Europe and the Resurgent Politics of Ethnic Scapegoating

Critics say not even the mainstream ruling party in Hungary dares reject racism and homophobia for fear of alienating a crucial voting bloc -- the far right.

RTR2KQOM-615.jpgA supporter of the Hungarian radical right-wing party "Jobbik" demonstrates against what the party calls "gypsy crime." (Laszlo Balogh /Reuters)

While Europe's economic woes have lately dominated headlines, the lights on Rome's fabled Colosseum went dark Sunday to highlight an overlooked consequence of that crisis: rising xenophobia across Europe. In a statement last week, Rome's mayor described the symbolic act, planned to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as motivated, in particular, by "acts of anti-Semitism that are spreading in a disturbing manner in Hungary, prompted by the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party."

One of a number of far-right parties that have won greater representation in European parliaments in recent years while scapegoating minority groups, Jobbik is a self-described "radically patriotic Christian party"-- others describe it as "fascist," "Neo-Nazi," "racist," and "homophobic"-- which often makes headlines for anti-Semitic and anti-Roma outbursts.

The most surprising came in late November, when Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi stunned observers by calling for the creation of a list of Hungary's Jews, especially those in government, "who represent a certain national security risk." While this wasn't the first time that Jobbik has been accused of playing to anti-Semitic sentiments, this latest episode apparently went a step too far in a country where more than half a million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, often with the help of community lists used to round them up for deportation to Auschwitz. In a rare display of civic solidarity last month, a crowd of thousands gathered outside parliament for a demonstration against Gyongyosi's comments and a rising tide of hatred and extremism.

When I asked Gyongyosi what policy the party advocates to fix the situation, he responded with a half-formed idea for boarding schools to remove Roma children from their families' tangle of pathology.

Before his controversial remarks, Marton Gyongyosi was regarded as the educated, presentable face of Jobbik. In late September, I had the chance to interview him at length. We talked in his office, where outside the window a rose-orange sunset glowed above the Danube's gray waters. Gyongyosi, who looks the part of the well-mannered diplomat, casually brushed aside charges of anti-Semitism in his party. When I asked about a recent scandal involving a Jobbik MP who had been blackmailed over the discovery that his grandmother was Jewish -- an Auschwitz survivor -- Gyongyosi claimed he had not been pressured to resign because of the revelation about his ancestry, but because he had offered parliamentary funds to protect the secret (of course, the fact he felt compelled to do so would seem to refute Gyonyosi's denial).

Jobbik members have previously used homophobic or anti-Semitic stances to mobilize support, says David Vig of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in Budapest. But these did not prove as effective as preying off widespread, longstanding anti-Roma sentiment (the Roma -- or "gypsies" -- face discrimination across Europe and make up about six percent of Hungary's population). "Jobbik just found, very cleverly, the gap where they could get in," he said. The party's founder calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty to deal with "gypsy crime," and he also founded a party militia, the Hungarian Guard, which was outlawed as a threat to minority rights in Hungary.

Now Hungary's third largest party, Jobbik is a one-trick pony, say critics, which cynically exploits racism without offering any real policy to address the Roma's condition of social and economic exclusion. When I asked Gyongyosi what policy the party advocates to fix the situation, he responded with a half-formed idea for boarding schools to remove Roma children from their families' tangle of pathology -- just a starting point for discussion, he said. Gyongyosi sees Jobbik's role as putting "gypsy crime" at the forefront of public debate.

But rather than fostering debate, many see such Roma-baiting as contributing to a dangerous atmosphere of brewing hostility. Earlier that morning I sat among a handful of spectators in a Budapest courthouse when a side door opened and four men with tattoos and shaved heads filed out in handcuffs. Between each was a black-clad security escort in a ski mask. Dubbed the 'Death Squad,' the men were charged with six murders in a wave of grisly attacks against Roma communities, often flushing out targets with Molotov cocktails before gunning them down in front of their homes.

Hungary is home to a wide variety of extremist groups. Two of the Death Squad killers reportedly had contact with members of the Hungarian National Front, an anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma group that founded an annual international neo-Nazi event and regularly holds paramilitary training exercises on a former Soviet military base (including one last year in which its security forces practiced urban warfare against unspecified "enemies of our nation"). In October, the HNF published a propaganda piece entitled "Free Gaza: The Zionists Orchestrated the Holocaust."

Jobbik has tried to publicly distance itself from such groups in the past. But the nature of the party's intellectual bedfellows emerged during a Jobbik-organized rally in August in Devecser, a village in western Hungary. A Jobbik MP delivered the first speech, about the need to confront the problem of "gypsy crime." But the subsequent speeches from members of other groups turned increasingly threatening, according to a witness I interviewed, climaxing with a tirade from the leader of a group called Outlaws' Army (elsewhere he's called for the establishment of paramilitary camps to train Hungarian youth for an impending race war in Europe, and for the country's Jews to once again be shipped off in freight cars). "It was really like hearing Hitler," the witness said. Demonstrators eventually began chanting death threats and throwing stones at Roma houses, vowing to return.

The prime minister has remained notably silent on the issue -- evidence, say critics, that the country's governing party is tolerating hate speech from its members in order to court far-right voters.

When I asked Gyongyosi about Devecser, he talked for approximately six minutes about "gypsy crime." I told him what I meant was that a rally that had degenerated into a tirade of death threats and rock-throwing -- an international incident that made the party synonymous with neo-Nazi thugs -- must surely be bad press for Jobbik. If such actions don't reflect the party's core values, why had they not said as much?

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William Wheeler is a freelance journalist and an immigration-journalism fellow at the French-American Foundation.

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