David Mandler, Ph.D.

Thoughts, feelings, reactions on Hungarian, American, Israeli, Jewish issues

Month: August, 2012

It’s the Jews: Anti-Semitic Play at (the) Public(‘s) Expense

Mr. Shimon Gluck, my much beloved and highly esteemed neighbor in Brooklyn, was nineteen years old in 1940 when the infamously anti-Semitic German propaganda film, Jud Süß (Jew Süss), was set to premier at the Uranium Movie Theatre in Budapest, Hungary. Mr. Gluck remembers vividly the scene. In the days leading up to the premier, a Jewish organization called Tiferes purchased all of the tickets, so that nobody would be exposed to such filth. When the show was about to begin and the Nazi sympathizing owner of Uranium saw that there were no people inside the theater, he instantly understood what had happened and opened the doors of the theater. A huge group of people surged into the theater for free, including a curious but very frightened Mr. Gluck. The kinds of yelling and shouting in support of the Jew-haters in the movie he saw and heard there prefigured the sort of soccer hooliganism one witnesses today in Hungary.

The Jews had been doubly-defeated: they spent a lot of money buying up all the tickets only to let the most economically disadvantaged and anti-Semitic elements from the streets to view the show for free. Four years later, more than half a million Hungarian Jews would be systematically murdered.

Ancient history.

Fast forward to August 24th, 2012. The publicly financed Új Szinház in Budapest–which had been appointed a former actor favored by the extreme right wing in Hungary, György Dörner, is set to premier a play (“The Sixth Coffin”) by the recently-deceased archdeacon of Hungarian anti-Semites, István Csurka. (Let us recall that Mr. Dörner’s appointment last October was met with vocal opposition to no avail. See http://artistsagainstracism.eu/?p=268). Why it surprises anyone that the theater that was supposed to be under the artistic guidance of Csurka is going to show his last play is not entirely clear. Be it as it may, already, the news has created somewhat of a stir. Peter Feldmájer, in a letter to István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, has urged the mayor to prevent this play from being staged at taxpayer expense. According to Feldmájer, “since the movie Jud Süss, few similarly dangerous works with such anti-Jewish incitement have been created” [“a Jud Süss című film óta kevés, hasonlóan veszélyes, uszító zsidóellenes mű született”] http://inforadio.hu/hir/belfold/hir-514873

The world-famous Hungarian (Jewish) conductor, Ádám Fischer, has already signaled that he would spearhead a campaign to have the play removed from the program.

Csurka must be laughing in his grave.

No matter what Hungarian Jews do now, they are going be seen as the losers. The mere talk of having Csurka’s play banned has already excited the imagination of the radical right. For them, this effort at self-defense is a clear indication that “the Jews” want to “tell us what to do.” The more opposition from Jewish groups, the better for the radical right the masses of whom are anything but regular theater-goers anyhow. But what would they expect the Jews to do? If people for whom anti-Jewish incitement is as despicable as racists, homophobic or other discriminative phenomena decide to do nothing, the play, which even the rightist mayor of Budapest has condemned for being anti-Semitic as it puts the blame for the dismemberment of historical Hungary at the conclusion of World War I upon the shoulders of a Jewish officer, for sure, is going to be presented. (Of course, if anyone bothered to check the facts regarding Jewish participation in the Hungarian army–with literally thousands of Jewish officers serving in all capacities with distinction throughout the war–this allegation would reveal its ugly face as the most atrocious lie anyone could invent).

Sadly, the climate in Hungary is ripe for such lies about Jews. Just last Wednesday, the most open demonstration of anti-Jewish feelings occurred at a “friendly match” between an Israeli and a Hungarian soccer team in Budapest’s Puskás Stadium. During the Israeli national anthem, a sizable portion of the soccer fans waved Iranian flags, screamed horrific anti-Jewish slurs, chanted slogans for Palestine that even Iranians would envy, and, in a despicable show, held up and pointed at baby soaps in reference to the Holocaust (which, by the way, the very same people who regularly chant “the trains are departing,” and “Auschwitz, Auschwitz,” deny). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCGCwPzJAm4&feature=related)

So, what should the Jews of Hungary do sixty-seven years after the tragic decimation of Hungarian Jewry?

