable, have become unpredictable. It has become painfully clear that ideologies which were thought to be long extinct still thrive and, also, that attitudes and behavioural forms which are a ‘heritage’ of the four decades long Soviet rule have a decisive influence on the course of events. The question, then, is whether the economic and social conflicts of the transition will once again pave the way for political anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Traditional and new anti-Semitic prejudices have, with greater or smaller intensity, been continuously present in all modern societies. The psychological conditions for the emergence of personalities which respond to anti-Semitism have similarly existed at all times and in all places. Even so, these have not proved enough to elevate anti-Semitism to a dominant ideology even in times of economic depression and social upheavals. In the past one and a half decades, anti-Semitism only became a key element in shaping political events when it was transformed into a ‘cultural system’.

One of the fundamental criteria for anti-Semitism to become a ‘cultural system’ is that individuals in search of some point of orientation in the world accept anti-Semitism as a set of views which offers a rational explanation for situations and conflicts, as well as a solution to these situations and conflicts, in which Jews have no part. Another distinctive feature of anti-Semitic views ordered into an ‘ism’ is that it appears as a legitimate concept for explaining the world even among individuals who do not personally hate Jews and who, in many cases, have no personal contacts with Jews.

A number of historical circumstances need to coincide for anti-Semitism to emerge as a ‘cultural system’. Yet, as Shulamit Volkov has noted in her analysis of the emergence of German anti-Semitism, the explanation for the phenomenon that large groups of individuals accept anti-Semitism as a rationale for explaining the world does not lie in actual conflicts, but rather in the cognitive process spanning the two extreme points – conflict and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism became a code, a symbolic ‘abbreviation’ of a certain well-defined cultural identity in Germany during the last third of the 19th century, as it did in Hungary during the same period and, more significantly, after World War 1. Anti-Semitism simultaneously expressed political, social, ethical and cultural ambitions which in themselves had little, if any, association with the ‘Jewish question’, but were nonetheless linked by their rejection of capitalist modernization and a critique of its consequences. In the countries of modern Europe, anti-Semitism became the symbol of a cultural system. One’s attitude to an anti-Semitic Weltanschauung also expressed one’s relation to the cultural camp of modernity and anti-modernity. This is why an anti-Semitic world-view is not necessarily coupled with a hatred of the Jews. Proponents of an anti-Semitic Weltanschauung may even be telling the truth when they claim that personally they have nothing against the Jews.

Prejudices are not moulded into a Weltanschauung spontaneously. The creation of the ‘vocabulary’ of modern anti-Semitism, the forging of a meaningful link between modernity and the ‘Jewish question’ and the establishment of a closed system of anti-Semitic ideology was a prerequisite needed for anti-Semitism to function as a Weltanschauung. By propelling this system into the realm of ‘versunkene Kulturgüte’, the cultural meaning of the anti-Semitic Weltanschauung had to be made familiar, self-evident and unchallengeable. The creation of this anti-Semitic Weltanschauung and its association with concrete social conflicts was done by intellectuals.

Historical examples prove that the chances of whether or not anti-Semitism became a political factor always depended on social élites. Anti-Semitism could only hope to gain serious political influence if one part of the social élite seriously propagated anti-Semitism, and another part of the same élite accepted anti-Semitism, as well as the political alternative and ideology offered by anti-Semitism as a valid interpretation for the perceived social and political conflicts. If, however, anti-Semitism was strongly opposed by the social élite, it could never rise to become a serious political threat. In other words, the chances of anti-Semitism becoming a serious threat essentially depends whether the social élite accepts, tolerates or opposes anti-Semitism. One of the main questions in Hungary today is whether there exist larger groups within the social élite which would be willing to wake the dogs of anti-Semitism and would be willing to undertake the dirty work of anti-Semitic intellectuals. This problem led us to conduct a research on the existence, strength and mobilizability of anti-Semitic prejudices among an important group of the élite, namely among Hungarian college and university students.

In December 1992, we conducted personal interviews with 1000 college and university students. The interviewees were chosen with a view to obtain a representative sample of Hungarian college and university students according to age, gender, place of residence and college/university type. We found that about 43 per cent of all respondents had no anti-Semitic prejudices, 32 per cent were inclined to accept prejudiced anti-Semitic stereotypes, 18 per cent were anti-Semitic and 7 per cent were extremely anti-Semitic. Grouping our respondents according to other criteria, we found that the ratio of militant anti-Semites was 3 per cent, while those who would be willing to openly take a stand against anti-Semitism was 20 per cent.

