Politicising Anti-Semitism

Van Gogh: Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate') // Public domain

There is a well-known saying, popular both in Poland and Hungary, that goes ‘Pole and Hungarian brothers be, good for fight and good for party’. It is humorous, but it is also a symbol of the unique relationship between the two nations, which is a rarity compared to other countries or nations. The saying refers to mutual friendship, similarities and good relations.

Famous Brothers and More…?

I am deeply convinced that there will come a day when we have Budapest in Warsaw,”[1] Jarosław Kaczyński said after poll results of the elections were announced. This statement has become a manifesto of close cooperation between the two leaders, Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán. Both have formed strongly populist governments, often inspiring each other with their actions, such as the “quasi-nationalisation” of the media, restrictions on judicial independence, and an attack on the LGBTQI+ community.

The European Union has launched Article 7 TEU procedures against both Hungary and Poland. In both countries, we can observe the phenomenon of “weaponized hate,” in which hatred becomes the main political tool dominating public debate, aiming to consolidate the majority society.

Moreover, since 2018, anti-Semitism has also been used (most likely with Russian involvement) as a tool of polarisation, both in Hungary and Poland[2]. Politicians deliberately divide society into ‘us and them’, reinforcing nationalist narratives that become part of building national identity. Under these circumstances, all “others” become a symbolic scapegoat blamed for all the failures of the countries concerned. But, let’s start from the very beginning…


Speaking of anti-Semitism, we must mention the Jewish community itself, which has lived in both countries, as well as the tragedy of the Holocaust, which led to the almost complete annihilation of this community. In Poland, of about 3.5 million Jews, about 300,000 survived the war (including survivors in the USSR); in Hungary, of 760,000-780,000, about 500,000-530,000 Jews perished[3].

As a result of post-war attacks and anti-Semitic campaigns, the Jewish community emigrated, or implemented a survival strategy that led to almost complete assimilation and acculturation. Today’s data on the Jewish community is incomplete, and the statistics used by Jewish organizations are estimates. World Jewish Congress[4] indicates that there are currently about 10,000 Jews living in Poland, and up to 100,000 in Hungary.

Public Sentiment

A recent study by Slovak NGO Globsec (2020) on conspiracy theories confirmed the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Central European countries. Various forms of anti-Semitism have been analysed, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on conspiracy anti-Semitism, which, as the most adaptable, is very often used by populist organizations.

In a 2020 survey, 38% of Poles and 49% of Hungarians (38% in 2018) agreed with anti-Semitic statements that Jews have a lot of power and control over governments around the world[5], are responsible for establishing a new totalitarian order and for creating a migration crisis aimed at destroying European culture. In addition, 49% of those surveyed in Hungary believe that it was George Soros[6] who arranged and financially supported the anti-government protests in recent years[7]. According to another survey, 47% of Polish and 35% of Hungarian respondents admitted that they would be willing to engage in or accept discrimination against Jews[8].

Anti-Semitism in Central European- countries has a specific form. It differs from Western European patterns in its cultural and historical specificity and in how it is rooted in the cultural and political heritage of the region[9]. This was confirmed by research conducted as part of the Combat Anti-Semitism in Central Europe (ComAnCE) project. Anti-Semitism is changing its formula here. It is a kind of tool to exclude and discredit Jews and liberal elites who favour pluralism and a multicultural society. The result is a process of politicising anti-Semitism with the use of various conspiracy theories based on prejudices and stereotypes in a given cultural code. This mechanism is adapted immediately, regardless of the country’s level of democratisation[10].

This type of pattern was noted during the 2019 European elections and the 2020 presidential election in Poland, among others, when the Confederation, a coalition of far-right circles, used both anti-American and anti-Semitic demands. The narrative was built around the theme of restitution of so-called ‘post-Jewish property’, which correlated with the U.S. Law 447[11]. The nationalists have created a fear-inducing narrative, claiming that Poland will have to ‘pay USD 300 million to the Jews, and the American Congress is to blame for everything’. The Confederation, in a short period of time, gained about 10% support in the polls.

Another example based on similar patterns was the 2020 presidential campaign in Poland. According to ODIHR, ‘the campaign was characterized by negative rhetoric, harsh mutual accusations, and vilification of opponents’. In addition, ODIHR noted instances of intolerant rhetoric of a xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic nature, particularly from the staff of the incumbent president and the state broadcaster TVP[12].

