Theodor meets me at a tree-shaded outdoor café for lunch and to reminisce about his aliyah twenty years ago. Arriving on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, he recalls leaving Budapest with equal parts hope and anxiety. His move, ironically, came on the heels of Hungary’s transition to democracy. While sanctions against religion were loosened, it was the loosening of travel restrictions that motivated his move to Israel those two decades ago.
Theodor grew up in Budapest, near the Old Ghetto. Like other citizens, not only Jews, he spent his youth under the restrictive grip of the Communist party. With its fall in 1989, anti-Semitism actually grew, peaking under the MDF part in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Raised in an observant home, Theodor had always been taught to view Israel as his ultimate homeland. He made the decision to leave in 1990, to do his aliyah and establish his own family in the Holy Land. At the age of 24, he kissed his parents and two sisters good-bye and set out to establish new roots.
Today, Theodor is a successful business man in Tel Aviv. He married an Israeli-born girl, and they are the proud parents of two teenagers. “Life in Israel has been good to me,” Theodor affirms. “With all the news today from Budapest, I worry about my family there. But it only reinforces the fact that I made the right decision to come here.”
The Jews in Hungary
Theodor’s concern relates to a recent upswing in acts of anti-Semitism in Hungary, a country with an ignoble history of its treatment of Jewish citizens. Paramilitary groups are frequently in the news, complete with Nazi-like uniforms and armbands. The far-right Jobbik party has made gains in recent elections, as well as the now-banned Hungarian Guard. Jobbik party members blamed Hungary’s economic problems on two groups: Roma (gypsies) and Jews. Recent acts of vandalism have targeted Jewish sites, including a Holocaust memorial in Zalaegerszeg. Several months ago, a Chabad-Lubavtich rabbi’s home was attacked during a Passover seder. Windows were smashed and rocks thrown. Last spring, hundreds of Jewish citizens marched through the streets of Budapest to protest the growing anti-Semitic climate in the country.
Jewish history in Hungary and the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire has been, to say the least, somewhat checkered. The country has a long history of persecution, with its most heinous expression of modern times occurring during the Holocaust, with the loss of over 600,000 individuals.
In the midst of recent anti-Semitic stirrings, however, Hungary has experienced something of a rebirth of Jewish identity and religious expression. The year 2003 heralded the ordination of the first Orthodox rabbi in Hungary since the Holocaust. Activities banned in Theodor’s youth, such as study of the Torah or Zohar, now take place in private homes on Friday evenings, and attendance at synagogue services is higher than in years before. New Jewish organizations have been established, including the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association.
Estimates of the number of Jews who remain in Hungary range from 50,000 to 150,000, but less than 13,000 people declared themselves to be of the Jewish religion in the 2001 census. Secular Judaism is more pronounced, and intermarriage rates are estimated to be as high as 60%. The emergent Jewish religious renaissance, in a country where secularism has dominated for decades, provides a cultural counterpoint to the strident activities of the country’s political right wing.
Hungarian Jews in Israel Today
An estimated 200,000 – 3000,000 individuals comprise the Hungarian community in Israel today. In many spheres, bilateralism thrives between the two countries. Each year, 15-20,000 Hungarians visit Israel, which is only three hours away from Budapest, and 100,000 Israelis visit Hungary. Joint educational projects exist between the two countries, as well as cultural exchanges. Two years ago, Israel and Hungary signed a bilateral agreement on science and technology cooperation, and Israel is one of the ten biggest investors in Hungary’s economy. Most significantly, Hungary was the first country in the former Soviet bloc to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. These collaborative efforts offer hope to Theodor and the Hungarian-Israeli community of which he is a part.
“For my friends and family who remain in Budapest, I think that strong relations with Israel are important,” Theodor notes. “This summer, my parents – both in their 70s – plan to come visit my family here for the third time. I hope that the borders between these two countries will continue to narrow even more.”