I visited Budapest in May, on a programme run by UK Jewish human rights charity René Cassin.
I was alarmed by the brazenly illiberal march of government policy and the rise of the far right, and asks if this could happen in the UK.
But I also found inspiration in the human rights activists – many of them Jewish – who are resisting the regime at every turn.
Hungary – Jews lead resistance to government attacks on human rights
It’s Sunday evening in Budapest and anyone who’s anyone is at Romany’s new show. Laszlo, a DJ better known as Gypsy Robot, is spinning tunes, accompanied by guitar & accordion.
A poet, a singer, and an MEP are strutting down the catwalk, their clothes emblazoned with coloured patterns and the faces of Roma people killed during the 1956 uprising.
A tall, thin, moustachioed man in a dress is posing for the cameras. In one corner of the room, a small group of impressed, if bemused, British Jews stands at the back, here for five days on the René Cassin Fellowship Programme to learn about human rights issues in Hungary.
Wait, what exactly does this have to do with human rights?
Hungary is a country where, by most standards, human rights are in retreat.
The government, led by Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, has systematically set about removing checks and balances on power, and is promoting a nationalist, authoritarian public discourse.
An almost overtly anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, the US-based Hungarian-born billionaire who backs much of Central & Eastern European civil society through the Open Society Foundations, has led to the attempted outlawing of Central European University, seen as a symbol for democratic values & Hungarian liberalism.
When we were in Budapest, the government had recently adopted a new tactic: decrying ‘foreign-funded’ NGOs – which receive grant money from foreign governments, particularly Norway – and proposing new legislation aimed at drastically impeding their capacity to operate.
Virtually everyone we met, whether from major NGOs like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) or the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, or smaller organisations and individuals working in the Roma community and with refugees, painted a similar picture.
Hostility to refugees, discrimination against minorities – and the rise of the far right
Government policy towards refugees & migrants consists of a border fence, ‘transit zones’ that only let in five people a day, and ‘push back’ to the Serbian border for anyone attempting to claim asylum or caught undocumented in Hungarian territory.
Roma communities face constant discrimination, with school segregation enforced through the mechanism of ‘choice’, and whole neighbourhoods in cities such as Miskolc in the north-east being cleared of their residents and demolished. LGBTQI rights are under constant threat.
The far right is on the rise.
They recently targeted the Aurora Centre, a bar, events space, NGO hub & Masorti Synagogue (the only Kabbalat Shabbat I’ve been to where you’re encouraged to take your beer in with you) in the heart of the historically Roma – and historically poorer – District 8.
Fighting back against attacks on human rights
And, yet, against this disastrous backdrop, every single person we met is doing incredible work challenging abuses and sticking up for the rights of everyone in Hungary.
Organisations like the HCLU and the Helsinki Committee provide vital legal assistance and push back against government attacks on rights in a media landscape that is anything but sympathetic.
Roma activists – including the inimitable Laszlo, DJ, social media personality and the best known out gay Roma man in Hungary – do incredible work making their community visible.
We witnessed inspiring examples of activism in action. When the Hungarian government installed a monument seen as whitewashing Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust, local activists built a ‘living memorial’ underneath it, displaying photographs and personal items from victims and survivors.
When refugees began entering Hungary in large numbers – initially from Afghanistan – a graphic designer and an architect created Open Doors Hungary, working with unaccompanied minors to help ease their path into Hungary and provide useful skills training.
The Jewish community leads the resistance
Similarly, the Hungarian Jewish community, so often typecast against the shadow of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, has fostered a vibrant, dynamic scene of young people – many of whom did not grow up with a Jewish identity – working to both explore their own Judaism and defend human rights.
At the height of the refugee crisis, many young Jews were on the frontline, providing aid and support to new arrivals from Syria.
It couldn’t happen here? Not if we can help it. What Hungary today tells us about Britain tomorrow
Reflecting on how we take what we have learnt in Budapest back with us, I’m struck by two conflicting thoughts.
On the one hand, Hungary provides an example of just how easily the hard won gains of human rights can be lost.
With a clear strategy and strong leadership, political forces can roll back legal protections and norms, and, in Hungary, the public at large seems to approve. Could this happen in the UK?
On the other hand, the activists we met in Budapest are amongst the most committed, clear-eyed people I’ve ever encountered.
They understand what the government is doing, and they know why they cannot stay silent. The work of both the human rights activists and the Jewish community activists (and many were the same people – there seems to be a vastly disproportionate number of Jews working in Hungarian NGOs) is imbued with a DIY, community-led culture that lives the values it seeks to promote.
As Jews in the UK – and as people committed to human rights – this idea should inspire what we do.
NGO clampdown confirmed
A couple of weeks after we got home, the NGO law was passed. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has announced that it will not register as ‘foreign-funded’ until the case against the law is decided in court.
The future of these organisations – and of human rights and democratic values in Hungary – is uncertain.
Hungary’s European and EU allies, including the UK, cannot stay silent.