Ben Margulies


Nationalists in Poland and Hungary are increasingly using anti-Semitic rhetoric, but their real target is a populist attack on liberalism. 

Of the many ignoble threads running through European history, anti-Semitism is among the deepest. Some authors trace anti-Semitism to the Roman conflicts with Jewish rebels in the early imperial period. Karen Armstrong puts the birth of European anti-Semitism at the First Crusade, twinned with that other durable hatred, Islamophobia.

What has changed since then is that most European states and political parties now explicitly reject anti-Semitism. A minority of European citizens may maintain prejudices towards Jews, and some of these may be politically active. However, European leaders and public institutions have rejected hostility towards Jews, and have done so since the Second World War. Even radical-right populist parties, have, in the past decade, dropped anti-Semitic rhetoric and even embraced Jewish minorities, and refocused on a more publicly acceptable Islamophobia.

But in Eastern and Central Europe, state institutions, political parties and their allies seem increasingly eager to target Jewish figures and Jewish narratives. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party ran an election campaign dedicated to all-out combat against two enemies: Islamic migrants, and the demonic figure of liberal philanthropist George Soros, whom Orbán casts as the mastermind of a migrant invasion. Soros is Jewish; he survived World War II and fled in 1947, becoming a successful financier and currency trader - almost the perfect stereotype of the international Jewish capitalist. Fidesz carpeted the country in posters of a smiling Soros, an apparent reference to the Nazi stereotype of the “laughing Jew” and won a two-thirds majority with nearly half the popular vote. The government’s first order of business was to regulate and tax non-governmental organisations receiving money from abroad, through a series of “stop Soros” laws. These NGO’s are accused of supporting “illegal immigration.”

In post-Communist Poland, there has always been an anti-Semitic component to the far right, which has at times inveigled itself within big-tent right-wing parties or right-wing coalitions. But anti-Semitism had never found expression as state policy; nor had state policy ever seemed to encourage other political actors to engage in attacks of Jewish people, institutions or history.

Until earlier this year that is, when the Law and Justice government passed a statute making allowing the criminal prosecution of anyone who, “publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich.” The law allows imprisonment for up to three years.  The law partly refers to a tendency for some public figures to refer, inaccurately, to “Polish death camps” (rather than “death camps in Poland,” which would more accurate). But many worry that the new statute targets historians investigating incidents where Poles did attack Jewish neighbours or assisted Nazi authorities, such as the infamous Jedwabne massacre in 1941

The law predictably incited outrage from historians and Jewish organisations, as well as Israeli leaders. Polish nationalist publications portrayed the nation as being under attack from the forces of “anti-Polonism,” while even the prime minister,  Mateusz Morawiecki, alleged that there were many Jewish collaborators during the Holocaust. Early in May, The Guardian reported that Polish nationalists had begun harassing guides at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp museum and attacking its administrators online, accusing them of ignoring the deaths of non-Jewish Poles and of hostility towards Polish symbols.

Why is anti-Semitism useful for Polish and Hungarian politicians in the modern age, especially given that their populist counterparts in Western Europe have moved away from it? 

Classical anti-Semitism has a long history in all parts of Europe. But Judeophobia is, to a large extent, not about Jews qua Jews. Instead, it is about liberalism and the order it creates – the free-flowing movement of knowledge, of money, or people; the universal values of human equality and progress; and the threat it poses to particularistic communities based on customary authority, hierarchy or economies. Liberal universalism and its descendants provided the vehicle for the emancipation of European Jews from various legal disabilities in the late 18thand 19thcenturies. This means that Jews became symbolic of all that is threatening about liberalism, globalisation, universal values and progress, the bete noire of conservatives, nationalists and anti-capitalists across Europe.

As a result, Jews have long been metonyms for the wider liberal order. As Alon Confino explains in A World Without Jewsthe Nazis used their native Jewish minority as a symbol of the materialist and liberal ideologies, the un-Germananes, they wished to extirpate. Destroy the Jews, destroy the ideas the Jews represent.

For Polish or Hungarian nationalists, populists and conservatives, anti-Semitism isn’t just an endogenous, local custom. It is a way of rejecting a liberal order that, to Central and Eastern Europeans, often seems alien, and mainly of benefit to minorities or outsiders. As Tony Judt pointed out, the European post war liberal order is an explicit riposte to Nazism and the Holocaust. The protection of a Jewish minority and commemoration of the Holocaust is central to that liberal order. Attacking Jewish figures, or problematizing the narrative of the Holocaust, isn’t just an attack of Jews, but an attack on the “oppressive” liberal order that Jews symbolize. 

Orbán in Hungary, and his Polish counterparts in the Law and Justice Party, are often described as populist. Populists, of course, attack the liberal order and liberal elites, and Eastern European populists are not the only ones who have realized that Jews can serve as a ready symbol of that order. Research shows that large numbers of Poles see Jews as possessing a great deal of power over world events (45.9 percent believed that “Jews exert too much influence over world events” in 2010). 

Populists – especially nationalist ones – often have an external enemy in addition to the domestic elite. This allows for the constant reproduction of crisis and conflict, which is necessary for the populist worldview and for populist mobilization. It also reinforces the sense that the “pure people” are the victim. When Jewish figures condemn anti-Semitic remarks, the originators of those remarks often claim to have been wilfully misinterpreted or attacked, effecting what Ruth Wodak called “victim-perpetrator reversal”. In Poland, this can reinforce a long tradition of portraying the country as a noble, sacrificial victim. 

Does this mean that Jews, or Europeans more generally, should be complacent about anti-Semitism? Not at all. Using Jews as a symbol for objectionable systems or phenomena is not new – it is the essence of the scapegoating that has plagued Jews, and many other minorities, throughout the last millennium and more of European history. The fact that Jews may not be the ultimate target of political and social anger does not make the violence against them any less real. After all, you can end up just as dead in the cross-fire.


Ben Margulies is a visiting research fellow at the University of Warwick, where he did postdoctoral work between 2015 and 2017. He also teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. He is a specialist in European and party politics. He tweets at @chequerefuture.​

Image by