Jobbik needs Jews to run the world
Conspiracy theories enjoy immense popularity. Virtually all communities (in Western and Eastern societies alike) have their own well-established ones. In the United States, for example, 75-80 per cent of the population believes that the official version of the Kennedy murder, the “lone killer” theory, does not fit the truth. Sixty-two per cent of Americans believe that the Bush government had prior knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks but deliberately kept quiet about it. A third of Brits are convinced the accident that killed Princess Diana was in fact an assassination. Almost 80 per cent of the populations of certain Muslim countries think that the governments of Israel and the United States carried out the September 11 attacks rather than a group of Arabs.
Research here in Hungary also indicates the widespread popularity of conspiracy theories. According to a representative survey carried out together with Medián at the end of 2009 based on our questions, more than two-thirds of those canvassed agreed with the statement that “we never find out the truth from the media and the news, and everything important happens behind the scenes”, and half agreed that “during the crisis powerful financial circles joined forces to destroy Hungary’s economy in an effort to colonise the country”. Eighty-eight per cent of the respondents agreed with at least one of five conspiracy theories, while 23 per cent agreed with all. Some research suggests that conspiracy theories have a strong subconscious effect on our way of thinking: although they exert a powerful influence on us, we delude ourselves that we ourselves are immune.
Conspiracy theories comfort
What explains the extraordinary appeal of conspiracy theories? Their chief psychological benefit is that they provide psychologically comforting explanations for unexpected and shocking events that are otherwise difficult to explain. It is not coincidental that such theories thrive following crises, natural disasters and assassinations. Conspiracy theories are capable of explaining an incredibly broad sphere of phenomena based on very little and can be applied to many new events. Psychologically they are comforting because they help to distinguish between good and evil and project responsibility onto a named enemy, as well as providing an outlet for hostile feelings.
Conspiracy theories allow us to continue to believe that the world is essentially just. If people living in Arab countries take the view that the governments of Israel and the United States carried out the September 11 attacks, then they can avoid facing up to the problem of Islamic fundamentalism burdening their own communities. If a group of conspirators (MI6, Mosad etc.) was behind Diana’s death, then we can escape the upsetting thought that the death of a wonderful person can be caused by something as banal as a drunk driver.
The social psychological benefit of conspiracy theories extends even beyond that: they help to explain adverse social events, reconstruct the past and predict future events, call attention to threats to our own group, spur the members of our own group to collective defence, and provide ostensible moral justification for cruelty and violence towards external groups.
The Jews, of course!
The villains in modern world conspiracy theories typically realise their plots with the cool rationality of “homo economicus”, taking advantage of modern institutions and the latest technology. However, conspiracy stereotypes connected to Jews can be regarded partly as an archaic, collective legacy of the historic past. Conspiracy theories about Jews sprang up in the Middle Ages, in a different form to those of today and embedded in a different, magical-transcendent world view.
They were blamed, for example, for the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009 and the Rome earthquake of 1020. Jews were also held responsible for the famine that struck Europe in the 14th century, leading to repeated pogroms on French soil. Some people even ascribed the plague that claimed the lives of almost a third of the population of Europe to a Jewish conspiracy designed to wipe out Christian communities despite the fact that the Jews were also among its victims.
Social fears and emotional unrest are fertile ground for the manufacturing of conspiracy theories, with Jews frequently becoming the targets of collective scapegoating.
It is important to have enemies
Although conspiracy theories exert an influence beyond radical and extremist political movements, such groups could not exist without the belief that there are enemies conspiring against them. Such conspiracy theories name the enemy and legitimise radical measures taken against them, as well as helping to maintain the collective self-esteem of the group and satisfying the narcissistic needs of the group (“we are sufficiently important that everyone is against us”).
Conspiracy theories, in other words, are indispensable ideological and political props for radical groups. It is largely radical right-wing organisations that use ethic categories to label conspirators, although such movements are not necessarily anti-Semitic. In recent years in Northern and Western Europe ethnocentric and nationalist organisations have formed and achieved political successes that in a bizarre twist are philo-Semitic mainly as a result of anti-immigrant feeling directed mainly at Muslims, such as the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders in Holland, the Danish People’s Party, the Swedish Democratic Party and Flemish Interest in Belgium. Nevertheless anti-Semitism remains characteristic of radical right-wing organisations and movements in Central and Eastern Europe.
Fertile ground for radical right
Resistance to change and the desire to create a uniform, homogenous community are common to radical right-wing ideologies and anti-Semitism. In Hungary the conditions are conducive to those elements combining. First, one of the strongest far-right parties in the whole of Europe got into parliament in 2010. That was not just a minor “accident”: the data of Political Capital’s Derex index shows a strong social demand for a radical right-wing, against-the-system, authoritarian, ethnocentric ideology.
