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We Asked: How is Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in Hungary? (an Interview with Soma Ábrahám Kiss and Bernáth Lackó

Most political parties and other actors of the political landscape, significant or niche, openly support the Israeli narrative and there are barely any public figures that condemn the oppression of anti-war protests and opinions in public statements, unless they are asked directly to do so.  On Hungary’s political palette, it is mainly the small and marginal leftist organisations that support peace or the Palestinian people.

Police confront the two people who showed up for the banned demo on October 13, as well as 3 bystanders. Photos: Dániel István Alföldi.

Since the launch of Hamas’ Operation Floods of Aqsa and Israel’s bombardment of besieged Gaza, Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists in Europe have been facing unprecedented censorship, policing, harassment, arrests, gag orders, and threats. In compiling several reports from leftist activists in various locations in Europe, we aim to alert activist communities across our region to the oppression that Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activism are facing. We also aim to show that this pattern of oppression relies on heavily exaggerating already-existing racist practices such as racial profiling and anti-migration policies, as well as activating racist institutional practices such as police intimidation, arrest, and harassment. While these practices are not new, the scale at which they are multiplying is alarming. This piece on the case of Hungary has been solicited via the Hungarian left platform Mérce within the framework of the ELMO – Eastern European Left Media Outlet cooperation.

— The LeftEast Editorial Board

What is happening in your country regarding suppression of pro Palestinian expression or protest? What are the stances of the government and police?

In Hungary it’s impossible to separate these two questions. The police explicitly banned all expression of solidarity with Palestinian people or Palestine, even demonstrations for peace – as of today, all eight (Oct. 13., Oct. 14., Oct. 20.,Oct. 25., Oct. 29., Nov. 1., Nov. 22. Jan. 13.) banned demonstrations were promoted as peace demos. However, neither wearing a keffiyeh, or putting up Palestinian flags (e.g. in windows) are banned, nor any specific speech or phrase. It’s worth knowing that the first police ban came after prime minister Viktor Orbán said this on state radio: “here one can’t stage a demonstration expressing sympathy for terrorist organisations, because that in itself would pose a terrorist threat to Hungarian citizens. So let’s forget that. This isn’t the time or place for that, we won’t grant any permission for it, and we – the Government – will make use of our legal rights.”

But it is not only the government that mixes peace demos together with support for terrorism. Days after Orbán’s statement, opposition politician Gergely Karácsony, lord mayor of Budapest,  stated that there is no place for demonstrations supporting terrorist groups in the city – implicitly suggesting that the peace demonstrations being planned would support Hamas and acts of terrorism. Neither he nor any other elected officials have raised their voices against the bans.

The police uses the same language to confuse peace demonstrations with support of terrorism. Every time it bans demonstrations, the police authorities issue the exact same interpretation of their decision: “Not in support of terrorists! The Budapest Constabulary banned another assembly connected to the appeal of Hamas.”

It’s important to point out that neither state nor municipal governments have the right to interfere with police decisions, and according to the rights of free speech and the assembly of citizens, under normal circumstances the police could only register the demos and ensure that there are no atrocities. There are only a very few exceptions, including the imminent danger of a protest becoming violent – and the police authorities are using this regulation as an excuse for the ban in the current case. All this has happened despite the fact that all eight protests planned to date were explicitly pro-peace and against terrorism, whether state or paramilitary.

How is pro-Palestinian expression being defined as pro-terrorist and are there other forms of protest (eg. antifascist for one) that are being targeted as well?

It is not only the government and Karácsony that are supporting the Israeli agenda, but almost the entire opposition as well. On October 25th the Parliament passed a resolution condemning the terrorist acts of Hamas, but not the war crimes of Israel – they  openly supported the military actions on the Gaza strip as the right of Israel to self-defence against terrorist and paramilitary groups.

This same resolution also conflates terrorism and terrorists with refugees and migrants, who in Hungary have been the main targets of the extreme-right governmental state propaganda for the last eight years. The resolution reads: “the large numbers of people, including terrorists, proxies of Hamas and other terrorist organisations, who are allowed into Europe without any controls, represent a direct and serious risk to the security of European citizens and the continent. This is a direct consequence of an irresponsible and misguided migration policy.” As it continues, the resolution states that Hungary has always fought terrorism, “and has treated members of these organisations as terrorists even when it did not allow them to enter its territory.”

