Jewish Studies in Hungary: Update

Photo courtesy Budapest Beacon

By Robin Nobel

Four years ago, I wrote a piece for these pages entitled, “Jewish Studies in Hungary: An Endangered Species?” (eJP, January 2013). While at the time I considered the title to be a bit of polemic, today I would remove the question mark.

What pushed me from question to certainty? In short: Lex CEU, a new law targeting the Central European University (CEU) of Budapest. As many eJP readers will have seen, just three weeks ago Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tabled and then rushed through parliament a piece of legislation that would outlaw CEU, a private post-graduate institute focussing on the humanities and social sciences. The university was founded by Hungarian-born Jewish American billionaire George Soros; a fact which Orbán has made much of in his anti-CEU campaign, despite having famously received a scholarship from Soros to attend the University of Oxford in 1989. The reification of Orbán’s anti-liberal, anti-West and anti-immigrant rhetoric into a law so blatantly set on shutting down the CEU shocked leaders of government and higher education the world over. This week, it has brought upwards of 10,000 to the streets of Budapest in protest, chanting “Europe, not Moscow!”

However, what readers may not have realised is that CEU plays a pivotal role in the provision of Jewish Studies in Hungary and in Central-Eastern Europe more broadly. Academics there research and teach Central and Eastern European Jewish history from sociological, cultural heritage and nationalism studies perspectives, and so add unique depth and nuance to the field of European Jewish Studies.

Back in 2013, I had no concerns for the survival of Jewish Studies at CEU. Instead, my writing then focussed on Government actions which were making the continuation of Jewish Studies at state universities such as Eötvös Loránd and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences very difficult. The CEU’s private status, the clear political and economic benefit it brought to Budapest, as well as some reassuring words from then Rector John Shattuck lulled me into thinking that while the rest of the Hungarian system of Higher Education was unwittingly conspiring against Jewish Studies, CEU would escape that same closing net of centralisation and funding cuts. I see now that I was sadly mistaken.

I wasn’t the only one to have been caught off-guard. The EU Commission’s debate last Wednesday was rife with representatives claiming not to recognise the Viktor Orbán and the Hungary of today compared with the same leader and country of the 1990s.

Others better placed than myself to analyse the Hungarian situation have already turned their pens toward explaining the causes and motives behind this dramatic turn of events. See, for example, the contribution of CEU social anthropologist Dorit Geva, who offers a lucid explanation for the Hungarian rejection of the EU and increasing support for illiberal democracy. On the other hand, the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian and the Independent, among many other papers, have run editorials painting a clear case for how the attack on CEU is tantamount to an attack on academic freedom, further inching Hungary rightwards toward Putin-like autocracy.

Understandably, few have yet commented on the risk Lex CEU poses to European Jewish Studies and Jewish Studies in general. Yet much is at stake here, too. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hungary was one of the largest Jewish communities in the World. It stood at the vanguard of many modern movements that have since matured into the mainstays of World Jewry. Both Ultra-Orthodoxy and Zionism can be rooted to within its borders. The history of the Holocaust in Hungary is dramatic, tragic and essential to twentieth century Jewish history. Still, the number of scholars able to access the rich primary sources concerning these topics and to do them justice is extremely limited. Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language to master and rare is the scholar who, for research purposes alone, achieves such a feat. Having a cadre of well-prepared researchers with skills equal to the task situated near to the necessary materials is invaluable. And it is this that, if the Orbán government has its way, we as readers of Jewish history stand to lose.

These weeks between Passover and Shavuot – between exodus and freedom – are hard. As we contemplate the freedom that we are on the cusp of attaining within the Torah-cycle, let’s also consider freedom of a very different ilk: academic freedom and the necessary conditions for it and Jewish Studies to continue in Hungary. These too hang in the balance while we await Orbán’s response to the European Parliament’s charge that Hungary stands in violation of EU law and values.

Robin Nobel is Senior Grant Programmes Manager at Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe.