On Thursday in the Spinoza Theater on Dob utca, in the middle of the “Jewish quarters,” a lengthy conversation took place between Gábor Vona (Jobbik) and Katalin Rangos, a well-known journalist. It was part of a series of conversations with leaders of all the more substantial parties, including Fidesz. This was the third such gathering, after the appearances of Ferenc Gyurcsány (DK) and Bernadett Szél (LMP).
After Anna Sándor, the director of Spinoza, announced the scheduled conversations a couple of months ago, she received criticism and even threats from people who considered Jobbik an unacceptable guest because of its anti-Semitic past. Anna Sándor refused to retreat. I can only applaud this decision. Hungary is allegedly still a democracy and, whether we like it or not, Jobbik is the largest opposition party. Its support is twice the size of MSZP’s.
The debate that spilled over to Facebook was about whether Spinoza, which is known to be sensitive to minority questions and yearly organizes the by now famous Jewish Festival, is not legitimizing with its invitation a party that until recently was known for its anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. From the comments on Jewish internet sites it is clear that the larger part of the Jewish community thinks that the theater’s invitation was a mistake.
The capacity of the Spinoza Theater is small and the atmosphere intimate, though the audience was not allowed to ask questions. The conversation, lasting an hour and a half, was exclusively between Katalin Rangos and Gábor Vona. Rangos was hard hitting and, as a result, Vona faltered a few times. But by and large he handled the situation quite well. The conversation can be viewed on Hír TV.
The weakest part of Vona’s responses came when he was asked why he tolerates László Toroczkai as deputy chairman of the party. I wrote recently about Toroczkai in my post on “Jobbik’s checkered past and present.” Most observers are convinced that Vona needs Toroczkai in a high position within the party because his presence in the leadership ensures the loyalty of the more right-radical supporters of Jobbik. Vona’s justification for Toroczkai’s presence in the party brought to mind that on certain issues Vona is still very much of a hard liner. For example, Toroczkai’s views on the migrants and Islam suit him just fine. His answer to Rangos about his old claim regarding the incompatibility of his possible Jewishness and his being the head of Jobbik was also totally unacceptable. I was equally appalled when he expressed his admiration for Mária Wittner just because she was a heroine of the 56 revolution, regardless of her extreme right-wing political views. So, I suspect that there are many far-right elements remaining in Vona’s ideological playbook.
On the other hand, his explanation of how he, who once said that Jobbik was not a democratic party and that democracy is not his cup of tea, now wants to restore democracy in Hungary was more convincing. As he put it, he can thank Viktor Orbán for his recognition of the absolute necessity of democracy because in the last six to seven years he learned what it’s like to live in an undemocratic state. Those who don’t want to listen to the entire conversation can read a good summary of it here.
Péter S. Föld, whose writings I greatly admire, wrote an article titled “Variations on Vona and Spinoza.” Variation A is that Vona is a Nazi and Jobbik is a Nazi party. They try to convince us that their past actions were only childish mischief, but their metamorphosis is merely a tactical move. After they grab power we will see a return of the old Jobbik. They will again count Jewish members of the government and parliament; they will again spit into the shoes alongside the Danube. Therefore, allowing Vona into Spinoza was not just a mistake but a sin. Variation B claims that we should recognize that Jobbik is not the same party that it was a few years ago. Vona has changed for the better. If we look around, we must realize that Fidesz is in fact to the right of Jobbik by now. If they are ready to apologize, we must forgive them. Moreover, we have no choice if we want to get rid of the Orbán regime; we must cooperate with Jobbik.
Föld summed up the opposing positions on the left perfectly. I figure that the majority of the people believe Variation A, just as Katalin Rangos announced at the beginning of the conversation. Those who were present most likely will not be swayed by whatever Vona told them.
While we contemplate the alternative positions, it is worth taking a look at the government papers because they might guide us in our own assessment of the dilemma the Hungarian left-of-center opposition faces. First of all, all three papers I consulted talked about both sides in a most degrading manner. Here are a few headlines: “Communists, anti-Semites, and flag burners in cahoots for power,” “Vona sucks up to and delivers an oath of allegiance to the moonbow of MSZP-SZDSZ,” and “Vona makes a penitent, ridiculous visit to the downtown liberal elite.” All three articles have an anti-Semitic tinge to them because they make it clear that this “downtown liberal elite” frequents the old Jewish quarters and the Spinoza Theater.
According to 888.hu, Vona humiliated his own party and disgraced himself. And Rangos was labelled “the most servile and unscrupulous” supporter of the MSZP-SZDSZ governments. Even so, according 888.hu, she was all sweetness and light and acted like a “forgiving mother hen” when talking to Vona. She was accused of allowing Vona to wiggle out of sticky questions concerning the past. The Fidesz media, most likely reflecting the party’s fears, seems truly worried about some kind of reconciliation between the opposition parties of the left and the right.
I have the distinct feeling that Fidesz was mighty unhappy about this gathering and that orders were given out to warm up some old stories about Jobbik’s past anti-Semitic statements to help shape public opinion for the event. Gábor Kubatov, who is an extremely important person within Fidesz, gave an interview to Figyelő in which he talked at some length about a possible “technical cooperation between the left and Jobbik.” While he was at it, he delivered a ringing condemnation of both anti-Semitism and Ágnes Heller, “the chief ideologist of the left-liberals who keeps talking about cooperation with Jobbik.” Such cooperation would completely undermine Fidesz’s basic political strategy.