Tag Archives: Chabad

“Keep quiet”–A documentary on Csanád Szegedi’s conversion from anti-Semite to observant Jew

A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.

Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.

After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.

Csanád Szegedi in the uniform of Magyar Gárda “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”

The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.

Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.

Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.

Csanád Szegedi with Rabbi Barruch Oberlander

Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”

Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.

We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.

So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.

Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.

February 12, 2017

Jobbik’s Gábor Vona and his Hanukkah greetings

Today Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP, managed to retain his position despite opposition from András Schiffer and the admittedly ineffectual smear campaign of the Fidesz-inspired media. Hadházy’s internal critics accused him of jeopardizing LMP’s firm policy of not cooperating with any other party when he talked about the necessity of dialogue among opposition forces.

I’m convinced that deep down Hadházy knows that the party’s current strategy is doomed to failure, but with a brave face he is trying to pretend otherwise. At the press conference after the party congress Bernadett Szél somewhat pointedly remarked that the party’s election strategy had already been decided earlier: LMP will be on its own at next year’s election because “there is no party in parliament that LMP could work with.” Hadházy took the easy way out by emphasizing that LMP doesn’t want to attract voters from the left but rather “hopes to convince voters of the government party that change is necessary.”

Now to the main topic of today’s post.

A few weeks ago the government launched a smear campaign against Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, which, as I indicated earlier, didn’t achieve its aim. In fact, the methods used to demonize Vona were so primitive and base that I got the distinct impression that the campaign actually resulted in some sympathy for Vona, even on the left.

Thus, new tactics were required, which Gábor Vona himself offered to Fidesz when he decided to write Hanukkah greetings to the various Jewish religious communities, including Slomó Köves’s Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Köves is a supporter of Orbán. Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government he became chief rabbi of the Hungarian armed forces.

Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were obviously part of Jobbik’s new strategy, which includes shedding the party’s anti-Semitic past. The problem is that that past was laden with so many sins against Hungarian Jews that a quick turnaround couldn’t be accepted by Köves or any other Jewish religious leaders. Köves wrote a lengthy letter in which he listed some of Jobbik’s most outrageous anti-Semitic statements. After a few famous sayings from the Old Testament, such as “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Köves suggested that instead of sending Hanukkah greetings, Jobbik leaders should voice their new convictions, if they are genuine, at forums where previously “not light, but hatred, ignominy, and darkness reigned.”

Köves made his letter public, which in turn elicited a public response from Vona. Perhaps the most interesting part of the letter is Vona’s explanation of how he ended up on the wrong side. He “inherited” his anti-Semitism because he found himself in an environment in which “one side called Hungarians Nazis, while the other labeled Jews traitors.” Since then, he “has come to the realization that this doesn’t lead anywhere.”

Vona’s answer didn’t satisfy the Jewish community, which was justifiably offended by his occasional juxtaposition of Hungarians and Jews instead of Christian and Jewish Hungarians. At the same time, it also outraged the more radical members of Jobbik who, I’m convinced, have been getting ample support in their opposition to Vona’s leadership from Fidesz.

Origo has been closely following the reverberations within Jobbik after the Hanukkah affair. The first story of some import came from Vecsés, a town just outside the city limits of Budapest. Vecsés at one point was the center of the Army of Outlaws movement, whose leader is a friend of Gábor Vona. Otherwise, Jobbik claims that the party and this neo-Nazi group have nothing to do with one another. On the local level, however, there seems to be cooperation despite the denial. Or, at least this used to be the case. The only Jobbik member of the town council was, or perhaps still is, affiliated with the Army of Outlaws. This man, Imre Orbán, has a reputation for being a troublemaker and has distinguished himself as a fouled-mouthed anti-Semite. This time he placed a post on Vecsés’s Jobbik Facebook page in which he accused Gábor Vona of making a fool of Jobbik members by turning to the rabbi with his apologies. He added some four-letter words in his discussion of Hanukkah. This incident was taken seriously by the party and Vona promised to investigate.

The official “state news” Híradó reported a few days ago that the Jobbik leadership in Vámosmikola, a village of 1,600 inhabitants, also criticized the leadership because of the Hanukkah greetings and the subsequent exchange of letters. Jobbik cannot be strong in Vámosmikola since in the 2014 municipal elections it didn’t even have a candidate for mayor or the town council, but even the smallest protest is big news in the right-wing press.

Pesti Srácok gleefully reported that a former member of the Magyar Gárda, once the paramilitary arm of Jobbik, since dismantled, demanded the vest that was part of their uniform from Vona, who proudly wore it at the opening of parliament in 2010. By trying to build bridges between Jews and the party, Vona “became unworthy” of this precious vest, claimed the former member of the Magyar Gárda.

Yesterday Magyar Idők called attention to a demonstration of disappointed Jobbik members that will take place in Debrecen, where the organizers are expecting Jobbik sympathizers from four counties. These people not only complain about Vona’s Hanukkah letter but also about Jobbik’s abandonment of its earlier radical political strategy. A closer reading of the article, however, reveals that most of these people are no longer members of the party. As the chief organizer, Erika Ulics, a lawyer, explains, 35-40 local leaders who will gather in Debrecen already left the party after Vona, in 2014, decided to scuttle the party’s former ideals. Ulics herself was expelled from the party, allegedly because she leaked inside information to Népszabadság.