Second, opinion polls have shown an increase in anti-Semitism, and above all political anti-Semitism, in the past few years, partly in connection with the economic crisis.
Third, research suggests (see above) that the Hungarian public is very susceptible to conspiracy theories. That is not a temporary phenomenon: a lack of trust in political institutions, the press and the banks means theories that politicians and economic players are conspiring against the “people” (while the press, which is in the hands of those in power, hushes up such conspiracies) can easily take off.
Take gypsies, add some Jews…
Jobbik burst onto the political scene with anti-gypsy rhetoric and the slogan of “gypsy crime”, and it is important to note that capitalising on and strengthening anti-gypsy feeling is by far the most significant and socially most dangerous aspect of Jobbik’s politics. The ideology of Jobbik and the new organisations formed along the Guard model combine anti-Roma prejudice with traditional, classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In their view, Jews and Israel deliberately stoke the fire of the Roma-non-Roma confrontation to realise their “colonising”, “conquering” schemes. While the immediate threat of far-right activism is the escalation of the Roma-non-Roma conflict, their actions may also promote political anti-Semitism in public discourse and public opinion.
According to the Jobbik ideology, Jews are ultimately responsible for the gypsy problem. József Bíber, the party’s former chairman, expressed that view in no uncertain terms in 2008: “What is gypsy crime? Let’s not deceive ourselves: it’s a biological weapon in the hands of Zionists.” Gypsies in this equation are no more than the unconscious tool of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at subjugating Hungary, as illustrated by the following remark made by Csanád Szegedi, the party’s current deputy chairman, in 2009: “Our money is being used to fund gypsy breeding under state supervision.”
Jobbik needed a new enemy
By reviving anti-Semitism (and with its conspicuous street actions and strengthened anti-gypsy feeling) Jobbik is primarily seeking to remedy its own political crisis. Following last year’s general elections the political environment became markedly less favourable for Jobbik: public dissatisfaction decreased and the government successfully took the wind out of the sails of the radical party by passing several symbolic motions earlier linked to Jobbik (such as the Trianon Commemoration Day).
Jobbik has been unable to demonstrate sufficient strength against the government and getting into parliament has created a kind of identity crisis. The party leadership has been criticised by many for having “softened”, lost its radicalism and having simply become a cog in the wheel of the party system that Jobbik criticised so stridently in the past. It also lost its earlier “favourite” enemies: Ferenc Gyurcsány was pushed into the background and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) did not cross the threshold to get into parliament. Following the April 2010 general elections support for the party has decreased or stagnated. The local government elections last autumn were a clear failure for the party.
With its attempts to mobilise supporters based on anti-Semitism, Jobbik is attempting in one fell swoop to solve its problem of declining support, ease conflicts within the party and provoke the public as a way of reviving interest in the party’s politics. How successful Jobbik’s experiment will be is questionable. The earlier example of MIÉP suggests at least that it is not possible to run a successful and strong party based on anti-Semitism alone.
The question is whether the anti-Semitic talk and general mood that has become more prevalent in the past few years in Hungary (partly but not solely due to the crisis) has increased the potential camp of voters open to political anti-Semitism. From a party political point of view, anti-Semitism can benefit Jobbik as a “badge of identity”.
That is a path on which Fidesz cannot and does not want to follow Jobbik, so the far-right party does not need to worry that it will again be outdone. With party political competition potentially driving Jobbik towards increasingly crude anti-Semitism, it could in the future become the most important factor that separates Fidesz from Jobbik.
This is an edited & updated version of a talk given at the “Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism” conference organised by Political Capital & held recently at the Central European University.
Zionists pulling the strings
Statements of some far-right players about the Gyöngyöspata affair:
“The time has come to state it clearly: Israel is bent on conquering Hungary. This is a fact; as evidence, it is enough to look at the all but total monopoly of Israeli investments and real estate developments. And the gypsies are a kind of biological weapon in this strategy. They are used as a means against the Hungarians just as, to use a simple analogy, a snow plough is hitched to a truck.”
– Jobbik MP Lóránt Hegedűs, 1 May
“Currently in this country we are witnessing what happened in the US in the 1960s; various Zionist circles incite the gypsies against the majority population, just as they did in the 1960s in respect to the blacks in the US. And, as a result of this goading, the gypsies, an alien race, try to occupy living space against which we have to react in the spirit of healthy self-protection.”
– Zsolt Tyirityán, leader of the ‘Betyársereg’ active in Gyöngyöspata, 15 April
“It is impossible to fight against the powers behind politics. As soon as I start to talk about the Jews I am immediately labelled as a Nazi.”
– Tamás Eszes, commander of ‘Véderő active in Gyöngyöspata, mayoral candidate in Gyöngyöspata, 28 April
This analysis was originally published on The Budapest Times.