The other day I went to a prestigious German small town where I attended the opening ceremony of an exhibition entitled ‘Jews in Wittenberg.’ But the whole thing wasn’t about Jews, it was about Anti-Semites. The pictures showed some local Nazis transporting Jews to Auschwitz. For centuries there was an active Jewish community in the city. After I talked to the organizers, I understood that they wouldn’t even think about showing aspects of Jewish life. Judaism means for most Germans our non-existence in the Holocaust, and today’s Anti-Semitism.
The same goes for Hungary. I can’t forget the awkward feeling when I saw in Budapest for the first time the participants of the March of the Living, remembering the victims of the Shoah: I asked myself, where are these 100,000 people, many non-Jews, when it’s about the positive side of Judaism? But not only the non-Jewish Hungarians fall into this trap: the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Congregations still does not understand that their official website shouldn’t have eight times as many uses of the term ‘Holocaust’ as of the word ‘Torah’ and why they should not operate fundraising campaigns with Holocaust survivors’ images. Why does the Hungarian government only support Holocaust themed museums and does not support Jewish NGO’s? Thanks to these people, who should have worked for the cultural and religious renaissance of the local Jewry, there is a very large group of Jews who is able to list all the death camps by name, but are no longer sure whether Egypt was hit by seven or ten plagues.
The philosopher Martin Buber never discussed the Shoah in his works. In his words, the Holocaust is not a problem of the Jews but of Anti-Semites. Buber understood that the Holocaust is neither the beginning nor the end. Of the thousands of years of Jewish history, the Holocaust covers only five. Don’t get me wrong, we must thoroughly research and understand it, this black spot in the history which can hardly be compared to other genocides. We have to remember and remind ourselves, and we can have exhibitions entitled ‘Jews of our town in the 3rd Reich’. But we should not push people to associate the word ‘Jew’ with the word ‘victim’!
In fact, psychologically it’s much easier to bind us to the Holocaust than to the positive side of Judaism – but this obsession with the Holocaust makes us abandon our Jewish identity. The preoccupation with the Shoah, paradoxically, lets Hitler win. I see the same problem in the Anti-Semitism appearing again and again in studies and surveys, like the present one by the New York Times: after many articles published on the situation of the Hungarian Jewry, one of the most influential newspapers in the United States started an open survey to ask Hungarian Jews about their experiences with Anti-Semitism.
Fear of the privileged
A few weeks ago an online survey about Jewish communities financed by the European Union was conducted in eight of its member states. The conclusion: Europe’s Jews are afraid. They are afraid of Muslim immigrants. They are afraid of the far right. At the same time, the rabbi in charge of interfaith relations in Berlin explains why Jews should avoid people of color, calling out no-go-areas for us. I live in one such no-go-area and I talked with Osama, my hairdresser, and with my Israeli neighbors about this statement. We were a little bit amused, then ashamed, and finally anxious.
The mentioned online survey was also conducted in Hungary. The results were devastating: many Jews reported an increasing level of Anti-Semitism. At the same time, scientific research by the well-known Hungarian sociologist András Kovács made clear that there were no increasing Anti-Semitic feelings among non-Jewish Hungarians in the past decades. They have just became more visible in recent years since the far-right party Jobbik got into parliament and thus anti-Semitic discourse became semi-legal.
But are honest Anti-Semites less dangerous? Being aware that the whole twentieth century was defined by three Jews (Marx, Freud and Einstein) and that the Jewish state possesses nuclear weapons (and its main ally holds the world’s largest weapon arsenal), and that the mainstream media adores the Jewish community, one can no longer say that ‘the Jew’ is weak. It is no longer ‘the Jew’, who you can kick without getting punished. These are middle and upper class people living in good financial circumstances who are not at all discriminated against and are barely exposed to violence – unlike people of color, the poor and the homeless.
In 2007, the (Jewish) Anti-Defamation League reported 1,500 Anti-Semitic incidents in the US: according to the Israeli movie Hashmatzah the most serious of these cases was that some Jewish employees had to work on Jewish holidays. Meanwhile, in the same country a black person is killed every week with a gun bought at the local supermarket because ‘from his hood you couldn’t see his face, and, well it’s better to be safe, isn’t it?’ The same goes for Hungary: sure, many of us, including me, experienced Anti-Semitic verbal incidents, but there have hardly been any reports on Anti-Semitic violence in the past decades – at the same time entire Roma families are killed in the countryside by white-supremacists.
Some idiotic Hungarian compatriots may paint a swastika on the wall of a synagogue, erect a bust of Miklós Horthy, the Nazi-allied leader of Hungary, or call me in the middle of the street a “JEW!”, however that will not put the Hungarian Jewry in such a bad situation as the main discourse might suggest. Furthermore, we have to note that after each of these actions, the governing conservative Fidesz party representing the vast majority of Hungarian citizens immediately stands up for the Jews. At the same time the law forbids homeless people to live on the streets, local administrations leave Roma in extreme poverty, the country has a 13% unemployment rate and LGBTQ rights are not even a topic for discussion. I wonder when the New York Times will also ask these vulnerable people about their thoughts.
Leave me alone!
At the age of 16 my father brought me to a Holocaust memorial event in the city of Kaposvár, in South-Hungary, where my parents are originally from. I realized that day that I’m Jewish. This didn’t mean anything to me besides the Holocaust and fear until I moved to Budapest. There I found balance, the alternative that showed the positive side of Judaism for instance in the educational events at Limmud and the Sim Shalom Progressive Jewish Congregation. My story is very typical for the area I come from and fortunately there are many more people who try to do something about this situation: in Hungary, the Bálint Jewish Community Center and its circle, and the progressive Jewish religious communities show a way out for many of the Holocaust-traumatized Jewish people of all ages. On an international level, the positive identity building programs of the Moishe House network attract a lot of youngsters, and the Limmud can get tens of thousands of participants each year to think and talk about Jewish tradition and the future. Yes, there is an alternative to the concept ‘Jews equal Holocaust and fear’.
‘Where Jewish education is neglected, the whole content of Judaism can reduce to merely an awareness of Anti-Semitism. Judaism then ceases to be a civilization, and becomes a complex.’ – said Mordechai Kaplan, philosopher-rabbi. We, Jews who are open to the world, have to fight against this phenomenon, the arts and industry of fear, through helping those who are indeed in danger and through the introduction of our Jewish and non-Jewish fellows to the thousands of years of a wonderful and rich world, called Judaism.