Mr. Gluck’s advice is clear: pack your bags and leave.

Of course, this kind of advice is easier given than taken. After all, Hungarian Jews have been the most assimilated of any European country for the longest period of time. Most Hungarian Jews are unaffiliated with any synagogues, know little about their own backgrounds and, in some extremely rare cases, are even on the side of the radical right. It is not wise for anyone from the outside to dictate to the Jews of Hungary about their own fate. In most cases, the options are going to be as varied for them as their own backgrounds. Nonetheless, it is the obligation of those who view the situation from the outside and have the luxury to think about historical parallels to voice our concerns. It is also the obligation of lovers of peace and equality to urge the authorities to act up against the promotion of hatred against any group of people. A mea culpa from Mayor Tarlós, who supported and pushed through the appointment of György Dörner is in order.

First, the radical right should not dictate the actions of people concerned with social justice. Therefore, Ádám Fischer’s petition should be wholeheartedly supported by a broad coalition from every corner of Hungary and beyond. Second, a group of reputable historians should support a declaration of facts regarding the honorable role Hungarian Jews in their tens of thousands played in World War I. This declaration should be widely circulated in the media and covered in history lessons in all Hungarian schools at the appropriate educational levels.

In light of Mr. Gluck’s story from 1940, let’s hope that no Jewish organization buys up all the tickets to the premier of Csurka’s play.

For György Dörner, the director, would simply open the theater’s doors wide and let everyone in for free.

And what could be more appetizing than a heavy dose of anti-Semitism for free in the evening before going to bed?

UPDATE on 8/29: The Sixth Coffin will not be premiered at the New Theatre as it has already been reported in the English language press [http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/08/28/3105346/hungarian-intellectuals-relieved-to-see-anti-semitic-play-scrapped]. Contrary to that article, though, in the Hungarian version of the news, Magyar Hirlap reported that the premier of this poison-pill of a play is not scrapped but deferred. According to Magyar Hirlap, “it is not impossible that the play will be presented at a later date in a less hysterical public atmosphere” (“…nem kizárt, hogy a darabot egy későbbi időpontban, kevésbé hisztérikus közéleti atmoszférában színre viszik.”) [http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/kultura/pozsgai_nem_meghatralasrol_van_szo.html]

Also, as the chief director of the theater, Mr. Zsolt Pozsgai, has stated, the move was not in reaction to the threat of a petition by Adam Fischer or the opposition coming from Jewish groups but rather in deference to the mayor who has expressed his reservations about the play.

Let us inform Mr. Pozsgai that a “less hysterical public atmosphere” will only be possible with the help of major artistic directors like him behaving responsibly and refraining from inflicting pain and damage on a significant part of Hungarian society.

And showing The Sixth Coffin at a major theater in Budapest would have done just that.

RIP RIF: A Great Literacy Program is about to Die

I had never heard of the RIF club (Reading Is Fundamental) until Mr. Newman, a librarian at the Kings Highway branch in Brooklyn who sings and reads to crowds of infants and very young children every Tuesday and Wednesday, informed the parents of the program’s demise.

That means no more monkeys jumping on the bed for free. That means no more free book every third week. The program cost too much for the Federal Government to sustain. Indeed, with a price tag of 29 million dollars a year, it must have been a no-brainer for the U.S. Congress to decide that this item in the 2013 budget would have burdened future generations of taxpayers with such a crippling mountain of debt that its presence in the budget was absolutely intolerable.

Yes, 29 million dollars. That is with a capital M! Million.

Do you know how much money that is? It could buy five Abrams tanks at $6,210,000 each. Or, at 830,000 a piece, 37 cruise missiles! And we all know how important those missiles are to our national defense. But wait! With 29 million dollars, we could also get significantly more than one tenth of a Virginia Class submarine (2.3 billion dollars each). We’re already spending more than a hundred times on our nuclear programs per year (52 billion dollars). (Source http://www.militaryeducation.org/military-equipment/)

Then again, why pick on the military? We all know that we need to have a strong military to have a strong country, don’t we?

But do we need a highly literate population as well? The statistics on literacy reveal a bleak situation nationwide. It is especially appalling in New York (http://www.lacnyc.org/about/pressreleases/media_tipsheet.htm#literacy). So, the highly literate and sophisticated analysts and politicians in Congress must have concluded that the RIF program has failed, and that it was time to pull the plug on a program through which a million books have been distributed for free in the past 35 years. Or, perhaps, Congress as such no longer believes that reading is fundamental.

