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Two Neuroses Fighting

Writer Gabor Szanto on leftist anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewishness in Hungary, and how joining the EU might hamper Hungary's foreign policy. by Michael Standaert 26 September 2003
Source: Iowa International Writing Program
Many of the subjects Gabor T. Szanto, a 37-year-old Jewish-Hungarian novelist, poet, and editor of Budapest's Jewish cultural monthly Szombat (Sabbath), tackles in his work are imbued by dark auras. He has written at length about the suffering under the communist dictatorship and also how Jews, who were themselves victims of the Holocaust, became victimizers under the communist regime. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States just over two years ago, he has become preoccupied with another subject that troubles him and many other commentators: a perception that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe.

What's happening now is not your great-grandfather’s anti-Semitism, he says. It is something new, yet born of old ideas on the left. This neo-anti-Semitism and anti-Israel reaction is partly in response to European feelings of inferiority to American power, and partly from deep-rooted prejudices that have not been fully examined, he says. “It is a leftist anti-Semitism now. In Hungary and in Europe there were hundreds of years of Christian anti-Semitism, nationalism, and chauvinism by the local state. But now, behind this anti-Israel policy is a leftist mentality. It came from the source of Marx's essay on the Jewish question, and it came from the anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-Zionist policy of the left.

“I’m not a fan of the religious fundamentalism in Israel either. I can see the mistakes on their part. But lately I’ve become aware that there is something in the European subconscious that is not analyzed enough. … I think that many of the European nations felt feelings of sin because of the Holocaust,” Szanto continues. “They accepted their responsibility, they gave their excuses to the Jews, but they could not solve their deeply Christian-rooted anti-Semitism. So Israel and Israeli policy gives them a chance to open their old prejudices. Israel is a surrogate target.”


Szanto belongs to the third generation of postwar Jewish Hungarian writers, those who came of age after the period of silence about Jewishness that characterized the experience of their parents' generation. He has written widely on Jewishness in Hungary during the second half of the 20th century. He began as a poet, then published a volume of short stories, A tizedik ember (The 10th Man), full of ponderings on death and funerals as symbols of the Jewish presence in Central Europe in the mid-1990s. This was followed by the novella Moszer (The Informer), about a rabbi who turns informer for the Hungarian state police and the Stasi in East Germany in the '60s and '70s, and a novel, Keleti palyaudvar, vegallomas (Eastern Station, Last Stop), which is about the 1949 trial of scapegoat Interior Minister Laszlo Rajk and how the communist regime destroyed the Zionist movement in Hungary.

Alongside his creative works, Szanto says he takes a stance as a political in-between, conservative-liberal, Jewish-Hungarian in much of his journalistic work and essays for Szombat. This iconoclastic positioning often brings attacks from all sides for saying things others won’t dare say. “To be a writer is always more than to be part of a particular political group or belief. Of course I’m often criticized because I am also critical of the Jewish community. I write about Jews, I write about their weaknesses, I write about my weakness.”

Szanto suggests that so few writers have chosen to address the situation of the Jews under communism in Hungary just because the subject is so difficult to handle. “It is a hot potato in Hungary. I feel sometimes that I am [separate] from my so-called liberal friends because they don’t like to see how I analyze the situation of the Jews under dictatorship. They don’t like it because they divide the world into two parts, good and bad, and they don’t like to see that I criticize the left, the present leftist mentality. There are some liberal intellectuals of Jewish origin who don't like to be analyzed as Jews, although their political mentality came from this source.”


In Szanto's view, the memory of the Holocaust has left some Jews in Hungary and many other places in Europe with a negative Jewish identity. Of the 100,000 persons of Jewish descent living in Hungary, only 5,000 are members of the official Jewish community, and just 1,000 keep kosher and the Sabbath. “They associate Jewishness only with suffering. They haven’t had any sense of positive identity. They don’t feel it as a culture, they don’t feel it as a religion, they feel it as a fact for which they can be murdered, or blamed.

“There is a double neurosis in Hungary. One neurosis is because of the lost World Wars, because of the loss of two-thirds of Hungarian territory, a minority complex. Sometimes I feel that it is a very fragile identity, the Hungarian identity. There is a constant fear of disappearing as a nation. On the other side, on the Jewish side, you can also realize this. There is a constant fear of the ‘other.’ Hungarians are afraid of Jews because of their prejudices, and the Jews also have fears because they have had very bad experiences in the Holocaust. But the Hungarians also had bad experiences with some Jews in the communist regime. Two neuroses are standing and fighting each other in Hungary--two communities, with weak identities and a lot of suffering in the last hundred years.”

Szombat also has recently considered the European Union's expansion further into Central and Eastern Europe and what this means for Hungary, and for the Jewish population there. “The European Union is important for the Eastern European countries, for their self-emancipation,” Szanto says. “But I don’t believe that the society can really know what will be the impact of being a member of the EU. Everyone believes in the growing economy and in the standard of living that will come with this"--but once it is part of a structure dominated by Western European powers, Hungary may lose some freedom of action in the sphere of foreign policy, Szanto says.

"I’m a bit afraid of the EU policy against Israel. Fortunately, in the Eastern European countries, where there was an anti-Semitic policy and an anti-Israel policy under communism, they don’t agree fully with the Western European countries' policy now toward Israel. Hungary has tried to keep itself from this anti-Israel policy. I hope it is not a temporary phenomenon."
Gabor T. Szanto was a participant in this autumn's session of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where this interview was conducted. A short story by Szanto will appear in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary, forthcoming from Nebraska University Press.

Michael Standaert is a writer based in Illinois. He interviewed two dozen writers taking part this year in the Iowa International Writing Program.
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