Hungarian Jewish leaders discuss challenges with Angela Merkel

February 3, 2015

merkelAfter a historic visit to the Dohány Street Synagogue and nearby Ghetto memorial site, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sat down with leading figures of the Hungarian Jewish communities to discuss pressing matters the community faces in Hungary. In attendance were András Heisler, leader of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), Slomo Köves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Israelite Community (EMIH – Chabad), Eduard Deblinger from Hungary’s Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community, and Gergely Guba of the Sim Shalom Reform Jewish congregation. Topics covered included memory politics during the seventieth anniversary of the Holocaust, issues of Jewish education, youth, the Hungarian church law and the question of equal opportunities of different Jewish congregations.

At the meeting Merkel told the leaders she “felt it as an unconditional duty and responsibility” to pay tribute to Hungary’s Jewish community and honor the victims of the Holocaust during her visit. She identified two parallel processes in contemporary Europe: the Jewish cultural renaissance and growing anti-Jewish sentiment.  The various Jewish leaders then briefly introduced their respective organizations and their work.

András Heisler expressed his conviction to her that after last year’s devastating conflicts surrounding the memorial on Szabadság square seeking to pass the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust from Hungarians to Nazi Germany, the government now aims to engage in a constructive dialogue with Jewish leaders. Heisler explained to the German leader that contrary to recent Western European experiences, where Islamist radical movements brought about a new form of political anti-Semitism, in Hungary, “traditional, historic anti-Semitism is still present.”  The president of Mazsihisz told Merkel that this is a persistent problem in the country “even though an empirical justification of growing anti-Semitism is not possible.”

EMIH leader Rabbi Köves presented his organization’s outreach project “Jewish Tales” (Zsidómesék) featuring well-known Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians in short-form videos, speaking about their experiences with Judaism or Jews. He asked the Chancellor if she would be willing to participate in the series of videos, and received a positive answer.

Heisler also mentioned the historical material of the Jewish Museum and Library in Budapest as well as Rabbinical Seminary collections “70 percent of which is in German.” He offered Merkel the opportunity for German academics to research this rich and mostly uncovered part of German-Jewish heritage. According to Heisler this would be important “so that the Holocaust will not be the only way to get to know Hungarian Jews.” Merkel received the proposal with great interest and promised her assistance.

Hungary’s pre-1945 Jewish community was often bilingual, speaking German and Hungarian as native tongues. Many of the first Jewish immigrants to Hungary arrived from German-speaking lands such as Moravia, Austria and Bohemia during the early 18th century. Budapest Jews, though highly acculturated, preserved the German part of their cultural heritage. During the Dual Monarchy (1866-1918), Hungarian Jewish biblical scholarship, historiography and religious studies thrived, giving the world numerous savants and some of the founding figures of modern Jewish studies, such as Alexander Kohut, co-founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Samuel Krauss, the first Cambridge scholar of Talmudic Studies, Immanuel Löw, Szeged chief rabbi and a pioneer of Jewish Talmudic studies, as well as Jacob Katz, one of the founding historians of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All of them studied at German-speaking Jewish seminaries in Berlin, Frankfurt or Breslau (Wroclaw, Poland) and wrote their life’s work in German.

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