The Canadian delegation that attended the World Jewish Congress (WJC) plenary in Budapest May 5 to 7 remains concerned about virulent racism in Hungary.
Based on what they saw and heard from Hungarian officials, Jewish Hungarians and Roma Hungarians (pejoratively known as Gypsies), members of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) say there is an urgent need to stem the tide of antisemitism and antiziganism, prejudice against Roma people, now spreading through much of central Europe.
Hungary is home to some 100,000 Jews.
The WJC this year held its annual assembly outside of Israel for the first time, in a show of support for Hungarian Jewry, which suffered dozens of antisemitic attacks in 2012.
Speaking to The CJN after the plenary, Sara Saber Freedman and Moshe Ronen, CIJA’s executive vice-president and board member respectively, both said they plan to mobilize more support for Hungarian Jews and Roma through Ottawa and by conducting cross-cultural outreach at home.
“Unfortunately, [the racism] happening in Hungary is not exclusive to Hungary,” Saber Freedman said. She noted that Jobbik – Hungary’s antisemitic, ultranationalist party that currently holds 17 per cent of the seats in Parliament and runs paramilitary organizations that terrorize Jews and Roma throughout the country – is not the only “noxious” party currently operating in Europe.
Others include Greece’s Golden Dawn party and the Ukrainian ultranationalist party Svoboda.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed the plenary on May 5, calling for a ban on antisemitic displays and protests in his country and remarking on Hungary’s rich Jewish history.
“What I understood Orban to say was that the Christian nation of Hungary has an obligation to ‘be good’ to minority communities,” Saber Freedman said. “I contrasted that with the statement the French foreign minister [Alain Juppe] made after the attacks last year on the Jewish school in Toulouse. [Juppe] said an attack on a French Jew is an attack on the republic.”
CIJA wanted to hear Orban address the plenary in a similar vein, Saber Freedman said. “We really felt Orban’s speech left a lot to be desired.”
But Orban has also spoken in the past of preserving Hungary as one of the last “strongholds of Christianity” and hasn’t distanced himself from his friend and Fidesze party co-founder, Zsolt Bayer, a noted antisemitic and anti-Roma writer and pundit.
Ronen said the WJC conference site was “heavily protected” by a massive police and security presence.
Saber Freedman said CIJA’s plans now include research into whether the Canadian Criminal Code, specifically the laws related to incitement to violence and hate speech, might serve as a template for amending Hungarian law to help curb hate crimes.
“That’s the direction the European communities are working on… trying to control these extremist parties,” she said.
Additionally, Saber Freedman noted that a talk at the plenary given by a Hungarian Roma community representative made it clear that “there is a strong partnership” between the Roma and the Jewish communities, stemming from shared xenophobic incidents.
Asked whether CIJA plans to work with the Roma community in Canada, Saber Freedman said it was “too early to say. Once we’ve done our debriefing, we’ll look at what the appropriate next steps are.”
Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, said “words cannot express” how thankful her community is for the Canadian Jewish community’s ongoing support.
“We have had such intertwined histories in Europe, that we are natural allies. We have a common enemy, hate. People that have not been targets of this murderous hatred will never understand the fear that hides within our [communities’] hearts,” she told The CJN.
There are an estimated 15 million Roma scattered across Europe, all of varying faiths, including some Jewish Roma.
Depending on estimates, anywhere from 500,000 to two million Roma were murdered along with six million Jews as part of Hitler’s “final solution.”
Csanyi-Robah added that she hopes her community can become “even one-tenth” as organized as the Jewish community one day.
“It is way too easy to conquer us when we remain oppressed and divided, and [Roma] communities around Europe are in chaos while under attack,” she said.
In the wake of what was heard at the WJC plenary, North American Jewish organizations are watching Orban’s government closely. Last Tuesday, the heads of several major North American Jewish groups, including WJC and the Jewish Federations of North America, called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to confront Hungarian officials about the “alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary.”
“Given the growth of hatred against Jews and other minorities (particularly the Roma) in Hungary, we urge you to keep the issue of intolerance and discrimination squarely on the US-Hungarian bilateral agenda,” the organization leaders urged. “We also encourage you to raise the matter personally in your direct dealings with Hungarian officials.”
The letter came just two days after the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community’s umbrella federation, the Mazsihisz, resigned over accusations that local Jewish leaders had failed to challenge Orban’s statements on anti-Semitism at the WJC plenary.
Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird phoned WJC President Ronald Lauder, CIJA reported, and in a 10-minute conversation, Baird congratulated Lauder for his work and for WJC’s activities.
Recent reforms to Canada’s immigration system have made it harder for Hungarian Jews and Roma to seek asylum in Canada.
Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, has long proclaimed that Hungarian Roma have been abusing Canada’s immigration system for years.
CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel said he will meet with Baird this week to discuss the situation in Hungary. CIJA also sent a formal letter to Kenney to press the government on the issue.
Hungary has recorded a growing list of human rights infractions since the early 2000s. On Jan. 28, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Hungary violated the European Convention on Human Rights by segregating Roma schoolchildren into special needs schools without grounds. And a 2011 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Canada report detailed cases of forced sterilization of Roma women in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia between 2000 and 2011 and called for increased state accountability in honouring the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Meanwhile the Jobbik party openly calls for legislation against Jews, Roma and other ethnic minorities; it has pushed to create a list of Jews in positions of power, claiming they’re a potential threat to the country; Swastikas and other Nazi symbols can be found at its gatherings, and its semi-official military wing – despite being outlawed – continues to exist.
With files from TimesofIsrael.com and JTA.