Great was my surprise this morning when I discovered that Gábor Vona, chairman of the right-wing party earlier known for its anti-Semitism and its condemnation of Israel as a terrorist state, had announced that Jobbik from now on “will respect Israel’s right to exist, form its own identity, opinions and articulate its interests.” As the Reuter’s headline put it: “Jobbik ditches far-right past” in order to be taken seriously as a challenger to Viktor Orbán at next year’s national election.
A couple of days ago I devoted a post to Gábor Vona’s Hanukkah greetings to heads of religious organizations. One of the recipients was Slomó Köves, head of the Chabad-based Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregations. Köves was taken aback by the “gesture” because of the strongly anti-Semitic past of Jobbik and its leader. An exchange of open letters followed Vona’s original message, which prompted a lively public debate.
What I didn’t mention in my post was an article written by T. Gábor Szántó, editor-in-chief of Szombat (Sabbath and also the Hungarian word for Saturday), who gave some advice to Vona about “how Jobbik could become part of a civilized, democratic society.” While Szántó acknowledged Jobbik’s “slow metamorphosis” and the “expulsion of the most extremist members of the leadership,” he noted that “Jobbik bears serious responsibility for the legitimization of anti-Semitic discourse in Hungarian public life.” Such transformations have also been observed in West European far-right parties, he noted, but the Hungarian extreme right is still very much behind in this respect.
If Jobbik wants to become a respectable, civilized, democratic force, the party and its forums must turn against their former views. To achieve that goal, first they must define their attitude toward the Holocaust and accept the Hungarian state’s responsibility for acts against its Jewish citizens in 1944. Second, they must clarify their party’s relationship to openly anti-Semitic and racist groups and forums. And finally, they should articulate their views on Israel’s right to exist and on the fundamentalism and terror of Islam that threatens the values of the western world. After such changes, assuming these changes remain permanent elements of Jobbik’s political views, one might discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Jewish community and Jobbik.
It looks as if Vona took Szántó’s advice to heart. Jobbik a few years ago was guilty of holding all three unacceptable political positions that Szántó outlined. Let’s start with Jobbik’s attitude toward the State of Israel. I could, of course, find hundreds of examples. But here’s one, from 2012: a demonstration in front of the Israeli Embassy. The demonstration was organized to call attention to an Israeli attack on Gaza. Here, Vona, with a Palestinian scarf around his neck, said that while Israel constantly talks about the Holocaust, it maintains, with the assistance of the United States, the world’s largest concentration camp, Gaza. He suggested making a list of “Israeli capital” that exists in Hungary. He claimed that Viktor Orbán during his first administration signed a pact with Poland and Germany, according to which in case of trouble these three countries can settle 500,000 Israelis. He called Israel a terrorist state and said that all Hungarian politicians must be vetted to find out who are dual Israeli and Hungarian citizens.
A year later Vona had quite an exchange with Ilan Mor, the Israeli ambassador. The reason for the spat was Mor’s letter complaining about the decoration an openly anti-Semitic reporter at Echo TV received from the Hungarian government. Vona saw “in Ilan Mor’s behavior the Jews’ aspiration for world domination.” He assured Mor that he “will never be Israel’s dog as all the other parties” in Hungary are. Once Jobbik governs the country “we will politely send you [meaning Mor] home.”
As for Jobbik’s admiration for Islam and Muslim nations, this had been well known even before they won something like 16% of the popular vote in 2010. At a conference in November 2009 Vona astonished his audience by talking about Iranian-Jobbik ties. By the end of 2010 Vona published a fairly lengthy treatise on his views of the Muslim world, in which he recalled that as a university student he attended a youth conference in Yemen where he realized the plight of those people. His opponents think that this sympathy for Islam “is just more proof of [his] anti-Semitism.” But, he insisted, his admiration for Islam has nothing to do with his alleged anti-Semitism. It is rooted in his reading, which led to his realization that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment ruined European society, which had been pure and good in the Middle Ages. I gather from this that what he admired in Islam was its reliance on tradition and the negation of modernity.
By 2012 the western press discovered that Jobbik’s leader was infatuated with Islam. The International Business Times found an article in The Morocco World News which quoted Vona saying that “Islam is the last hope for humanity in the darkness of globalism and liberalism.” In the same speech he talked about Russia, Turkey, and Hungary as “the three nations [which] are European and Asian at the same time, due to their history, fate, and disposition…. These nations are destined to present the Eurasian alternative.”
However, as Christopher Adam of the Hungarian Free Press noted last summer, “the Hungarian right’s fascination with, and relative respect for, Islam is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France earlier this year and maybe even more so due to the large waves of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.”
Outright Holocaust denial was never Jobbik’s official dogma, but there were many signs that the party and its leader considered it to be an overblown topic. Here is a good example. In 2010 Vona said in one of his speeches that all that talk about the Holocaust was coming out of his ears (a könyökén jön ki). In a note he wrote on his Facebook page on October 3, 2013, he reacted to a lecture János Martonyi had given at an international conference on “Jewish life and anti-Semitism in today’s Europe” organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest. Vona suspected that because of the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust and the coming elections the topic of the Holocaust will be center stage. Unfortunately, said Vona, the goal of these events will be not peaceful remembrances but the creation of a sense of guilt. Therefore, Vona warned his followers to be cautious and not fall for provocations. Jobbik supporters shouldn’t give any ammunition to their adversaries.
I have not encountered any admission of the Hungarian government’s responsibility for what happened in 1944 by either Vona or any other leading member of Jobbik. However, we ought to keep in mind that Fidesz stated in its constitution that the Hungarian government was not responsible for the Holocaust, and therefore I think it would be unrealistic to expect more from Vona’s Jobbik.
I didn’t collect all this information on the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views of Jobbik to deny Vona’s change of heart. In almost all of his comments lately he has compared the old Jobbik to a teenager who has done a lot of stupid things. But, he says, this teenager has now grown up. Reading through his essay on Islam, my first reaction was that he was a very confused man who was trying to find some coherence in his world but was just grasping at straws, ending up with an incoherent philosophical mess. When he was talking about his favorite writers–Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Mircea Eliade, Rüdiger Safranski, Konrad Lorenz and “his all-time favorite, Meister Eckhart,” I had the distinct feeling of intellectual confusion which then was unfortunately translated into political action. Let’s hope that he is correct and that he has grown up. And that his party has grown up with him.