Hungarian Racism Goes Too Far

It is time for America to step back from our relationship with a government that promotes hate and keeps minorities segregated
A few weeks ago in November, a member of Hungary’s Parliament suggested the necessity of drawing up a list of Jews in government service. In his words, it is important to know how many public servants “are of Jewish origin…and who present a national security risk to Hungary.”  The problem is not that a fascist political party holds seats in the national parliament or that a few nuts make nutty statements.  Even in a country that in living memory sided with Nazi Germany, one cannot panic every time a single nut gets elected to Parliament.  The problem is that the comment went without immediate response from the larger political parties.  The voices of reason were slow to react.

This week, the racism in Hungarian discourse is again making international news.  Zsolt Bayer, a writer connected to Fidesz, the country’s governing party, commented in the press that “most Gypsies are unsuitable for co-existence, unsuitable for living among people…Gypsies are animals…”  Considering that many Hungarian Roma are old enough to remember being sent by Hungarian authorities to Nazi death camps, this sort of talk does not ring hollow.  To be fair, many politicians and important members of Bayer’s own party are lining up to condemn him.

But few are lining up to propose serious alteration to a system that creates the context for this sort of racial hate and division.  Roma, Hungary’s largest and poorest ethnic minority, suffer unequal access to education.  From cradle to grave, Roma face frequent discrimination and unequal treatment at the hands of state institutions.  Why do public figures like Bayer think that advocating ethnic cleansing is the new normal?  Because segregation is Hungary’s old and continuing norm.

The tone in Hungary is not accidental.  There are many in government who share responsibility for building a climate of racial hatred.  For example, Budapest's National Theater is run by an open racist, a member of the fascist party who likes to use language from the good old days.  He has called Israelis “lice-infested and dirty” and wants to keep "degenerate" foreign plays out of the theater.  Last summer, protests forced the cancellation of his plans to show a play set in World War I featuring "a group of powerful Jews plotting to destroy Hungary and plunge humanity into another world war."

In the end, it is the Roma who are weakest and most in danger and it is the government's approach to this minority that is most worrying.  The Hungarian government, like the European Commission, has for many years dumped significant money into Roma-related projects without putting a stop to the most obvious forms of discrimination.  There are scholarships to help a small cadre of young Roma go to university, while the vast majority does not even have the chance to attend desegregated, quality secondary schools.  Funding exhibits or conferences about tolerance while continuing to put most Roma in segregated schools, may buy off a few activists (and appease some international rights agencies) but it ignores the problem.  Worse, it shows the public that Roma are to blame.  The public sees money being spent and that the Roma are still poor; therefore, Roma must be simply unwilling to climb out of poverty.  The public does not recognize that the money was waste, a smokescreen.

The United States and other democracies committed to equality for people of all ethnic backgrounds should withdraw from our cozy friendship with Hungary.  Disinvesting from South Africa in the 1980s was not easy.  There were profits to be made and cultural exchanges to enjoy.  But many institutions and individuals kept hands clean and did not enjoy relations with a South African system that was oppressive and wrong.  It may be time for Americans to demand that our government and our portfolio managers step away from a country that too often does not debate how to end segregation but rather too often questions whether minorities are humans.

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