Our research showed that certain anti-Semitic views do indeed thrive among university and college students. The relatively low ratio of extreme and self-assertive anti-Semites and the relatively high ratio on non-anti-Semites would suggest that anti-Semitism has still not assumed alarming proportions among the students. Anti-Semitism, however, is a dynamic phenomenon and its danger primarily depends on the internal structure of anti-Semitic views and on its position within the set of views accepted by the group in question.

During our research we could distinguish two types of anti-Semitism among the young élite, one type dominating among students coming from families with a low social position, the other among students with a high social background. These two types of anti-Semitism differ markedly in terms of intensity, content and function, as well as in terms of the set of views in which they are embedded. The anti-Semitism of students coming from a lower social is stronger and is expressed in traditional prejudices, as well as in anti-Jewish and xenophobic views which reflect a downright rejection of the ‘stranger’.

We found the anti-Semitism of students from families with a high social to be less intensive and primarily directed against a rival group perceived as the ‘other’, with an obvious function to create a self-identity in group conflict situations. This type of anti-Semitism could be linked to political opinions and attitudes, and we found that it was most frequent among students who rejected liberalism and liberal views in general. This would suggest that an associative link between the anti-Semitic and the political code of group conflicts has already been forged. This blend of ‘low’- and ‘high’-class anti-Semitism is a dangerous combination already known from history: in a given situation, latent xenophobic prejudices can be effectively mobilized by the groups of the élite which express group conflict through political symbols.

While seeking an explanation for this anti-Semitism, we found that this anti-Semitism can be best explained by the students’ xenophobic attitudes. Xenophobic anti-Semitism is a direct descendant of traditional Christian anti-Judaism. The transition from anti-Judaism to modern anti-Semitism can be traced to the spread of secularization and rationalism. Medieval theological doctrines which defines Jews as an inferior group was succeeded by ideologies which conformed to the norms of the Enlightenment, but nonetheless retained their function of maintaining and legitimizing the Jews’ former social status and position. A critical turning point came with emancipation, the acceptance of the Jews into the community of citizens by the majority. From this time, the antagonism towards the ‘destructive Alien’ served to preserve the situation preceding emancipation under the new circumstances, with the function of upholding the medieval consensus on the pariah-status of the Jews and to enlist, if need be, mass support for the political forces that were determined to abolish the achievements of emancipation. Hungarian political and cultural anti-Semitism during the 19th and 20th centuries followed this pattern. The propaganda against emancipation centered either on the image of the Jew who was reluctant to assimilate or around the image of the Jew who, under the guise of assimilation, strove to colonize the country.

Our survey showed that Hungarian anti-Semitism has preserved this pattern. In contrast to post-war Western Europe, where anti-Semitism appeared in a form which could be cast in a ‘legitimate’ light even after the Holocaust – such as the denial of the Holocaust, anti-Zionism, refusal to shoulder responsibility for the persecution of the Jews, the debates over compensation and restitution –, anti-Semitism in Hungary is still centered on xenophobic anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism.

Although in terms of its content and structure, Hungarian anti-Semitism appears to be continuous, the ratio and role of Jews in present-day Hungary differs fundamentally from preceding periods. In contrast to the pre-war 4-5 per cent, Jews now make up less than 1 per cent of the Hungarian population. At the same time, Hungary is unique in that it is the single country not only in this region, but in all of Europe, which still has a sizable Jewish population. This fact can hardly be ignored in the analysis of Hungarian anti-Semitism.

According to one major trend in research on anti-Semitism, the actual number of Jews and their social position and status play no role whatsoever in the emergence of anti-Semitism. Suffice it here to mention one of the best-known examples: Adorno and his colleagues, Sartre and the various neo-Marxists trends concluded that anti-Semitism can only and exclusively be understood from a study of the anti-Semite. The function of anti-Semitism is the anthropomorphic venting of social frustrations among certain personality types.

Even though there has been a proliferation of studies on the authoritarian personality and the mechanism of creating scapegoats, it still seems that the purely projective theory of anti-Semitism is unsuitable for a satisfactory explanation of modern anti-Semitism. Most critiques of these views have noted that if the arguments proposed in these views are not complemented with historical elements, the actual choice of scapegoats could be incidental and in this case, the groups would be interchangeable in terms of their scapegoat function.

This is why another major trend in the theory of anti-Semitism – including Bibó’s renowned study – claims that modern anti-Semitism cannot be explained without an analysis of the historical situations characterized by group conflicts and social competition between Jews and Gentiles. These conflicts are ‘interpreted’ through anti-Semitic prejudices, leading to an accumulation of tensions which enable certain political forces to mobilize prejudiced groups.