TVP’s main newscast indicated that opposition presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski would support Jewish demands for Holocaust restitution from Poland and could be easily manipulated by ‘Jewish organizations’ and ‘international circles’[13]. The Media Ethics Council assessed that ‘the materials (…) violate all the principles of the Media Ethics Charter and, broadcast especially often in pre-election periods, such as in the case of the current state television, harm Poland’s interests. Stimulating anti-Semitism, racism and hatred of minorities is not in the interest of a country – a member of the European Union and NATO’[14].

Comments on potential claims by Jewish organizations in Polish state media were illustrated with an image of George Soros. For Hungary’s right-wing populists, he has become a symbol of liberal, hostile forces. The Hungarian government has produced posters and billboards with smiling Soros and the slogan ‘Don’t let Soros have the last laugh’. Many of these ads were subsequently defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti[15]. Another example of the so-called ‘new hatred’ among the political elites, was Viktor Orbán’s speech, in which he spoke sharply against the ‘mixing’ of races, namely against the harmfulness of the mixing of European and non-European races[16].

Unfortunately, these types of actions by politicians have an impact on the society. According to the University of Warsaw’s Center for Research of Prejudice, ‘the more negative attitudes toward the Jews and the Roma were shaped to a greater extent by an exceptionally long election campaign, which was strongly involving and appealed to basic instincts. (…) Recent studies (…), analysing reports of crimes motivated by prejudice indicate that when the level of prejudice in society increases, ordinary people are relatively more likely to commit such acts’[17].

New History: Victim Rivalry – Ethnocentrism – Group Narcissism

All kinds of reports submitted to OSCE or the European Commission indicate that Poland as well as Hungary are implementing measures to counter anti-Semitism and introduce Holocaust education. Hungary has implemented the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism[18].

The government named ministers who were tasked with, among other things, exploring the possibility of introducing the definition into mainstream curricula. Relevant authorities of the judiciary have been asked to assess how to incorporate the definition into the training of judges and prosecutors. A special report concluded that adequate safeguards are in place to combat hate speech and hate crimes, but that additional steps can be taken to raise awareness and train legal professionals[19]. Such steps were taken, the definition was implemented in the Hungarian system, which was highly appreciated by experts working in the field of counteracting anti-Semitism.

The only V4 country that has not implemented the definition is Poland. This is puzzling, since it was Poland that participated in the entire process of its creation. Admittedly, in October 2021, a statement was posted on the Culture Ministry’s website, according to which “Poland, as a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, supported in 2016 the Alliance’s adoption of a legally non-binding working definition of anti-Semitism… This implies Poland’s recognition of the IHRA’s legally non-binding working definition of anti-Semitism as an important and self-evident benchmark in countering this phenomenon.”[20]

However, this remains just a statement. And the implementation of the definition would lead to a unified understanding of anti-Semitism, which would be helpful to individuals and institutions, including educational ones, in countering anti-Semitism.

Hungary has also introduced Holocaust education in schools, at the primary and secondary levels, as well as in higher education institutions and universities. Since 2000 and 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day has been celebrated in high schools[21]. In Poland, as early as 1999, the Minister of National Education decided to include Holocaust education in the curriculum as a compulsory subject in high schools with a humanities profile (youth aged 13-19). However, when analysing educational and commemorative activities, we should keep in mind how they are actually carried out, what their mission is, and how they affect a country’s citizens.

In Poland, the term ‘politics of glory’ has been used since 2017 to supplant ‘politics of shame’, and education reform since the 2017/2018 school year has focused on, among other things, strengthening historical and patriotic education[22]. In the new core curriculum in 2021/2022, the focus is on creating a young person’s identity based primarily on Catholic religion and patriotism. Holocaust education was juxtaposed with the heroism of Poles saving Jews. In other words, until 2017, students learned about a more complex picture of the world and the different aspects of Polish involvement, and after 2017 they only learn about the nobility of the Polish nation.

In addition, a chilling effect on education in Poland has been brought about by the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. The Act was intended to curb faulty memory codes by introducing a fine of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone (including foreigners) who publicly and contrary to fact attributes “to the Polish Nation or the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Such punishment would also be imposed for “blatantly diminishing the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes.”

Unintentional acts would also be punished. Artistic and scientific activities were not to be subject to such liability. Thanks to international pressure, the bill in this form was not passed, but discussion of it led to the removal of equality-related activities and some modern forms of teaching about the Holocaust from schools.

