Hungary’s far-right and the ‘Jewish ancestry’ slippage

Are far-right parties in Europe intentionally blurring the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

Hungary's far-right Jobbik party unveiled a statue of Miklos Horthy, who presided over the country's alliance with Nazi Germany, in Budapest [Reuters]

Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah in Hebrew), we commemorate the 6 million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust, as well as the millions of Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities, political dissidents and others who perished alongside them. The commemoration comes at a time when anti-Semitism, as well as Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, are on the rise.

In Hungary’s national parliamentary elections earlier this month, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party garnered about 20 percent of the vote. That makes it Europe’s second most successful far-right group.

As a Jew and anti-Zionist who has actively participated in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign (and co-founded the website Renounce Birthright), Jobbik’s recent political success has forced me to consider a contentious (and admittedly uncomfortable) question: Do anti-Semites sometimes exploit the language of anti-Zionism to shore up their ideas? And if so, what does that mean for the BDS campaign and the Palestine solidarity movement more broadly? 

Jobbik’s ‘anti-Zionism’

Since today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s begin with the years leading up to the “Final Solution”. When it was politically expedient, then-Hungarian ruler Miklos Horthy was one of Adolf Hitler’s most willing allies – nearly half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to the concentration camps under Horthy’s watch. So when a statue of the “Regent” was unveiled in Budapest in December 2013, and a Jobbik MP at the event commended him as “the greatest statesmen of the 20th century”, it’s unsurprising that Jews in Hungary and across the world got a little squeamish.

There was also that infamous moment in 2012 when the same Jobbik parliamentarian, Marton Gyongyosi, proposed that the authorities “tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government”, explaining that they “pose a national security risk to Hungary”. After the comments sparked significant controversy, Gyongyosi clarified that he had only been referring to the Hungarians who hold Israeli passports. But his words reveal the easy slippage between “Jew” and “Israeli/Zionist” – someone might say one when they really mean the other.

Gyongyosi’s justification for the proposed “Israeli” tally also reflects the continuing resonance of the long-held racial myth that Jews are disloyal citizens. The most notorious manifestation of this anti-Semitic idea dates back to the Dreyfus Affair, the very event that convinced one of the founders of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, that Jews would never be accepted in Europe on equal terms.

Then, when the (unapologetically Zionist) World Jewish Congress decided to hold its yearly assembly in Budapest in May 2013, Jobbik staged a protest, claiming that Israelis were trying to buy up the country. Calling it an “anti-Zionist, anti-Bolshevik” demonstration, Gyongyosi declared:

“The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale… [Hungary has] become subjugated to Zionism, it has become a target of colonisation while we, the indigenous people, can play only the role of extras.”

Gyongyosi’s description of an all-Jewish (oh sorry, “Zionist/Israeli”) cabal pulling the strings in Hungary positions Zionism as a totalising, almost phantom evil – in other words, a straw man for the far more complex political problems at play. It’s anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” repackaged in a seemingly more palatable language.

Unsurprisingly, Jobbik isn’t only anti-Jew – they are also notoriously anti-Roma and anti-gay.

Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

Just to be clear, I am not claiming that BDS or the Palestine solidarity movement more broadly is responsible for Jobbik’s revolting views. No anti-Semitic threat, whether present or past, real or imagined, warrants the ongoing colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. That is why I am proud to call myself a Jewish anti-Zionist.

Our hesitancy to accept that anti-Semitism can speak in the language of anti-Zionism endangers the BDS movement, but it also enables racists and imperialists to exploit Palestinians’ suffering to further their own political aims.

The example of Jobbik is important because it forces us to confront the fact that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not sealed ideological spheres – and that anti-Semitic appropriations of anti-Zionist discourse can actually impact Jewish communities. Responding to Jobbik is easy; I don’t doubt that 99 percent of Palestine solidarity activists would readily condemn the party if asked. The trickier question is how we grapple with the shades of grey, the less overt elisions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that are difficult to identify let alone resolve.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is how to describe the undeniably powerful political forces that oppose the BDS movement in Europe and North America and perpetrate apartheid in Israel/Palestine. How do we speak about the pro-Israel lobby, the Israeli and Western governments’ coordinated response to the BDS movement, without shoring up anti-Semitic stereotypes? Given that social movements require straightforward rhetoric, how do we account for political complexity and resist the creation of a Zionist straw man?

Jobbik also enables us to appreciate how complicated it is to oppose both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism simultaneously. For example, Neturei Karta, the Hasidic group frequently photographed at pro-Palestine rallies, recently attended a London rally in support of Jobbik. (Newflash: Jews can have anti-Semitic ideas). Should we be willing to march against groups like Jobbik if it also means marching against our allies? If anti-Semitic groups use anti-Zionist language to attack institutions like the World Jewish Congress, what exactly is the appropriate response?

BDS activists have long responded with a simple, four-word retort when they come under attack: “Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” But if a group like Jobbik can borrow that exact phrase as a means of explaining and justifying their politics, it is time for us to accept that the motto isn’t an absolute truth.

Question of anti-Semitism is not a distraction

This may sound counterintuitive, but we cannot prioritise the Palestinian struggle or Palestinian voices in our movement unless we confront our confusion about anti-Semitism.

Firstly, Jewish outlets have already linked Jobbik to BDS; the party offers all the “proof” the pro-Israel lobby needs that new anti-Semitism (eg, anti-Zionism) is a genuine threat. Accusations like these are the most constant and significant obstacle we face as a movement. Shouldn’t we be able to counter the critiques as effectively and honestly as possible?

Secondly, the implicit comparison Gyongyosi draws between the Zionist colonisation of Palestine and the so-called Zionist colonisation of Hungary is insulting. So are the totalising references to Zionist power I sometimes encounter in conversation with Palestine solidarity activists, which essentially disappear US and European neo-colonialism (eg, “the Zionist War on Islam”). Our hesitancy to accept that anti-Semitism can speak in the language of anti-Zionism endangers the BDS movement, but it also enables racists and imperialists to exploit Palestinians’ suffering to further their own political aims.  

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. After all, “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism” often means just that. But if we truly want to utilise the concept both effectively and morally, we need to develop a more nuanced analysis of the relationship between history, race, anti-Semitism and power. 

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. In memory of those who died in the Holocaust, in honour of those affected by Israeli colonialism from the Nakba to the present day, let’s take seriously our commitment to challenging racism and colonialism in all its forms.

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based independent journalist. She primarily writes about the intersection between the War on Terror and the prison industrial complex.