Fantastic!

Who needs to encourage young children and teens to go to the library? They play video games on the computers there, anyhow! Reading for pleasure? Why do that? We’ll teach kids how to read in school, right?

Wrong.

The basic fact that most people involved in researching literacy acquisition will tell anyone sufficiently interested in listening is that the earlier one begins to be exposed to reading (that is, first being read to and then leafing through books), the more prepared one is to pick up the necessary skills to internalize and perfect essential reading skills. Is it possible that the US Congress is unaware of this fact? Could the elimination of this budget item have been a mistake? I sincerely hope that it was just that.

But what can we do to make sure that the supply of free books does not dry up from September 1st? You can write to your member of Congress. In fact, you don’t even have to write anything other than your name and email address. Just go to http://www.rif.org/us/get-involved/advocate/action-center.htm and fill out the form there.

Time is short. Thousands of children in New York as well as in other states will no longer have the opportunity to get excited about picking out their next free book come September. Their parents will have to explain to them that the RIF cards they have been filling out diligently week after week, recording six books borrowed every three weeks, will now have to be thrown into the garbage.

Certainly, Mr. Newman’s music and story time groups will never be the same. No more lining up of patient parents at Mr. Newman’s table, ready to sign their toddlers’ names in for that coveted free book, while their excited toddlers go through the high quality children’s books one by one, trying to pick their next free book to take home.

29 million dollars a year.

Are we as a country prepared to say Rest in Peace Reading to the program that has been declaring with a loud voice the idea that reading is fundamental?

Hunting the Nazi Hunter? Hungary May Go after Efraim Zuroff

Just when it looked like the Hungarian authorities finally got the message and arrested Laszlo Csatary, the 97-year-old former commander of the Kassa ghetto during 1944 (who was convicted of war crimes by the Czechoslovak court in 1948 in absentia), newspapers have reported that the prosecution has dropped one of the charges. The charge the prosecution has dropped related to Csatary’s alleged involvement in the deportations of Polish Jews living in Hungary in 1941 Kamenyec-Podolszkiji. These Jews were shot to death in Kamenyec-Podolszkiji.  This, in and of itself, may not appear to be anything but a standard procedure even though Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Wiesenthal Center who had brought the case against Csatary claims that the prosecution may not have interviewed an 84-year-old survivor on whose testimony Zuroff mainly based this charge (http://forward.com/articles/160790/suspected-hungarian-nazi-cleared-in-some-deaths/).

Yet, I am afraid there is much more to the situation than meets the eye.

Why has the prosecution moved to dismiss one out of the two charges so fast? Perhaps it has to do with Prime Minster Orban’s infamous characterization about how he conducts negotiations with the IMF. In a speech, he stated that he dances the peacock dance, that is, he appears to give in when it comes to minor demands by the IMF (that he had long ago also deemed necessary) to deceive his negotiating partners while standing firm in opposition to the key demands. This so-called peacock dance is supposed to make his negotiating partners confused and pleased at the same time, allowing for Orban to come out as the victor.

In this case, Mr. Orban was initially forced by Efraim Zuroff with the assistance of a British newspaper into having Csatary arrested after doing nothing for ten months. Mr. Orban, a vociferous soccer fan who tends to see life as an extended soccer metaphor, may have deemed that as a goal against him. It is only natural for Mr. Orban to try to score his own goals. Thus, Mr. Orban may have decided to make some gestures towards those radical elements in Hungary who have expressed strong opposition to any prosecution against old time Hungarian Nazi collaborators by making a number of moves.

In the past few days, Hungarian media reports have discussed the possibility that prosecutors may use a law against Zuroff that was intended to dissuade people from making false accusations out of malice or for any other reason. The mere talk of such a case against Zuroff raises the specter of an international scandal even as it gratifies the Hungarian radical camp’s desire to see Zuroff squirm. (http://mno.hu/magyar_nemzet_belfoldi_hirei/zuroff-utan-is-nyomozhatnak-1098597)

After a very successful performance at the London Olympics (Hungary ranked 14th in the medal count), the country’s image at home as well as abroad has received a facelift. Wonderful! There is much to celebrate. The incredibly hard work of the athletes and the expert guidance of the coaches, no doubt, made all of this possible. But such achievements on the field of sports are easily overshadowed by domestic economic and political developments.