According to an analysis by the Center for Research on Prejudice, commissioned by the Ombudsman, the period of discussion of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance was a time of evident heightened anti-Semitism in public debate, resulting in a polarization of Poles’ beliefs about the history of Polish-Jewish relations[23]. There was a noticeable increase in the number of people idealising the behaviour of Poles during the occupation, and a doubling in the number of people convinced that all Poles were involved in saving Jews[24].

The Hungarian example was the rehabilitation of authors with nationalist, anti-Semitic and national-socialist views and their inclusion in the Hungarian literary canon, including the suggestion that the works of Cécile Tormay, József Nyirő and Albert Wass are included in the school obligatory reading list. According to experts, the actions were aimed at strengthening the sense of Hungarian nationalism. Given the way the above-mentioned authors publicly participated in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities, it is unethical to put them as role models for children[25].

Experts also note that the curriculum in Hungary is increasingly ideologised. NAT (National Core Curriculum) focuses on Hungary’s successful battles and ignores its failures. It portrays Hungarians mainly as heroes, and Miklos Horthy’s authoritarian rule after World War I – as a relief to the nation. The core curriculum also does not include the term critical thinking, which has been replaced by a euphemism for ‘cognition’[26].

The activities described above contribute to the formation of ethnocentrism among the recipients of such messages. Admittedly, ethnocentrism itself does not necessarily lead to aggression, but it does eliminate opportunities to learn about the other side[27]. Such actions also fuel collective narcissism. It is associated with the group’s high, idealised and defensive self-esteem, which can be responsible for hostile and aggressive attitudes toward foreign groups.

Moreover, it results in a constant need to confirm the inflated image of one’s own group in the eyes of others. In surveys conducted in Poland, “people narcissistically identified with a group of Poles” agreed with the conspiracy stereotype of Jews, and prejudice against Jews was explained as stemming from “a permanent sense of threat to a group of their own and by a specific fear of a group of Jews[28].”

The Tom Lantos Institute study asked respondents about suffering during World War II. Those who expressed the uniqueness of their nation’s suffering over others were more “predisposed to anti-Semitism and expressed anti-Semitic views.” In this respect, the strongest relationship was observed in Hungary[29]. Conducting a narrative that constructs a nation’s identity based on a belief in the uniqueness of its fate and suffering carries a high risk that this self-image will be challenged. Self-esteem that is very high but unstable – ‘threatened egotism’[30] – is accompanied by an increased risk of aggression when this evaluation is threatened. The correction of inflated self-assessment is replaced by a search for external factors responsible for the defeats suffered, identifying enemies and their machinations.

In addition, based on Michał Bilewicz’s research, a belief in the uniqueness of suffering can accompany resentment towards more disadvantaged groups, whose testimonies can threaten social identity. Seeing one’s own group as a victim helps relieve the burden of guilt towards those the group has harmed. ‘Rivalry of suffering’ thus serves to protect and rebuild a threatened social identity[31].

In turn, as David R. Mandel argues, reinforcing attitudes based on a narcissistic understanding of one’s history leads to the rise of nationalism, which provides a selfish sense of group cohesion by emphasizing the group’s shared greatness. On the other hand, it reinforces the sense of insecurity, pointing out the lurking dangers waiting for the nation. It also reinforces feelings of hatred by pointing out who is to blame for the nation’s failures and the difficulties it is faced with. It nurtures a sense of humiliation, fostering the belief that one’s own people do not receive the respect they deserve[32].

So, we come to an absurd situation where the attackers are no longer attackers, but victims and fighters for their people, and high-status groups are trying to turn anti-Semitism into a mobilising cultural code[33]. A subculture of the far-right played a major role in institutionalising Hungarian anti-Semitism. Modern anti-Semitic rhetoric has been updated and expanded, but is still based on older canons. Traditional accusations and motives include phrases such as ‘Jewish occupation’, ‘international Jewish conspiracy’, ‘Jewish responsibility’ (for the Treaty of Trianon), ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ and blood libel[34].

Anti-Semitism Only Affects Jews….

Unfortunately, this is the biggest myth about discrimination mechanisms. Even when crimes committed against people associated with different minorities were analysed, the intersectionality of hatred was pointed out. This means that if a person is willing to spread hatred against one group, they are also open to doing the same to others. All that is needed is a crisis.

Currently, the unstable situation has been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, which is increasing fear. The theme of war as well as the fatigue and fear of the society have been used to increase polarisation using tools that are culturally recognisable and familiar. This has combined anti-Semitism and anti-Ukrainian sentiment to undermine the actions of Ukraine’s government, to minimise the credibility of its president because of his Jewish background, and to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories related to the war and the profits behind it for the Jewish community.

