Jewish Studies in Hungary: An Endangered Species?

by Robin Nobel

As a grants officer for the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, a family foundation that supports the preservation and promotion of Jewish heritage across Europe, my travel schedule can sometimes read like the Easyjet flightpath. From Barcelona to St Petersburg and from Rome to Glasgow, I visit projects throughout the continent but few site visits have left me as perplexed as a recent one to Budapest. I was in the Hungarian capital in order to monitor our on-going support of academic Jewish studies there. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was witness to signs of a changing Hungary, one which was rapidly being remoulded in accordance with newly introduced legislation and which had become a much less easy place for our foundation to function.

Word on the Street

“I’m tempted to build a swimming pool in my backyard.” This unlikely confession came from the taxi cab driver that took me from the airport to my Budapest hotel. His wife, a would-be Olympic swimming coach had the Eastern Block not boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, had recently lost her job at the local public swimming pool. Under the new Government, the funding of public swimming pools had all but ceased. Without any Olympic credentials, the cabbie’s wife was reduced to teaching 5-year-olds to swim at a private Chinese primary school. Yet again, it seemed that the clash of individual ambition and political will in Hungary left her the worse, with a husband who would do anything for her to feel professionally fulfilled – including installing a mid-size swimming pool in his back garden.


If during an Olympic summer, athletics can fall victim to cuts, how much more at risk must the academe and especially the humanities be? Indeed, when I arrived in Budapest, the country was still a-buzz with the news that former President Schmitt had been forced to resign over confirmed charges that he had plagiarised the majority of his 1992 doctoral thesis and that the Deputy Prime-Minister was acknowledged to have done the same for his post-graduate thesis, though the Eötvös Loránd University [ELTE] decided not to launch an investigation into the latter case.

Needless to say, since it swept to power in 2010, the right-wing Fidesz Party has ushered in far-reaching changes for the Hungarian system of higher education. Fidesz, which currently controls two-thirds of Hungary’s 386-seat parliament, has used its strong majority to steamroll in literally hundreds of new laws that reflect the party’s conservative Christian values and its relentless push for centralisation. Perhaps the most dramatic and controversial of these legislative acts was the rewriting of Hungary’s constitution to guarantee the rights of the unborn child and safeguard the institution of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. The party’s efforts in this regard have been supported by the Jobbik party, which currently hold the balance of power in Hungary and whose successful 2010 campaign spouted Hungarian nationalism and vilified the Roma minority.

The Hungarian Higher Education Act, which came into effect on 1 January 2012, set into motion a massive restructuring of the country’s universities. This Act, like the other policy changes brought in by Fidesz, was whisked through parliament before it could be properly scrutinised, debated, or before its impact could be fully considered. It mandated new, set pay levels for academics, the replacement of many university administrators with party-loyalists, a drastic reduction in the number of paid university student places, particularly in the humanities, and a complete restructuring of every Hungarian university into four main schools.

Reading the signs

The impact wrought by all this change was felt by the Foundation even before I set foot in the country. For example, we had to draw up new grant agreements for each of our current academic grantees in Hungary in order to account for the new organisational structure of their universities. Others were letting their feet do the talking, a fact which I realised when I set about securing my Budapest appointments. One after another, our grantees told me they were not currently in Budapest and, even more surprisingly, a fair number had plans to permanently relocate abroad.

Once on Magyar soil, I quickly came face-to-face with the factors pushing Hungarians to leave the country. My first meeting was with Dr Eszter Brigitta Gantner, originally from Budapest though she is now permanently based in Berlin where she teaches at the Humboldt University; in addition to her regular duties, she also periodically teaches classes at the Centre for Central European German-Jewish Culture at ELTE in Budapest.

“At the outset of each [ELTE] course,” she told me, “I ask my [Hungarian] students, ‘What do you know about Jews?’” Recently, she explained, she had been becoming increasingly disheartened by their answers. “Over the past 5 years,” Dr Gantner continued, “I have only seen the levels of ignorance and prejudice rise.” In other words, according to her assessment, the influence of the recent political shift in Hungary was beginning to impact the Hungarian secondary school curriculum, with a far more nationalistic and far less multicultural narrative coming to the fore. On that day in November, one of the key questions that Dr Gantner needed answering was whether the Foundation was supportive of her confronting these prejudices in the classroom, a task which she took to be her moral duty above all else even though it was not strictly academic.

Dr Gantner was not the only one to see her role expanded as a result of the rise of Hungarian nationalism in recent years. A contributor to Múlt Es Jöv?, the long-running academic and cultural journal aimed at the Hungarian Jewish community, recently wrote that, despite the publication’s determination to remain apolitical, “the present social and political situation in Hungary [have caused them to] question whether this politics-free approach is the correct way. The extreme right [Jobbik] controls parliament and they have a more than 1 million strong voter base; the party is louder day by day and is not stopped by the government [Fidesz]. In such a climate, should we continue to deal only with literature and culture?” Although this statement is not factually correct (Jobbik does not control parliament and the numbers given are exaggerated), the sentiment is earnest and representative of a certain generation’s perception of the recent changes in Hungary.

