Elie Wiesel once said that one person of integrity can make a difference. This Nobel Laureate, one of the rare unimpeachable voices of moral authority in the world today, held true to his own philosophy when he recently repudiated and returned the highest honor the government of Hungary can bestow -- the Grand Cross Order of Merit -- which had been bestowed on him in 2004. He did so in protest of the participation by the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament and a Government State Secretary in a ceremony honoring World War II Nazi sympathizer and fascist Jozsef Nyiro. There is no doubt that this bold step has indeed made a difference in the way the world is looking at today's Hungary.
This dramatic step was taken in order to awaken the world to the appalling resurgence of open anti-Semitism in far-right Hungarian political discourse. Beyond the controversy surrounding the Nyiro ceremony, Wiesel also sought to shine a broader spotlight on the disturbing Hungarian trend of trying to rehabilitate war-time leaders who were deeply implicated in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
No doubt Professor Wiesel's decision and very public stand is a painful one for the many Hungarians who reject bigotry and wish their country to be associated with the highest principles of democracy, human rights and tolerance. And yet, uncomfortable as it may be, this Lantos Human Rights Prize winner's "wake-up" call is one that must be heard by Hungarian government officials, the Hungarian people, and leaders all across Europe experiencing similar situations in their own countries.
The accumulating signs of intolerance and hatred across Europe, and in Hungary in particular, are becoming too numerous to ignore. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League of anti-Semitic attitudes in ten European countries found "disturbingly high levels" in each of those surveyed; the highest levels of such bigotry were found in Hungary where 63 percent of respondents subscribed to anti-Semitic notions. Recent events on the ground in Hungary also bear out these disturbing findings: the neo-Fascist Jobbik party spews vile anti-Semitic venom on an almost continual basis and helps create a political climate in which intolerance spills over into criminality, a 90 year old retired rabbi was subjected to a sickening public verbal assault, the monument to Swedish Humanitarian and Holocaust Hero Raoul Wallenberg was defaced with pig's feet oozing blood, and a Jewish cemetery was defaced.
Such crimes have been rightly condemned by Prime Minister Orban and major opposition political figures, as well as the leaders of many of Hungary's largest churches. A civilized society would expect nothing less. Furthermore, the government has taken important pro-active steps to raise awareness of Hungary's tragic culpability in the annihilation of 600,000 Hungarians during the Holocaust. It has proclaimed 2012 as Raoul Wallenberg Year, honoring the centennial of Wallenberg's birth, and has organized numerous important events and conferences aimed at teaching and learning from the lessons of history. At the opening event of the Wallenberg year, Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi spoke these somber words:
"During the Holocaust, the Hungarian State was weighed on the scales and found wanting. It could not protect its citizens, what's more -- even if under foreign occupation -- it assisted in their extermination."
Important and commendable as these efforts are, they are not enough. The rise of far-right parties across Europe, including the funding of the right wing Alliance of European National Movements by the European Parliament, is a disturbing trend that continues to develop with each passing election. And in Hungary, the flagrantly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Jobbik party has increased its government presence and now holds 46 seats in Parliament. The Orban government must do more than simply support pro-tolerance initiatives; such positive initiatives are easily undermined and ignored when, in Elie Wiesel's words, "... authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past...". The current government must put an end to the double standard that allows its Foreign Minister, who is widely seen as a stalwart of tolerance and acceptance, to make a profound statement about a dark period in Hungary's past while allowing a State Secretary to attend a ceremony for a fascist ideologue like Nyiro.
My father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, was the only survivor of the Holocaust ever elected to the U.S. Congress and a proud Hungarian-American. He believed deeply in Hungary's great destiny as a fully democratic and free nation committed to the values of human rights and justice. Were he still alive, I can only imagine that he would applaud the courageous stand that his dear friend Elie Wiesel has taken to help bring attention to the troubling recent events in Hungary. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would call on the Hungarian government to do much more to combat the evil of anti-Semitism and prevent it from ever again taking root along the banks of the Danube River.
Ms. Katrina Lantos Swett, Ph.D, serves as President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which she established in 2008 to carry on the work of her father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos. She teaches Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy at Tufts University.