A Hungarian Jewish novelist meets the challenge of being different in difficult times

Gabor Szanto is a Hungarian novelist, short story writer, poet, translator and cultural entrepreneur whose Jewish identity informs all that he does. A key figure in the revival of Jewish life in Hungary post-1989, Szanto is the founding editor of Szombat (Sabbath), a Jewish political and cultural monthly, a periodical that is as ready to do verbal battle with the country’s less than perfect political establishment as it is to take to task what has often been a very reactionary Jewish establishment. Hungary’s Jewish population numbers between 80-110,000, although only a relatively small percentage is actually engaged in Jewish religious or cultural activity. That Szanto has succeeded in keeping Szombat alive and vibrant over two decades is both a testament to his perseverance and his realistic optimism about the future of Jewish life in Hungary.

The political pendulum has swung back and forth in Hungary since 1989, with social democrats vying with right-wing nationalists for ascendancy. The current rightist government of Viktor Orban is particularly illiberal, anti-democratic and unfriendly towards all minority groups in Hungary. Anti-Jewish innuendo is apparent once again in the public space, just as it was after 1989 when Istvan Csurka’s Magyar nationalist party, MIEP, was gaining popularity and feeding fears that antisemitism would become an influential factor in Hungarian national politics. Today it’s the far-right Jobbik party that leads the way in smearing Jews. And Orban’s Fidesz party has done nothing to distance itself from this. Rather it co-opted Jobbik-type rhetoric so that it could appeal to growing far-right opinion in Hungary.

In spite of these developments, Szanto continues in his quest to carve out a space for Jewish culture and thinking in mainstream Hungarian society. He explained something about the conditions in which Jewish life operates in an interview he gave to a Hungarian website based in Canada in 2008. Here are a couple of excerpts from it:

Interviewer: Since the collapse of the so called ‘socialist’ regime in 1989, anti-Semitism has surfaced and is more and more apparent in Hungary. Unlike Germany the Holocaust here is not regarded as a national trauma. If I may make a point: Hungary is almost unique in the world in that it simultaneously tolerates (or permits) open anti-Semitism and a blossoming Jewish culture. Isn’t that very bizarre? Isn’t that, using Nietzsche’s expression, ‘living dangerously’?

Gabor Szanto: Some say the anti-Semitism had a huge impact on the Jewish ethnic revival. . . But more seriously, there definitely is antisemitism, and it is tolerated in the media of the political right. It is trendy among youngsters to be on the radical right. It is a kind of rebellion against the mainstream. Jewish and Hungarian coexistence in the past 100 years has been analyzed in several of my essays. People in Hungary are not conscious enough about the historical past, including the Shoah. One of Hungary’s major neuroses derives from the two World Wars: the loss of two-thirds of the territory of the country after World War I. Hungarian identity is also very fragile. There is a minority complex, a constant fear that the nation will disappear . . . On the other hand, Jews also have a fear of the ‘Other’, because of the traumas of the Shoah and because of the fragile Jewish identity. People with fragile or no identities, desperately need the ‘Other’ to create an enemy to be afraid of. By comparing themselves to this ‘Other’, they can try to recreate their own identity on the remnants of their ‘original’ identity.

I: Do you see any future for Jewish youth in Hungary?

GS: After the Shoah European Jewish life can never be the same as before. After the Communism it is also very difficult to start Jewish life. But each generation brings about people who take up the intellectual challenge of individual thinking, of being different, even in spite of difficulties.

You can read the full interview here.

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