Indeed, just days after my visit, a Hungarian Member of Parliament, Márton Gyöngyösi of Jobbik, said in the legislature it was time “to assess … how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk.” His statements recalled vividly the numerus clausus quota laws of pre-War Hungary, not to mention the Hungarian Holocaust, which saw a final death toll of nearly 600,000. These frightening associations motivated a mass protest in Budapest. Thousands of Hungarian citizens took to the streets to protest against Gyöngyösi, who was eventually forced to apologise for the statement.

Hungarian Jewish studies academics: an endangered species?

Most disconcerting for the Foundation in the immediate, practical sense remains the dissolution of Jewish Studies Departments. It is important to note that the restructuring of the universities was part of a larger nation-wide rationalisation effort and was not meant to target the study of Jewish subjects in particular. Nevertheless, it has left us in an unfortunate bind. Applications to our grant programmes should come from departments, institutes or centres. As these no longer exist in the reconfigured Hungarian universities, it is unclear who – if anyone – will apply for our support in future. Would these newly established mega-faculties come forward as our partners in sustaining Jewish Studies in Hungary?

A conversation I had with esteemed Professor Géza Komoróczy, a former Director of the Center of Jewish Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences [HAS] at ELTE in Budapest, revealed that this option was perhaps naïve. “There are now three levels of hierarchy between myself and the Director of HAS’s Institute to which our school now belongs,” he told me. This level of bureaucracy prohibits faculty members from even suggesting an application be made to the Foundation. Furthermore, Prof Komoróczy was unconvinced those at the upper reaches of university administration had any interest in supporting Hungarian Jewish Studies.

This apparent reluctance is not to say that research and teaching of Jewish history, literature, religion and culture does not need support in Hungary. To the contrary, courses there are often well – if not over – subscribed and universities’ require financial assistance in order to make these possible. In my estimation, after Poland, Germany and Russia, Jewish Studies in Hungary probably presents the most robust student-body in Europe and, with the help of philanthropy, possesses some of the most fecund ground for continuing expansion. Indeed, one of Prof Komoróczy’s concerns is whether Hungary will be able to meet future demand. At the moment, the former Centre for Jewish Studies at ELTE is composed of just 4 members. There exists no commitment from the new faculty to maintain these positions once current staff leave or retire.

An obvious solution would be for ELTE to apply for a grant to support a teaching post in Jewish Studies from the Foundation. However, aside from the general difficulty in submitting an application without a department or centre to submit it, this grant category poses the additional stipulation that the university pledge their on-going financial and institutional support for the newly created position. Prof Komoróczy is doubtful that such a commitment could be attained and even if – against all odds – a grant for a new position was somehow secured, he had very little confidence that that the institution would follow through on that commitment. Toward the end of our time together, the professor confided in me that, to his mind, “Jewish Studies academics are an endangered species in Hungary; the country has returned to the 1980s.”

Earlier this autumn, Prof Komoróczy summarised his feelings in a paper he delivered at the Central European University in Budapest:

“A year ago this Center [for Jewish Studies at ELTE] was transformed into a phantom. With the approval of the General Assembly of the Academy, the present president reorganized the entire research network of the Academy, set up an all-embracing Institute of Social Studies, and our Center became a nameless part of it, a small section of its Institute for Minority Studies. The name Center for Jewish Studies, as seen in the invitation and in the program of this conference, has officially ceased to exist, and can be used only informally, just by leniency or favor. The tiny faculty, four persons, 2.75 appointments all together, has no appointed head, no independent budget, no right to employ anybody, no secretary or any administrative help, and not even the right to order books or to apply for grants on its own. We have, so far, enjoyed the benevolence of the direct superiors, and the work is going on, but we were deprived of our integrity. The system is wrong: this way, an effective academic institution of Jewish learning within the Academy of Sciences and the University is eventually going to disappear. Cancelling Jewish studies means return to the nationalistic notion of Oriental studies. Even the name carries symbolic or emblematic value [in that it signifies a turn toward the East.]”

Ultimately, to fund an individual or institution is to trust them. We staff at the Foundation stake not only the funds of our benefactor but also our professional credibility and sense of furthering our collective vision for Jewish Heritage promotion and preservation on the ability of our grantees to deliver their proposals on time, within the specified budget and to the highest level of success possible. Trust is especially fundamental for a funder such as the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, whose headquarters are located at so great a distance from the organisations it supports.

I want to stress that we have not lost our confidence in the many skilled and knowledgeable Jewish Studies researchers and lecturers that we have funded or currently fund in Hungary. However, to continue our support of their work, we must find either a viable, trustworthy institutional partner or an institutional solution especially where ELTE is concerned. Both these avenues are growing increasingly fraught with the country as a whole taking its cues from Eastern – and particularly Russian – influences rather than Western or European spheres. With an uncertain future ahead, much will hinge upon the results of the 2014 national elections though, for the sake of Jewish Studies in Hungary, I sincerely hope that we are able to find a way forward well before that date.

Robin Nobel is a Grant Programmes Officer at the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, where she manages the Academic Jewish Studies and Archives & Libraries Grant Programmes.