Research on the subject has been conducted by, among others, the Polin Museum of Polish Jews[35] and the Jewish Czulent Association, but also by international organizations, including the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)[36]. They showed that in the context of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, hatred affects not only Jews and Ukrainians, but spills over to other ethnic groups and LGBT+ communities.

Another glaring example of a tragedy demonstrating the intersectionality of hatred was the October 2022 terrorist attack that resulted in the murder of two people from the LGBT+ community in Bratislava by a radicalised teenager[37]. News portal Dennik N reported that the attacker had posted a manifesto against the minority, LGBTQI+ and Jewish communities before the killings.

In the manifesto, he called for “the total elimination of all Jews.” Media reports indicate that he was also reportedly looking for Jewish targets to attack in Bratislava, but as he did not find them, he decided to attack the LGBTQI+ community[38]. The perpetrator is the son of a politician from the far-right VLASŤ (Homeland) party. After the murder, VLASŤ leader Štefan Harabin, former president of the Slovak Supreme Court, accused his liberal opponents of collaborating with George Soros, ‘a long-time (…) spreader of hateful extremism’ against ‘patriotic’ Slovaks[39].

The tragedy showed how the ‘politicisation of human rights’ and the treatment of sexual minority rights, women’s rights and equality as a political battlefield induces a sense of threat and fear in activists who oppose the phenomena in question, when they face intimidation, hatred or acts of aggression, and gives a green light to those who, in the name of the ‘white and pure race’, carry out such attacks.

The text was originally published in: Milosz Hodun (ed.) (2023). Democracy against Minorities. Warsaw: Projekt: Polska.

[1] TVN24.pl (2021, October 9). “Przyjdzie dzień, że w Warszawie będzie Budapeszt”https://tvn24.pl/polska/przyjdzie-dzien-ze-w-warszawie-bedzie-budapeszt-ra186922-3535336

[2] Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2019). 2019 EU Elections Information Operations Analysis: Interim Briefing Paper.

[3] I. Barna (2019) Hungary. In Barna, I., Felix, A. (eds). Modern Antisemitism in the Visegrad Countries. Budapest: Tom Lantos Institute.

[4] The numbers are a product of the census, membership in Jewish organizations and participation in Jewish holidays.

[5] Hajdu, D., Klingova, K. (2020). Voices of Central and Eastern Europe Perceptions of democracy & governance in 10 EU countries. Bratislava: Globsec.

[6] George Soros – American stock market investor of Hungarian-Jewish descent, also a philanthropist, founder of the Open Society Foundation. In the Visegrád region, his image is being used as a symbolic ‘Jew’ who wants to dominate religious values through his liberal agenda.

[7] Hajdu, D., Klingova, K. (2020).

[8] Vasecka, M., Zubrova, V. (2022). Policy Report – Countering Antisemitism in the Visegrád Countries. Bratislava: Tom Lantos Institute.

[9] Barna, I., et al (2021). Modern antisemitism in the Visegrád countries countering distortion. Bratislava: Tom Lantos Institute.

[10] https://www.bpi.sk/project/combat-anti-semitism-in-central-europe/

[11] The bill, known in the U.S. as the JUST Act (Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today), is basically five items that provide guidance to the U.S. State Department. It is to include annually in the Human Rights Report (or another report) ‘an estimate of the nature and scope of national laws or enacted policies regarding the identification, return or restitution of property seized during the Holocaust’.

[12] ODIHR (2020, July 12). ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission, Republic of Poland, Presidential Election, Second Round. Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions. https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/9/e/457210_0.pdf

[13] The issue of restitution of Jewish property has been present in Polish politics for years, and governments of both the left and the right have not shied away from the topic.

[14] Statement by the Media Ethics Council on anti-Semitic material from TVP’s ‘Wiadomości’. https://wyborcza.pl/7,75398,26151356,rada-etyki-mediow-antysemicka-nagonka-w-wiadomosciach-tvp.html

[15] Thorpe, N. (2017, July 10). Hungary vilifies financier Soros with crude poster campaign. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40554844

[16] Walker, S., Garamvolgi, F. (2022, July 24). Viktor Orbán sparks outrage with attack on ‘race mixing’ in Europe. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/24/viktor-orban-against-race-mixing-europe-hungary

[17] Flieger, E. (2020, July 20). Skutki uprzedzeń są bardzo poważne [interview with Dr. Mikołaj Winiewski]. NGO.pl.