Does Hungary really want to be seen as an aggressor against a person who has devoted his life to hunting down people responsible for the worst organized atrocity against Humanity in human history? Can anyone picture Efraim Zuroff going off to jail for five years in Hungary? Would Hungary actually launch a case against the director of the Wiesenthal Center in hopes of appeasing the increasingly vocal elements of the far right who would clamor for it?

If that happened, it would cause a cascade of negative reactions. A case based on the charge of “false accusation” would open up many wounds, play into the hands of the many Holocaust deniers not just in Hungary but all around the world, and would shatter the illusion that Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban–who has voiced his thought that Hungary perhaps ought to discard democracy altogether–is still part of the ideological foundation that underpins the European Union. Clearly, Prime Minister Orban, without whose approval nothing substantial happens in Hungary, sees the dangers to Hungary’s image such a move would entail. By allowing such reports by retired judges and lawyers to circulate in the press close to the prime minister, Viktor Orban wants to score a few goals of his own. To the radical-Nazi-sympathizing camp of the Jobbik Party, the message is clear: “You see? I don’t let these Jews threaten us without appropriate response! Let Zuroff (and his colleagues or others like him) be aware that Hungary may prosecute him!” To Mr. Zuroff, the message is also clear: “Be careful in what you claim. We don’t like you. You’re a pest in our eyes and your own fate is in our hands.” And to the world at large, in case Csatary dies while the trial drags on or is acquitted at the end, Orban can say, “you see, I could have prosecuted Mr. Zuroff for filing false charges against Csatary but decided to take the high road and let him go.” No prosecution of a Nazi hunter and no conviction on all charges (or any charges) of an old Nazi collaborator.

An undecided soccer match in this case would signify a clear victory to Mr. Orban against those who pressure him to do anything he does not like from outside.

It is important for people who care about justice to stand up and declare with a loud voice that we are not deceived by Mr. Orban’s peacock dance.

We can only hope that international human rights groups in tandem with a large number of people who care for justice make enough noise for Mr. Orban to hear and act accordingly. We can only hope that the Hungarian prosecutors assigned to the Csatary case are not forced to dance Orban’s peacock dance this time and can do their job without political interference.

Already? Csanád Szegedi Goes to the Rabbi

Unbelievable. But a little more than a week after Csanád Szegedi, the former VP and one of the cofounders of the rabidly anti-Semitic and xenophobic Jobbik Movement, was forced to resign all of his positions within the party following the scandal that erupted around the way in which he dealt with the discovery of his Jewish ancestry, the European Parliamentarian has visited the leading Chabad rabbi of Budapest, Shlomo Köves.

Even more unbelievable is the sudden turnaround represented by his statement that he is “going to visit Auschwitz this year in order to pay [his] respects to the victims.” That is huge. From a politician who had made a career out of maligning Jews, portraying “them” as anti-Hungarian parasites whose activities hurt Hungarian interests (“desecrating the Holy Crown” as he put it in an interview in 2010), such a statement in and of itself is worth noticing. From a politician who had dedicated his public life to a party that outright questions and denies the Holocaust, such a statement is huge.

It will surely incite the ire of his former colleagues, comrades and followers. Szegedi will become the new enemy, the clearest representative of “the Jew” whose ideals are never firm but move according to personal interests.

While some things are becoming clear to this, so to say, graced politician, he still does not seem to get it. He is still living in the grand delusion that his former Jobbik buddies will continue to embrace him. In the same interview given to HVG, Szegedi continues: “There are many misunderstandings between the nationalist radical side and Jewry, and I think it is very important that one with Jewish ancestry can be a committed nationalist.” (http://hvg.hu/itthon/20120805_Szegedi_Csanad_Koves_rabbi).

The news has already sparked debate amongst Jews. Should a person like Szegedi be even allowed to approach the Jewish community of Hungary? By seeing him, Shlomo Köves has given an answer: yes. But Köves is not Hungarian Jewry, a most vibrant and colorful community with many contradictory approaches to religion, patriotism, nationality and everything else, like good Jewish communities are all over the world.

