Hungarian Conservative

Chief Rabbi Tamás Róna: Jews in Hungary Are Experiencing a New Heyday

Rabbi Tamás Róna in the Nagykőrös synagogue in 2020
János Mészáros/MTI
‘I have been asked several times by foreigners whether there is systemic anti-Semitism in Hungary. My answer was clearly no. In fact, as a Hungarian Jew, I feel much safer here than in other parts of the world.’

In Western Europe and overseas, crimes against Jews are commonplace, while in Hungary the Jewish community is in its heyday, Chief Rabbi Tamás Róna, president of the Hungarian Jewish Prayer Association, told Index in an interview. The chief rabbi also talked about whether there is systemic anti-Semitism in Hungary, as is often pictured abroad, and why Israel and Hungary are becoming closer allies.

American historian David Nirenberg published an article in The Wall Street Journal calling the Hungarian prime minister an anti-Semite. You have denied the accusation in an open letter. Did you receive a reply?

Yes, it came surprisingly quickly, and I was delighted. I must admit that I did not expect a reply at all. I thought it would just be a letter in the essay writer’s inbox. David Nirenberg thanked me for my comments and my opinion of his essay. I feel we parted on good terms. I confirmed, as I did in my open letter, that I would be happy to be of service on any similar issue concerning Hungarian Jewry, both as a private citizen and as Chief Rabbi.

Occasionally, some Western authors accuse the Orbán government and the [Hungarian] Prime Minister himself of anti-Semitism. Why is that?

This is mainly a phenomenon in the Western press, although I have seen such articles written by Hungarian authors, who hold a very prominent position in the life of the Hungarian Jewry. One can look for faults, but why should one immediately run to the EU or the Western press to complain? The problem is that noisy, but often superficial and diminutive voices make their way into the international press, and in the absence of proper knowledge, incomplete and damaging articles are being produced. I have been asked several times by foreigners whether there is systemic anti-Semitism in Hungary. My answer was clearly no. In fact, as a Hungarian Jew, I feel much safer here than in other parts of the world.

Why is there no talk about anti-Semitism in the Western world, which is mostly manifested in anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism?

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the most serious anti-Semitic incidents of 2022 are linked to the UN and Kanye West. Today, the United States of America—which defines itself as an advanced Western society—is at the point where the UN and a rapper famous for his obscene lyrics are mentioned together. According to Kanye West, ‘every man has something of value that he put on the table, especially Hitler’. I would like to point out that in Kanye West’s country, at the UN headquarters, a document has been produced comparing Israel to the Nazis. Eight decades after the Holocaust, the UN is endorsing an attitude that delegitimises the Jewish state but legitimises Palestinian terrorism. I believe this is dangerous. In fact, according to a recent statistic, in Germany, four anti-Semitic attacks are carried out every day against our Jewish brothers and sisters. And in the USA, more than 60 per cent of religious crimes are committed against Jews. These are just some of the many figures.

How do you see the situation of Jews in Hungary? And what about French Jews?

Jews in Hungary are currently experiencing a new heyday. The Christian-Jewish dialogue is getting stronger. The sitting government has provided us with a lot of cultural and social support, especially in the last decade or so. For example, we recently published our Jewish faith textbook for sixth graders, and we are already preparing our next book for seventh graders. Or I could mention that a new wing has been built in the Mazsihisz Charity Hospital, and academic and cultural life has also received a lot of support.

But what is more important is that I have nothing to fear in Hungary because I am Jewish. That is priceless. Unfortunately, this is not the case in France.

It should be noted that the largest Jewish community in Europe lives there, about 500,000 people. France has a larger area and population than Hungary. We know from our studies of history that, thanks to the age of conquests, many peoples, religions and ethnicities live together there. This can also raise major tensions. The question is, how can such an open country protect its citizens? It is no secret that France has the highest crime rates and the most extreme anti-Semitic attacks are reported from there.

The European Union tried to have several joint statements condemning Israel adopted by the Member States. Hungary seems to be pursuing a policy of dissent in this respect as well. How do you see Hungarian–Israeli relations?

Benjamin Netanyahu is a politician of great stature. He has charismatically carried his plans through, despite the headwinds in the West. I think at the UN and in the EU they only look at the conflict in Israel and not the reasons behind it—that’s a serious problem. I believe Netanyahu can make a difference in this long-running conflict.

I am not a political scientist, but as I see it, Hungary is getting closer to Israel. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Netanyahu’s policies are very similar to those of the Hungarian Government, and secondly, the region is an excellent geopolitical partner. But most importantly, many Holocaust survivors left Hungary and made aliyah, or emigrated to Israel. Many moved back to be reunited with their families and regard both countries as their homeland. I think that these almost 80 years mean a strong Israel, a strong bastion for us, and Hungary is an excellent ally in that.

The Russo-Ukrainian war has been going on for almost a year. Ukrainian President Zelensky is fondly portrayed by the Western world as a Jewish hero who stops the Russian bear. Yet Israel is not a fan of the Ukrainian president. Why is that?

It reminds me of the film titled Spider-Man when Aunt May says: everyone needs heroes. It is true that virtually every community now wants to turn Zelensky into a sort of a hero. Of course, so do the Jewish communities in the West, because the President has Jewish roots. Nevertheless, I think that Israel has had and has its heroes, who are defending their home, their homeland and their faith at this very moment. They do not need heroes who may be acting for a good cause but bringing the same destruction as their enemies. There are no heroes in this fight, only losers. Zelensky should be a hero regardless of his Jewishness.

‘I have been asked several times by foreigners whether there is systemic anti-Semitism in Hungary. My answer was clearly no. In fact, as a Hungarian Jew, I feel much safer here than in other parts of the world.’