[18] It is a non-legally binding definition of anti-Semitism, with clear examples of the various forms it can take. These examples include traditional expressions of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and new forms relating to Israel, such as demonising the Jewish state or holding local Jewish communities responsible for its actions. The definition was the result of an initiated collaboration between the American Jewish Community, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) and Jewish communities. The definition has won approval from the European Commission as a useful initiative to counteract and combat anti-Semitism.

[19] About Hungary (2019, February 19). Hungarian government to promote IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. https://abouthungary.hu/news-in-brief/hungarian-government-to-promote-ihras-working-definition-of-anti-semitism

[20] MKiDN (2021). Oświadczenie w sprawie definicji IHRA. https://www.gov.pl/web/kultura/oswiadczenie-w-sprawie-definicji-ihra

[21] OSCE ODIHR (2020). Holocaust Memorial Days: An overview of remembrance and education in the OSCE region. Warsaw: OSCE.

[22] OSCE ODIHR (2020).

[23] However, Professor Michał Bilewicz of the University of Warsaw’s Center for Research on Prejudice says that anti-Semitism has indeed become more visible. – We do not see significant changes in terms of attitudes among Poles. What has changed is that until the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance was amended in 2018, anti-Semitism was more covert. People did not admit to such views, and politicians did not use such language. Anti-Semitic hate speech on the Internet has also increased significantly since the amendment, he comments. And he adds that some international surveys, for example a survey conducted two years ago by the ComRes institute for CNN, place Poland in the infamous forefront of anti-Semitism.

[24] Biuro RPO (2018, June 13). Analiza skutków noweli ustawy o IPN: wzmożenie antysemickie w debacie publicznej. https://bip.brpo.gov.pl/pl/content/raport-skutki-ustawy-o-ipn

[25] Huszár, Á. (2014). Nationalism and Hungarian Education Policy: Are the Literary Works of Cécile Tormay, József Nyirő, and Albert Wass Appropriate for the Hungarian School Curriculum? Hungarian Cultural Studies, e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, 7.

[26] Makowka-Kwapisiewicz, A. (2022). Addressing Antisemitism through Education in the Visegrad Group Countries: A Mapping Report. Berlin: Kreuzberger Initiative gegen Antisemitismus.

[27]Cała, A. (2012). Żyd – wróg odwieczny? Antysemityzm w Polsce i jego źródła. Warsaw: Nisza Publishing House, Jewish Historical Institute.

[28] Cichowska, A., Golec de Zavala, A. (2011). Kolektywny narcyzm a sprawa polska. In Kofta, M., Bilewicz, M. (eds). Wobec obcych. Zagrożenia psychologiczne a stosunki międzygrupowe. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

[29] Vasecka, M., Zubrova, V. (2022).

[30] Baumeister, R.E. (2009).  Holokaust i cztery korzenie zła. In Newman, L.S., Erber, R. Zrozumieć zagładę. Społeczna psychologia Holokaustu. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

[31] Bilewicz, M., Jaworska, M. (2012).  Zagrażająca przeszłość i jej wpływ na relacje międzygrupowe. In Kofta, M., Bilewicz, M. (eds). Wobec obcych. Zagrożenia psychologiczne a stosunki międzygrupowe. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

[32] Mandel, D.R. (2009). Inicjatorzy ludobójstwa. Hitler w ujęciu psychologii społecznej. In Newsman, L.S., Erber, R. (eds.)  Zrozumieć zagładę. Społeczna psychologia Holokaustu. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

[33] Márkus, G.G. (2008). Political Cleavages and Antisemitism in Hungary. Nyelvtudományi Közlemények, 18(3).

[34] Molnár, L. (2013). Anti-Semitism in Hungary. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

[35] The research report is currently being compiled and will soon be available on the museum’s website.

[36] FRA (2022, November 3). Annual overview of antisemitic incidents from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. https://fra.europa.eu/en/news/2022/antisemitism-online-far-outweighs-official-records

[37] The Jerusalem Post (2022, October 13). ‘Radicalized teenager’ killed two outside Slovakia gay bar. https://www.jpost.com/international/article-719637

[38] Rekawek, K. (2022, December 2). The Bratislava Shooting and its Aftermath: Context and Reactions. UiO.no.  https://www.sv.uio.no/c-rex/english/news-and-events/right-now/2022/bratislava-shooting-and-its-aftermath.html

[39] Rekawek, K. (2022, December 2).

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