What if we faced the Palestinian Question in Europe?


Paul Kelemen looks at the rise of ethno-nationalism, particularly in Hungary, and the possible evolution of the position of Jews there should Orban remould his country according to his ideology.

He tries to imagine the response of the British government and the Anglo-Jewish community leaders to such developments, looking at how they have responded to analogous discriminations carried out by the Israeli state, since 1967, against Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.

The likely scenario is not an optimistic one.



The rise of ethno-nationalism in various parts of the world, generally led by right-wing populists, poses a particular threat to ethnic minorities. This is especially so in Hungary and among some of its neighbouring states which have directed racism mainly against Muslim refugees. But Hungary’s Viktor Orban has also stoked antisemitism.

Britain’s Jewish communal leaders have rebuked the Hungarian government for its antisemitism (though not for its Islamophobia) but even in that regard they have been unable to point to ethno-nationalism as its animating force. Their silence is readily explicable. If ethno-nationalism is right for Israel, however calamitous for the Palestinians, how can it be wrong for Orban or for that matter for Modi or Trump? The silence of communal leaders on the racism of right wing populist political leaders is the flip side of their absurd pretence that antisemitism is now driven by the left.

Hungary has a Jewish population of around 100,000, of which around ninety percent live in the capital, Budapest.  Of a pre-war Jewish population of 750,000, most of the Jews in provincial towns and many in the capital, in all about 440,000, were deported to Nazi Germany and exterminated. Several thousand more were killed in Hungary, by local fascists.  There remains to this day an active strain of antisemitism and anti-Roma sentiment in public life, organically linked to the ethnic nationalism currently espoused by the government headed by Viktor Orban.  He is in a long line of right-wing Hungarian nationalists claiming a national identity rooted in Christianity and in the land of ancestors stretching back a thousand years.  Jews and Roma, therefore, cannot belong to the nation but they can be citizens of the country.  In recent years, Orban has been spurring on his political base mainly by invoking the spectre of a sacred nation under threat, the frontline state in the defence of Western civilisation against the threat of Muslims overwhelming Europe as they flee the wars in the Middle East.  In the Orban government’s racism, antisemitism is generally thinly veiled, as in its attacks on Hungarian Jewish billionaire Soros. Soros, who sees liberal democracy as a steadying hand for capitalism, has provoked Orban’s ire, as that of Trump and Netanyahu, for channelling funds to liberal causes and human rights organisations.

Budapest’s Jews have therefore reasons to feel some unease but so far they have experienced no restrictions on their legal status, voting and property rights, access to housing, medical facilities, education, state employment and no attempt has been made to reduce the Jewish population’s size by, for example, preventing  marriage partners entering from abroad or exerting pressure for people to emigrate.  Nor are there any restrictions on Jews accessing synagogues or on their freedom of movement either in the country or across the borders. Around three-quarters of Budapest’s Jews are in middle class occupations and life expectancy among them, for both men and women, is well above the national average. But the security and relative wellbeing of Hungarian Jews could turn into a vulnerability.  Hungary’s right-wing populist government wedded to neoliberalism might take the calculated risk of departing still further from liberal democratic norms to harness popular discontent against Brussels for short term electoral gain.  Through political brinkmanship and miscalculation, this could lead to Hungary exiting from the EU. Released from Western European hegemony, exercised mainly through substantial EU subsidies, a right-wing Hungarian government would be free to act out its nationalist fantasies.  After all, in various forms, racist measures are now openly propagated by ethno-nationalist leaders around the world and Hungary has a tradition to invoke.  The first discriminatory measures against Jews were introduced in the Hungarian Parliament between 1920 and 1922, earlier than in Germany and contrary to self-serving nationalist accounts, not under German influence.   Confronting a recession and a restive population, Orban might be tempted to stoke antisemitism and, fuel it, by introducing legal and economic restrictions on Jews.

What discriminatory measures might he take?  Below, I set out an imaginary set of measures taken by an Orban government bent on remoulding the country according to its ethnic nationalist ideology.  To these hypothetical measures I will surmise the likely response of the British government and of the Anglo-Jewish community leaders, by drawing on their attitude to analogous discriminations carried out by the Israeli state, since 1967, against Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.

What if?