One type of anti-Semitism which we detected among college and university students, namely xenophobic anti-Semitism, represents the continuously present substrate of anti-Semitic prejudices which can be traced to theological anti-Judaism. This type of anti-Semitism is apparently independent of the actual number and social role of Jews, and would no doubt be present to the same extent even if there were no Jews at all in Hungary.

In contrast, the anti-Semitic prejudices we found among student from a high social can hardly be divorced from the fact that in spite of the end of assimilation in the sociological sense, in certain situations Jews are regarded as a reference group both by Gentiles and by the Jews themselves. Among the young élite these prejudices are directed towards an ‘out-group’ which is perceived as a rival. and the dynamics of these prejudices are hardly independent of the interrelation between the groups in question.

The nature of the relation between Jews and Gentiles in Hungary will undoubtedly be strongly influenced by one specific change in the everyday interpretation of social phenomena which, together with other changes, will transform the group studied by us into a generation. Besides individualism, competitive thought and behaviour, and, to a certain extent, anomic anti-authoritarianism, the most important element in the common attitudes creating a ‘generational context’ is that ethnicity and ethnic belonging plays a conspicuously important role in orientation in political events and social conflicts than earlier. Most students regard the ethnic border drawn between ‘Jews’ and ‘Hungarians’ as self-evident, much more so than the older generations. While 70 per cent of the respondents in a national representative sample believed that Jews had characteristic and distinctive traits, 75 per cent of the respondents in the student sample claimed that there exist distinctive Jewish traits. Only 30 per cent of the respondents in the national sample said that Hungarian Jews did not have more in common with Hungarians than with Jews living elsewhere in the world, while this ratio was 35 per cent among the students.

This difference is even more striking in the case of ethnic attitudes: in contrast to the 23 per cent ratio of the national sample, only 9 per cent of the respondents in the student sample believed that people who keep track of who is Jewish is an anti-Semite, and in contrast to the 51 per cent ratio in the national sample (which also included respondents from the older generations), only 40 per cent in the student sample believed that those who would not marry a Jew are anti-Semitic.

Obviously, there are several reasons why ethnicity has become a generally accepted framework of reference for reflection about social and political issues among the young élite. This can, to a certain extent, be seen as a general phenomenon: sociologists studying attitude changes among generations have noted similar tendencies in Western Europe. The growth of ethnicity as a frame of reference in Hungary can no doubt be attributed to the unusual circumstances of the political changes, namely the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Eastern European alliance system, as well as the conflicts which followed in the wake of this collapse. The importance attached to the ideal of independence, the emergence of new states in Eastern Europe, the minority problems and emerging ethnic conflicts, the concept of Europe and the debates over ‘joining Europe’, the rapid collapse of the earlier collective identity – which was often fictitious and upheld by ideological means –, and, lastly, the new political élites’ search for an identity have created a new ‘social semantics’ in which ethnicity gradually assumed a self-evident meaning and role in drawing the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Well-intentioned attempts to re-define a collective identity based on various logical solutions which do not contain or even exclude ethnic elements will probably remain futile.

Another important point is also often neglected, namely that the vocabulary of ethnicity can be used in several ways. It is suitable both for the symbolic preservation of dominance relations and for their re-defining. The liberal and radical proponents of ethnocultural pluralism who have called for a re-interpretation of power relations, status differences and the conventional techniques of conflict management between ethnic groups also use the vocabulary of ethnicity. Ethnocentrism and ethnocultural pluralism are the two ends of the same continuum. The prospects of anti-Semitism in Hungary are largely dependent on towards which end of the continuum the future élite will move.

The spread of the vocabulary of ethnicity has created a new situation also for the Jews living in Hungary. The rise of ethnocentrism has understandably stirred up intense feelings of danger. However, ethno-pluralist arguments which encourage Jews to accept a Jewish collective identity – 28 per cent of the respondents in the student sample agreed that Jews should be regarded as a national minority – can also generate conflicts since it undoubtedly challenges the century-long policy of assimilation.