All Hungarian MPs either voted yes or abstained with regard to the resolution, except for two: Előd Novák, the MP of far-right Our Homeland Party, and Ákos Hadházy, an independent liberal. The former probably voted no for antisemitic reasons, while the the latter did so to avoid anti-migrant state propaganda – while still expressing support for “Israel’s right to self-defence.” Most liberal or centre-left MPs voted yes, including András Jámbor, a member of the self-identified “system-critical” Szikra (Spark) movement.

We also contacted the various parties of the parliamentary opposition. The green-center-left Párbeszéd (Dialogue) party told us that it condemns the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) aggression against civilians and demands Hamas release hostages. Jámbor (of Szikra) told us he agrees with the Biden administration and calls on the IDF to restrain itself from enacting atrocities. The green LMP (Politics Can be Different) and liberal Momentum parties condemned both the Israeli military atrocities and Hamas’ actions. All the above parties condemned the categorical ban on peace demos, except Momentum. The liberal MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) and DK (Democratic Coalition) parties did not respond to our inquiry.

Most political parties and other actors of the political landscape, significant or niche, openly support the Israeli narrative and there are barely any public figures that condemn the oppression of anti-war protests and opinions in public statements, unless they are asked directly to do so.  On Hungary’s political palette, it is mainly the small and marginal leftist organisations that support peace or the Palestinian people.

How do you see the public discussion, and the level and quality of media reporting? What are the key and-or critical points?

The Hungarian media is highly polarised. State media channels are under strict governmental control, so they openly echo Israeli propaganda about the war, mixing up issues of terrorism and migration and channelling racist messages and propaganda to the public. The government-affiliated media basically does the same on the internet, television, radio, and print formats.

Non-governmental media has a more pluralistic reach, however. Most liberal media outlets are more or less in line with the Western – mostly Anglo-Saxon – liberal media, but there are exceptions. Some liberal online news portals publish articles about Israeli war crimes alongside the pro-Israel viewpoints, so there’s space for bit more balanced approaches there. But in radio, print, and television there’s little space for pieces that are not in support of Israel.

It’s also worth knowing that the biggest theoretically independent media conglomerate in Hungary, which runs, among other platforms, the popular ATV television and Spirit FM radio are owned by a charismatic neo-Protestant church with close ties to the government. In many cases they offer space for counter-governmental opinions and offer critique of the government’s operations. Yet in this case, and with regard to topics related to the Middle-East more generally, they are in line with the state media – if not even more extremely supportive of Israel.

There is an overwhelming majority of supporters in both the media and public opinion for Israel’s military solutions and oppressive policies against Palestine and Palestinians. Supporters of these views speak as if occupying some kind of moral high ground, often axiomatically calling supporters of other views antisemites or terrorist sympathisers.

How are groups managing to express sophisticated analysis of the situation that both supports Palestinian self determination and avoids antisemitism?

The protest organisers are mostly invisible and are for the most part loose groups made up of individuals of Palestinian origin. One organiser is a member of the Hungarian Muslim Defence League. The Embassy of the State of Palestine in Budapest has been sympathetic with the organisers and has openly expressed its support for the planned peace demonstrations. Despite the very limited appearance of the protest organisers in other media, they have explicitly stated at official police hearings as well as in the media – namely in our articles, e.g. here – that they do not support Hamas, terrorism, or antisemitism.

There’s an old reflex on the Hungarian liberal-left political scene to fight every form of antisemitism  – in which they’re right. This political community traditionally has close ties to Mazsihisz, once the main representative organisation of the Hungarian Jewish community, which supports Israel. Mazsihisz recognises the difference between antisemitism and antizionism, yet it condemns the latter too and does not support Palestinian independence, therefore taking a pro-Israeli stance. The Fidesz government, strongly supports – and has close ties to – another organization, the ultra-conservative and extremely pro-Israel United Hungarian Israelite Congregation (EMIH), and has also been a very strong ally of Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing for more than a decade.

So, while the ruling Fidesz is never timid about using antisemitic symbols and rhetoric (seen, for example the anti-Soros campaign), it exists in symbiosis with EMIH, which lends legitimacy to its actions and politics. On the surface Fidesz always stands on “the side of Jews,” and legitimises governmental policies with this stance. According to government propaganda, for example, Hungary is safe for Jews because it (supposedly) doesn’t let refugees (i.e. migrants) into the country. And as mentioned above, in its interpretation of the war on Gaza, government propaganda conflates Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism with “migrants,” designating them all extremely dangerous.