Ulics, by the way, is a notorious neo-Nazi and an admirer of Ferenc Szálasi, who was executed for war crimes in 1946. In addition, she is a racist who suggested that all Gypsies should be forced to join the army and attack Romania. “If we win, Transylvania is ours. If we lose, Hungary is ours.” Those with strong stomachs should visit the news sites Cink and 4024 for more quotations from this vicious neo-Nazi and anti-Semite.

The government-sponsored sites are so eager to spread news of the imminent collapse of Jobbik that they are resorting to fiction. According to alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official site 888.hu reported that the entire ten-man Jobbik group in Nemeshetés, population 320, resigned in protest over Vona’s new pro-Jewish policies. It turned out that Jobbik doesn’t have a local cell in the village. Since then, the article has been taken offline.

Yesterday afternoon Ulics’s demonstration did take place. It is hard to tell from the picture just how many people attended, but as far as I can judge, there were mighty few. It certainly didn’t shake Jobbik to its very foundations as, I’m sure, some Fidesz leaders hoped.

The sign, by the way, is an Albert Wass quotation: “The surest weapon against mendacity and falsehood is truthfulness. This is our weapon.” And one shouldn’t miss the doctored photo of Gábor Vona and Ágnes Heller walking hand in hand. It is unlikely that Heller received this distinction because these people are such admirers of her accomplishments as a philosopher.

All in all, I tend to agree with the political scientist Attila Ágh, who in a recent interview said that Vona’s new strategy, for the time being at least, hasn’t resulted in any spectacular growth in the party’s popularity. On the other hand, it hasn’t collapsed either. The opposition to Vona is small, and he still has the party leadership behind him. Most supporters have remained faithful to the party, but it is difficult to predict whether Vona’s new strategy can achieve its aim of attracting voters from the left and from the large group of the undecided.

January 15, 2017

The Orbán government’s war on multiple fronts

It looks as if there is a good possibility that the Orbán government will go through with its plans to erect a monument in memory of the German “occupation” of Hungary which, according to the new constitution’s preamble, put an end to Hungarian sovereignty for almost half a century. I’m sure that by now all readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware of the significance of this monument. I also hope that most people who are even slightly familiar with the history of Hungary in the twentieth century perfectly understand that this monument, if erected, will be the embodiment of Hungary’s claim to total innocence in the Holocaust. This attempt at rewriting history has unfortunate ramifications for the way Hungarian society will look at the past and their own place in it. This monument, if Viktor Orbán’s plans become reality, will put a stamp of approval on the government-led falsification of history.

The planned monument has already raised concerns and objections, and yet Viktor Orbán refuses to reconsider. Why is this monument so important to Fidesz and the present right-wing government? Why are they ready to alienate important groups at home and abroad for the sake of this hideous monument? Why did they announce their decision so late? Why the hurry?

I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for consideration. The first is that, in my opinion, preparations for the reinterpretation of the history of Hungary between the two world wars has been in the works for a long period of time. Since way before 2010. Moreover, I’m sure that it was systematically worked out with one overarching thing in mind: to take away the odium of the Holocaust from the Hungarians. I know that a lot of people think that the script for a revisionist history was written only recently in order to compete with Jobbik, whose votes Fidesz needs at the next election. But the text of the constitution’s preamble belies this theory. Viktor Orbán promised great changes in every facet of life in 2010. Why should history be any different? In fact, changing society’s historical consciousness should be practically a prerequisite of all other changes.

It was maybe yesterday that Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, formerly of MDF and today a DK candidate in the first electoral district of Budapest, pointed out that by now he thinks that Viktor Orbán and his friends aren’t just trying to please their friends in Jobbik but actually believe that changes in historical interpretation are warranted. Reporter Olga Kálmán loudly protested, as is customary in Hungarian liberal circles. I tend to side with Kerék-Bárczy. I think that setting up the “Veritas” Institute under the direction of a former MIÉP now Jobbik supporter is more than politics. It comes from deep conviction.

I will make available a few documents here. First, a protest of twenty-three historians that was published this morning on Galamus. 

* * *

The protest of the Hungarian historians against the planned German Occupation Memorial

We hereby protest against the plan to erect a memorial in central Budapest to the German occupation of 1944. The memorial falsifies an important period of our history, and relativizes the Holocaust in Hungary.

According to the description of the memorial, which has recently been made public, the memorial will be built “in the memory of all the victims.” Since, however, this memorial is based on a falsified version of history, it cannot fulfill its purpose. By presenting both the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust together as the sole victim of the Germans, the planned memorial dishonours the memory of those half a million victims who were killed in the Holocaust in Hungary. 

The Hungarian Holocaust took place with the active participation of the Hungarian authorities. But the planned memorial places all responsibility solely with the Germans and the German army’s “Arrow Cross subordinates.” In truth, the Arrow Cross had nothing to do with the mass deportations which took place in the summer of 1944.

