Jews in 18th-century Hungary were humiliated and compelled to pay a “tolerance tax” to avoid expulsion. Some bureaucrats treated Tai Ji Men in the same way.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*Introduction to the webinar “Tai Ji Men: Affirming the Core Value of Tolerance,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on November 16, 2023, International Day for Tolerance.
An article already published in Bitter Winter on November 18th, 2023.
November 16 is the International Day for Tolerance. In introducing this webinar, one of those calling the attention on the Tai Ji Men case of tax injustice, I would like to remember an infamous historical case in which the words “tolerance” and “tax” were put together, in fact to promote not tolerance but intolerance. It is the story of the “tolerance tax,” imposed on the Jews of Hungary between 1749 and 1846.
In Europe, Jews had been expelled from several countries but not from the Austrian Empire, which regarded itself as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious imperial power and adopted a policy of relative tolerance. However, anti-Semitism was always strong in Hungary, with relics remaining present there to this very day. Many agitated to have Jews expelled from the Kingdom of Hungary, a semi-autonomous part of the Austrian Empire. Empress Maria Theresa in 1746 came out with what looked to her like a bright idea. Jews will not be expelled from Hungary but to stay there and practice their religion freely they had to pay from 1749 on what the Empress called in Latin “taxa tolerantialis” and in German “Toleranzgebührer” (tolerance tax). Those hostile to the Jews in Hungary should tolerate their presence but will know that the Jews were paying for it a special tax benefiting the local non-Jews.
The idea was, of course, morally obnoxious. It implied that tolerance can be bought and sold, and that to be tolerated a religious minority had to pay a special tax. Religious minorities paid higher taxes than Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, but this had always been criticized and condemned by Christians. It is worth noting that the measure was introduced by Maria Theresa, an Empress normally associated with progressive Enlightenment philosophy. But in fact Enlightenment had a dark side and its hostility to Christianity extended to its ancestor, Judaism. The most famous Enlightenment philosopher (and correspondent of Maria Theresa), Voltaire, has been described as “an obsessive anti-Semite.” Maria Theresa herself, who had expelled Jews from Prague in 1744, has been called by historians “perhaps the most anti-Jewish monarch of her day” and one who “detested Jews.”
To make things worse, the tolerance tax paid by Jews in Hungary had to reach a quota that was constantly increased, until Emperor Ferdinand I cancelled the tax in 1846. However, even after that date, Jews still suffered for several years as unpaid taxes for the previous years continued to be collected. Even the army was mobilized to compel Jewish tax evaders to pay.
While some may argue that the tolerance tax was better than expulsion, it was a clear case of injustice. A religious minority was told that to be tolerated it had to accept an unjust tax, pay, and remain silent.
The historical contexts are very much different but the similarities with the Tai Ji Men case are easy to detect. After Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen’s attempt to eradicate and destroy Tai Ji Men failed, they were told that they can continue to exist in Taiwan but should pay unjust and illegal tax bills. In practice, like the Jews in Hungary under Maria Theresa, Tai Ji Men’s Shifu (Grand Master) and dizi (disciples) were told they should pay a “tolerance tax.” Tolerance was not granted to them as a right. They were asked to pay for it.
The Jewish “tolerance tax” has become in European history a synonym of discrimination and shame. The same will happen in Taiwan with the tax harassment of Tai Ji Men.