Ronald S. Lauder on the crack-down on neo-Nazis in Europe

09 October 2013

The following article by the president of the World Jewish Congress was first published by the Jewish World Review.

Two events in Europe last week cheered those of us who are fighting to beat back the growing neo-Nazism there. First, Greek authorities arrested leaders of the extremist Golden Dawn Party, charging them with criminal activities. Then, a top Hungarian official declared that his government would use all available means to crack down on the country's burgeoning anti-Semitism.

These events are heartening, but Europeans could do more to isolate the haters, for example, taking a clear policy toward far-right or neo-Nazi parties - including no coalitions, no common platforms and no pandering to extremist positions. That might sound simple in America, where the far right is a tiny, kooky fringe. But it is less so in countries such as Hungary and Greece, where these parties have real electoral heft.

Ronald S. LauderIn Hungary, the far-right Jobbik, which regularly stokes fear of Jews and Roma and recently held a rally against the World Jewish Congress assembly in Budapest, is the country's third-largest party, and is growing in strength.

Golden Dawn is smaller - it has 18 members sitting in the 300-member Greek parliament - but polls show it could increase its representation if were elections held today. Its leaders revel in vicious behavior. They have beaten people on live television, made the Hitler salute at press conferences, spewed hate and denied the Holocaust in parliamentary speeches, and instigated violence against immigrants and others they do not consider Greek. It now turns out that police appear to have evidence that the entire party is a criminal gang.

Greece acts against leaders of neo-Nazi party

As president of the World Jewish Congress, I traveled to Greece in March and to Hungary in May to demand that those nations clamp down on extremist parties with strong measures, including legislation that would punish hate speech.

In March, Antonis Samaras became the first sitting Greek prime minister in 100 years to visit a synagogue, joining the Jewish community at a commemoration in Thessaloniki on the 70th anniversary of the deportation of 48,000 Jews to the Nazi death camps. He solemnly pledged that he and his government would do be "completely intolerant to violence and racism."

In my speech and my meetings with Samaras, I made it clear that Golden Dawn needed to be curtailed. The World Jewish Congress called on Greece to consider banning the party.

For months, not much happened, and the promised legislation against hate speech stalled. I and many others wondered: Is the Greek government serious?

Everything changed a couple of weeks ago with the brutal murder of 34-year-old musician and anti-Nazi campaigner Pavlos Fissas, allegedly by a Golden Dawn supporter with close connections to the party leadership.

Last week, the Greek authorities acted with force, arresting the Golden Dawn leadership and charging it with forming a criminal organization. The raid discovered weapons and Nazi propaganda at the homes of several Golden Dawn leaders. In New York, the prime minister promised to implement a law against hate speech soon.

No one has yet faced trial, and we must see whether the crackdown will last and whether Golden Dawn will lose its popularity. But the tide may have turned. Greece has shown that violent neo-Nazis are not acceptable, and I thank Prime Minister Samaras and his government for keeping their word.

Hungarian government pledges action against anti-Semitism

Hungary followed with more good news. In May, the World Jewish Congress held its Plenary Assembly in Budapest, with 600 participants from around the Jewish world and 200 journalists in attendance. The meeting raised international awareness about the growing neo-Nazi problem, and the government has responded.

"We cannot allow, especially knowing our own responsibility, anti-Semitism to gain strength in Hungary," Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics told a conference on European anti-Semitism in Budapest last Tuesday, in what Reuters termed "one of the government's boldest statements yet on the issue."

"We will crack down with legal means if necessary," he said. "And, while we can, we will make sure through political means that Hungary remains a republic of good men."

Conference on anti-Semitism in Budapest earlier this monthNavracsics said that 70 years ago, during the Holocaust, the Hungarian state had "turned its back against its own citizens, and indeed took part in their elimination."

"We have learned from the past, we know exactly what happened here, every Hungarian is duty bound to face this responsibility: 70 years ago it was Hungarians who killed Hungarians," he added. Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered in the Nazi death camps.

Today, Hungary still has a big Jewish community, the largest in Central Europe at around 120,000. Hungarians are rightly concerned about attempts by certain groups to glorify the pro-Hitler government of the war era.

Like in Greece, Hungary's Jews are appalled by what is happening in their country and demand a clampdown on the extremists. Next year, Hungary will hold elections. Until then, there is still time to ensure that the hatemongers of Jobbik will be voted out of parliament. Like in Greece, this requires fortitude and determination. All democrats should act boldly against those who pose a threat to democracy itself.

The World Jewish Congress will continue to press all countries in Europe not to relent in the fight against neo-Nazis. We owe it to those who perished in the Holocaust.
 

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