We, the undersigned historians, call upon the government to stop falsifying our recent past, to stop relativizing the history of the Holocaust in Hungary, and to abandon the plan to erect a memorial to the German occupation on Freedom Square in Budapest.

Bencsik Péter historian

Deák Ágnes historian

Eörsi László historian

Fazekas Csaba historian

Frojimovics Kinga historian

Gecsényi Lajos historian

Gyáni Gábor  historian

Hajdu Tibor historian

Hosszú Gyula historian

Karády Viktor sociologist

Karsai László historian

Kenedi János  historian

Klaniczay Gábor historian

Kovács M. Mária historian

Kövér György  historian

Majsai Tamás historian

Mink András historian

Molnár Judit historian

Ormos Mária historian

Paksy Zoltán historian

Pihurik Judit historian

Rainer M. János historian

Sipos Péter historian

    * * *

You will recall that Mazsihisz wrote a letter to Viktor Orbán in which the leaders of the organization expressed their misgivings about the direction in which the Holocaust Memorial Year is heading. They complained about Mária Schmidt’s reinterpretation of the Horthy regime and objected to the appointment of Sándor Szakály to head the “Veritas” Institute and demanded his resignation. In addition, they called on the government to give up the idea of a monument to the events of March 19, 1944. Yesterday came the answer:

* * *

A Statement by the Government Information Centre

January 21, 2014 2:50 PM

Historical facts speak for themselves. The time has come for us to erect a monument to all victims. This is a question of humanity. The debate concerning the monument is understandable because this is an important issue, but we very much hope that no one disputes the fact that the victims of the events that occurred following 19 March 1944 deserve to be remembered with compassion and respect. On 19 March 1944, Hungary was occupied by Nazi German forces; on this day, the country lost its independence.

The Fundamental Law of Hungary states very clearly: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order. We hold that after the decades of the twentieth century which led to a state of moral decay, we have an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal.”

This is why, to mark the 70th anniversary of the German occupation, the Government decided to erect a memorial in commemoration of all victims.

We ask everyone not to make a political issue out of this compassionate remembrance. It is the objective of Hungary’s Government for a culture of remembrance to become established in Hungary.

(Prime Minister’s Office)

* * *

There is one obvious question: what victims are we talking about besides Hungary’s Jewish citizens? Hungary continued the war uninterrupted on the German side just as before. Thus the peaceful occupation of the country made no difference in the military losses of Hungary. The reference to lost independence, of course, equates to a refusal to take any responsibility for what happened.

So, this is where we stand now. Orbán is planning to go ahead while Mazsihisz is standing firm.  As expected, the city council of District V with its Fidesz-Jobbik majority voted to grant the permit to construct the statue. Mazsihisz so far hasn’t changed its mind. As András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, said, “trench warfare” set in.

St. George and the Dragon

St. George and the Dragon

In addition to Mazsihisz, there is EMIH (Egységes Magyarországi Izraelita Hitközség/Unified Israelite Religious Community/Chabad) whose leader, Rabbi Slomó Köves, has been on very friendly terms with Fidesz and the Orbán government. For example, Köves was appointed to be the official rabbi to the Hungarian armed forces. Even he is supporting Mazsihisz, but he suggests that besides the ultimatum-like voices an alternative program ought to be offered. Whatever he means by that.

Mazsihisz’s position has been greatly strengthened by Randolph L. Braham’support, who shares the point of view of Mazsihisz concerning the issues at hand. He considers the events of late a well orchestrated rewriting of history with a view to the rehabilitation of the Horthy regime. Braham in an interview given to Népszabadság said while talking about Sándor Szakály that he recalled the saying:  “Behind every dictator with  a sword there is a historian with a sponge in his hand.” How true.

And here is another topic we ought to cover. I may have criticized Colleen Bell for not being as well prepared for her Senate hearing as she should have been. However, no one in his right mind should think that her statement about current Hungarian politics is Colleen Bell’s personal opinion. It clearly reflects the U.S. State Department’s interpretation of Hungarian affairs. She was only the voice of this opinion. Therefore it is inexplicable why Gergely Gulyás addressed an open letter to Colleen Bell personally in today’s Magyar Nemzet. He accused her of bias. How will she be able to represent the United States with the kinds of prejudices she exhibited at the hearing, Gulyás asked. Bell shouldn’t be worried about the state of democracy in Hungary. The U.S. Embassy had nothing to say when in the fall of 2006 “the police force of the Gyurcsány government brutally attacked the peaceful demonstrators.” Gulyás at one point talked about Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party as a “left-wing Jobbik.” It is the Demokratikus Koalíció that poses a danger to democracy. He expressed his hope that “the Hungarian government can count on the new ambassador in the struggle against extremists.”

At the same time he talked about some of “the self-appointed Hungary experts” who have an influence on American diplomacy and who are committed to the Hungarian left-liberal side and are therefore unable to swallow the fact that it was a right-of center government that won the election. “These people try to mislead American diplomacy and the American public with the most absurd lies.” Finally, he drew a line in the sand: “The citizens of Hungary don’t need outside help in their decisions concerning their own future.”

Trench warfare with with Mazsihisz and open war against the United States. Where will this lead?