Further in line with Israeli narratives, the government designates all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and every critic as an antisemite, conflating antizionism with antisemitism. This is a trap for other organisations and individuals because when the officially recognised and powerful Jewish organisation, the EMIH, denounces them as antisemitic it’s very difficult to wash off, if even possible at all. So – in part because the Middle East, Israel, and the Gaza war aren’t crucial topics when it comes to Hungarian domestic politics – there’s little effort put into questioning the hegemonic narrative that washes away the distinction between antisemitism and antizionism. This effort is carried out by marginal organisations with little impact – like Mérce, for example.

It is important to see that in Hungary, antisemitism has been very closely related to anti-Israel stances on the political level. Old school far-right antisemitic parties (e.g. MIÉP, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party; Jobbik, Movement for a Better Hungary; and Mi Hazánk, Our Homeland) have been keen to use the Palestinian people as an example of the victims of a “global Jewish conspiracy to enslave inhabitants of free countries.” All this is – of course – just plain objectification of the Palestinian cause to support their hideous political views, which have basically been the same since political antisemitism was born at the end of the 19th century – long before the conflict in Palestine. This far-right narrative has always depicted Jews as being over-represented in influential jobs (e.g. journalism, political decision-making, etc.) and in the 20th century led to a number of antisemitic and dehumanising laws of interwar Hungary (including a numerus clausus limiting the number of Jews in the universities already in 1920), and the Holocaust.

Antisemitism was present in Hungary even before the collapse of the Stalinist bloc, but it was mostly banished from public discourse here for more than four decades. After the political changes of 1989, this hateful ideology resurfaced, first as part of public speech, then – with dismal rapidity – in political speech too. For decades, openly antisemitic parties were small and isolated. The only time an antisemitic party aimed for a governing majority – Jobbik in 2018 – it had to ritualistically abandon its racist/antisemitic stances. All for the sake of gaining international political legitimacy once in power.

Fidesz’s trajectory has been similar. Having set up camp in the mostly empty centre-right position in the mid-90’s, Fidesz quickly adopted the traditional right-wing narratives too, which – as a package – contained a kind of soft antisemitism. Never wanting to fully drop this handy feature explicitly, the party embraced a friendship with Israel when it faced a real challenge from the then strong and still openly antisemitic (and anti-Roma) Jobbik party. Fidesz’s move was clever, because – as mentioned above – the general public in Hungary doesn’t really care much about Middle Eastern politics, yet the international community saw this as Fidesz distancing itself from an unacceptable kind of the right-wing politics. The strategy “paid off” later too. When large numbers of refugees from the Middle East or of of Muslim origin arrived in Europe, Fidesz could act as the “defender of the Jewish community” in Hungary against the “migrant hordes,” while antisemitism of a traditionally right-wing nature could be blamed on those parts of the left working in solidarity with refugees. Since hatred towards brown-skinned migrants remains one of Fidesz’s most successful political products, embracing the pro-Israel stance can be acceptable even for a number of far right-leaning voters too, given the fact that most of the Jewish people they encounter are white, and at least somewhat part of historical Europe.

Nevertheless, even in this environment there are still groups that support peace and the right of Palestinians to a state. The Hungarian branch of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion supports peace and Palestinian independence, for example, while explicitly stating that it does not support the massacre of civilians on either side of the conflict. The Hungarian section of International Marxist Tendency openly supports Palestine and Palestinian independence, referring to their struggle as a liberation fight.

Our online media outlet Mérce has published several analyses of the situation since October 7th. While we condemned antisemitism and terrorism, our articles have often designated as antisemitic by right-wing organisations and militant pro-Israeli organisations, as well as others. Our partner page Tett has also published pieces on the situation in Gaza. But overall there has been a culture of silence about the reality Palestinians face. In Hungary today it is difficult to articulate pro-peace opinions because of the political oppression and unjust public, yet powerful, condemnation performed by right-wing, liberal organisations, and individual opinion-leaders. So most coverage simply doesn’t do.

László Bernáth studied history, and has been active in the Hungarian housing rights movement. He began started working as a journalist at Mérce some months after the portal started.
Soma Ábrahám Kiss studied sociology and cultural anthropology, and has some experience in the student movement and other social movements. He’s been working as an editor of Mérce since 2018, and as copy chief for the past two years.