Budapest’s Jews are stripped of citizenship and declared to be merely residents of the city.  By consequence, Jews have no right to vote in national elections but can vote in the municipal ones. The right to residential status is, itself, made precarious by the periodic requirement to renew that right dependent on proving that the city is the ‘centre of the applicant’s life’.  This is demanded even from Jews who were born in Budapest and have lived there all their lives.  By this device, Jewish people’s lives hinge on possessing an ID card, that the authorities are known to revoke on the slightest pretext.  If a parent’s residency right is annulled this automatically extends to their children.  The residency right is made still more precarious by the Interior Ministry’s power to revoke it from those who stay outside the country for seven or more years, whether for study or work. Other measures aimed at reducing the city’s Jewish residents take the form of denying them ‘family reunification’:  spouses under the age of 35 (for men) and 25 (for women) without residential status will not be allowed to join their partners to live in Budapest. This is aimed at partners in the main procreating age group and forms one of several methods of demographic engineering. It is aimed at reducing the capital’s Jewish population.

The government also uses the distinction between citizenship and residence, for demographic engineering. It aims to alter ‘the ethnic balance’ of  capital in favour of non-Jewish inhabitants.  Thus, it encourages immigration from the 2.2 million Hungarians who live in neighbouring east European countries, a legacy of Hungary’s loss of territory as a result of ending up on the defeated side in World War 1.  Since a 2010 law, introduced by the Orban government, people with Hungarian ancestry living abroad are entitled to citizenship with the right to vote in national elections. So far, around 500,000 extra-territorial residents have taken up this offer. This has boosted votes for right-wing parties and is designed to further minoritise Jews living in Budapest. To this end, Hungarian immigrants are directed mainly to Budapest’s 13th district, where Jews, though still a minority, have the largest concentration.  Bulldozing old housing stock there and replacing them with new housing complexes that offer government subsidised accommodation to the overwhelmingly non-Jewish extra-territorial Hungarian citizens, is squeezing out Jewish residents from the area.  A new waste-to-energy plant, planned for this district, to which all of Budapest’s refuse will be transported, is aimed at inducing Jews in the professions to leave, thereby further fragmenting, depleting and disrupting the networks that support the community’s presence in the city. Particularly unsettling for Jewish residents are the on-going, unprovoked attacks on their properties by armed nationalist vigilantes, looking to squat in Jewish owned residences or shops in the tourist frequented, inner city.  Once established, they gain retrospective authorisation for their illegal seizures from the municipality or the courts, including the Supreme Court.

A range of discriminatory practices have been put in place using the different legal status of Budapest’s Jews and non-Jews.  For example, housing associations responsible for managing apartment blocks have the right to discriminate between those with full citizenship rights (non-Jews) and mere residents (Jews).  Jews can also be excluded from residences where the housing community feels that they will not fit in with its ethos.  Applications for planning permission by Jews, who want to make their accommodation more spacious, are rejected in almost every case by the local authority. Housing blocks or streets with predominantly Jewish residents are denied most municipal services, such as road repairs, refuse collection, street lighting and postal service. Jewish schools receive, per pupil, less than half the state support accorded to Christian ones and their curriculum is subject to close state supervision. The Hungarian education ministry keeps a particularly close watch on history teaching.  Funding is provided only for textbooks that reflect the official nationalist version. The Education Minister has ordered that texts discussing World War 2, must not refer to the Soviet troops’ overthrow of the Nazi occupiers and their local fascist collaborators, as ‘liberation’.   Jewish religious instruction is allowed but men under 50 years of age are banned from entering Budapest’s central synagogue, the largest in Europe.

Would there be protest?

All the discriminatory measures and harassment attributed above to a dystopian Budapest ruled by an ethnic nationalist Hungarian government are analogous to, but only a small fraction of, those practised by the Israeli state during more than five decades of its rule over the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem.  Thus assuming that both the British government and Jewish community leaders are committed to the universal application of human rights, and neither have renounced them, we can deduce from their stance on the discriminations and harassments  experienced by Jerusalemite Palestinians, how they would respond to the situation hypothesised above for the Jews of Budapest.