Even if the single criterion of a group is that it is regarded as such by the outside world, this is sufficient for creating behavioural and communication forms within the group – ranging from various defense strategies to efforts proving the ‘mistakes’ of the out-group and the concealment of signs which are perceived as being suitable for identification with the group –, which members of the group will eventually learn, practice and which will, in certain situations, make belonging to the group recognizable both to the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ world. The maintenance of the double – outward and inward – system of communication generates increasingly more tensions and becomes the source of increasingly more conflicts with the spread of thought in ethnic categories and the open appearance of anti-Semitism, and this, in turn, leads to incomprehension, antipathy and suspicion. This recognition triggered a process among the younger Jewish generation which was not unlike the one already noted by American researchers of ethnicity during the 1930s among the new, ‘native’ generations of immigrants who hoped for complete assimilation in the ‘great melting pot’, namely that the grandson wants to remember what the son was so eager to forget.

It is too optimistic to believe that the renewal of Jewish identity will magically solve all perceived tensions and eliminate anti-Semitism. It is a warning sign that Hungarian Jews are encouraged to accept their identity not only by the proponents of ethnopluralism – groups with anti-Semitic leanings also warmly support the Jews’ self-definition as a minority and the demand for a minority status. The reasons for this are painfully clear: insofar as Jews ‘admit’ that they form a national or ethnic minority which differs from the majority, the anti-Semites’ advice – which is ultimately based on the claim that ‘aliens’ should have no say in ‘Hungarian’ issues – that Jews should exercise self-restraint in occupying certain positions and voicing an opinion on certain issues becomes more marketable. The path leading from ethnic thought to racial policies is extremely short: one alarming indication is that 39 per cent of the respondents in the student sample agreed that Jews should only have as much influence on the future of the country as their overall proportion within the Hungarian population.

At the same time, Hungarian Jews also have to face serious conflicts if they decide to follow the ‘American’ path of organizing themselves into an ethnic group. Efforts for a Jewish ‘revival’ are viewed with growing distaste by those who adhere to the traditional assimilationist standpoint since they fear that – as a result of the declared programme of accepting a Jewish identity – they will be considered as Jews in situations in which they consider this to be irrelevant and, at the same time, they will be regarded as ‘bad’ Jews in certain other eyes, in spite of the fact that they tend to embrace their Jewishness.

Self-definition as an ethnic group also involves other conflicts. The interpretation of ethnicity as a modern phenomenon is based on the observation of social conflicts arising from competition between rival ethnic groups, such as the one between certain Jewish and Hungarian élites in the later 19th century. In these situations, the dominant ethnic group will strive to define the set of norms for ‘social acceptance’ by placing the rival group in a lower status – for example by defining the boundaries which separate ‘Hungarian’ from ‘aliens’. The discriminated group will concentrate its efforts on ‘re-defining’ these norms if they do not want to remain in this stigmatized role. As shown by examples from the US and Europe (e.g. blacks and Basques), their greatest chance in this is to organize themselves into a purely political interest group. The internal cohesion of this group is created by the emotions which are nourished by the expression of common origins in a symbolic form, i.e. by an ethnic identity. Herein lies the strategic efficiency of ethnicity as an organizing principle.

By accepting the liberal assimilation paradigm of the 19th century, Hungarian Jews concentrated their efforts on securing a foothold on the other side of the boundary, rather than on changing the definition of that boundary. The struggle against the anti-Semites who did not want to accept them was fought not by the Jews, but by the liberal proponents of assimilation. Today, however, if a small Jewish group decides to set out on the symbolic and institutional path leading to self-organization as an ethnic group, and promotes a programme of group integration instead of individual assimilation, they cannot leave the struggle for acceptance to political allies, but have to fight it themselves. This will undoubtedly provoke numerous conflicts in Hungarian society since most people still order their ideas about the Jews within the framework of assimilation. It is to be expected that as a result of these conflicts, élite groups will shift towards the extreme points of the continuum between ethnocentrism to pluralism. Although the direction and extent of this shift will ultimately depend on numerous other factors, but there can be no doubt that this shift – in both directions – will be the strongest among the younger generations.

One commonplace of sociology is that attitudes do not necessarily spur to and that anti-Semitic feelings do not necessarily engender political anti-Semitism. Neither is it predestined that people harbouring anti-Semitic prejudices will be organized into anti-Jewish political movements and parties as a result of radical social changes and crises. These circumstances are perhaps necessary prerequisites to political anti-Semitism – and can, in hindsight, offer a better understanding of the emergence of political anti-Semitism and the behaviour of various social groups once it has appeared on the scene. However, Nazism also needs Nazis. The Jews cannot be persecuted unless there are people who – irrespective of whether they personally hate Jews or not – feel that they can only achieve their political goals with an anti-Semitic policy. Once these appear in Hungary, they will find the vocabulary with which they can further their cause.