On this premise, the British government would be expected to condemn the Hungarian army demolishing Jewish housing blocks but, generally, to limit itself to pieties on the need for peace. The Foreign Minister would make public appeals to the two sides to resolve their political differences through bilateral negotiations while turning a blind eye to the imbalance of power between them.  British ministers would oppose calls from human rights campaigners to impose sanctions against Hungary.  They would, instead, seek ways to expand trade relations with Orban’s government, particularly in surveillance technology and armaments.  In response to domestic critics, they would plan to pass laws to prevent local authorities and other public bodies denying contracts to, or divesting from, companies that collude with discriminatory and repressive measures against Budapest’s Jews.  The British government is, reportedly, also considering sympathetically, recommendations by a group calling itself the International Association of Hungarians Abroad (IAHA), that it should issue guidelines on permissible criticisms of the Hungarian state, to avoid statements that may be injurious to the feelings of Hungarians living in the UK and thereby damage community relations.

Would Anglo-Jewish community leaders, by contrast, be outraged by the treatment of Budapest’s Jews described above and demand sanctions against Hungary?  No, not if the history of their position on Israeli human rights violations is anything to go by and it would be doing them a grave injustice to assume that they would not be logically and ethically consistent.  The Jewish Board of Deputies can be expected, therefore, to send out the odd tweet urging the Foreign Office to recognise Budapest as Christian Hungary’s eternal capital but to be largely silent on the fate of the city’s Jewry. They would avoid mentioning the house demolitions and armed attacks on Jews, while endorsing the position of the IAHA that criticisms of methods of ethnic cleansing are felt by Hungarians to be an attack on their identity and a denial of their right to self-determination.  Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, is likely to declare that Budapest is at last ‘united and at peace’ and talk of how heartening he found it to see, on his last visit to the city, Christian and Jewish children playing together.   He would post a video for his website, and against solemn background music, acclaim that unlike under the Ottomans, the Germans and the Russians, Orban’s rule has enabled people of all faiths to worship in freedom.

Dystopia is here and has been for some time.  We know who won’t speak out, but who will?

Paul Kelemen, the author of the acclaimed book The British Left and Zionism: History of a Divorce (2012)










Comments (5)

  • Ann Moller says:

    This analysis should be widely circulated.

  • Mr Philip Horowitz says:

    I think it unfair to wonder what people would do in certain cases and then give (for them) the answer which puts them in the worst possible light. I appreciate that the point being made is that this is how they DO respond to the Palestinian situation but it is still a little heavy handed.

  • RC says:

    The ‘dirty war’ of the Argentinian military junta 1976-83 was especially antisemitic in its choice of victims; according to the Guardian in March 1999 Jews were ‘over-persecuted’ by a factor of 12 – ie amongst the victims of this fascistic regime, Jews were over-represented 12 times. The case of Jacobo Timerman was widely covered at the time. This real history should in principle be more of a test-case for the British Zionist establishment than Kelemen’s well-written thought experiment. It has certainly been alleged that far from trying to oppose the persecution of Argentinian Jews, the Israeli state ignored their plight and concentrated on friendly relations with Videla’s junta – the more repressive the regime, the greater its demand for the instruments of repression which Israeli has long made a speciality of. I have not found out anything about the concerns or activities of the British Zionist establishment vis a vis the junta at the time. `More, I hope, to come. But surely the central point is the appalling history of Zionist persecution, theft and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians – activities condemned as Nazi by very many yishuv/Israeli commentators (including Hagana officers) from Ahad Ha’am in 1891 onwards.

  • Paul Kelemen says:

    RC highlights Zionist leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to antisemitism when it suits Israel’s interest and there is an element of that in Netanyahu readiness to pursue friendly relations with the current Hungarian government. I was trying to suggest, however, a different point, namely the racism and hypocrisy of successive British governments and of Anglo-Jewish leaders. Were they to be confronted by a government in Europe discriminating against its Jewish community, even to a small fraction of what the Palestinians are subjected to by Israel, they would not spare that government from condemnation. But it may well be that their ‘compassion’ would still not stretch as far as Latin America.

  • Simon miller says:

    An ingenious attempt to open our eyes to the long history of Palestinian oppression and discrimination, systematic and movingly detailed. It shows us how one-eyed repetitive culture and reportage can be. Needs and deserves wide distribution.

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