Should Szegedi be allowed to do teshuva, to repent?

From a halachic perspective (the perspective of Jewish law), the answer is obvious: yes. Will it, perhaps, allow Szegedi to repair the damage he has caused both in his own psyche as well as in the many who had blindly followed his hotheaded and utterly despicable embrace of the most anti-humanistic Hungarian chauvinism the 1920s-1940s produced? Perhaps. The question is how he can effect such a change.

How will Szegedi retain his street credibility after all this? Hungarians despise flip-floppers even more than Americans do perhaps because there are so many more of them in Hungary. Changing one’s political views, while unsavory, is the definition of survival in Hungarian politics (just look at the many FIDESZ politicians who used to be members of the Communist Party, which the FIDESZ officially deprecates). Yet, Szegedi, with visiting the archenemy of the radical camp, Rabbi Köves, and by repudiating one of the many “sacraments” of the Jobbik Party, namely, Holocaust denial, has irrevocably written himself out of that camp. One can only image the onslaught of filth from the internet portal that best represent that camp, kuruc.info. I am sure that such an avalanche of hatred toward Szegedi will make even him dizzy.

Certainly, nothing anyone could say would change the pathological minds of committed Jew-haters. Their worldview is so warped that any approach to reality is seen as a manipulation by Jews. So much more so when it comes from a person who’s been “discovered” to have been a Jew all along (never mind the fact that Szegedi, I’m almost convinced, only learned that his beloved grandmother is Jewish in the past few years). That group of people, thus, is hopeless.

But there is a large number of people in Hungary for whom Szegedi’s story could serve as rather educational, raising a lot of questions.

Szegedi’s fate, while important to him as a human being and to everyone concerned about the universal struggle to maintain humanity in the face of atrocious ideologies that aim to dehumanize, is significant to Hungary’s own development as well. How will a person like Szegedi be treated in private and in public? (Judging by some Facebook comments, I can already see the answer shaping up to that question: with disgust).  What future developments in his thinking will occur regarding the place of Jews in Hungarian cultural, economic and political life? Will Szegedi be marginalized now? Will he even have to run away from Hungary? Will his story make Hungarians reconsider their firmest beliefs about Hungarianness, Jews, political leaders, and humanity in general?

Many of these questions that are still unresolved.

With the Jewish High Holidays approaching, Szegedi–whether from Rabbi Köves or other Jewish sources–will learn the line from the prayerbooks Jews repeat during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: “teshuvah, tefillah u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et roah hagezayrah. “Turning yourself around [repentance], prayer, and righteous generosity lessen the severity of the decree.” And make no mistake: Hungary as a country is experiencing the effects of a severe decree making suffer a severe economic (if not cultural and political) decline despite the occasional good news coming from the London Olympics.

It is my ardent hope that not only Szegedi achieves repentance coupled with prayer and charity but also those in Hungary who have allowed themselves to denigrate the contributions of Jews to the economic, cultural and political life of Hungary since they were allowed within the gates in 1848 and especially after 1867 until they were suddenly shut out in the 1920s and were almost totally annihilated in 1944.

If Hungary as a country is able to have a real dialogue about its own values, about how human beings, be they Jews, gypsies, Chinese or any other ethnic or religious minorities, are valued then it has a chance to turn itself around and rise from the moral morass into which it has sunk in recent years.

Olympic Gold Medalist Swimmer, Daniel Gyurta: a Great Hungarian, a Great Human Being

It is natural for every nation to focus on the Olympians hailing from its own ranks or those who are culturally close to it. Thus, when Daniel Gyurta won the 200-meter breaststroke race on Wednesday, it was not a great surprise that the way the Huffington Post reported on the event was as follows: “Britain won silver in the 200m breaststroke final on Wednesday night, completing a stellar fifth day for the Great Britain team. Scot Michael Jamieson placed second in the final, beaten by inches by Hungarian swimmer Daniel Gyurta, who set a new world record.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/01/london-2012-michael-jamieson-silver-olympics-swimming-breaststroke_n_1729916.html)

That is certainly one way to report the results of a race.

Naturally, in Hungary, the 23-year-old Gyurta’s victory energized and unified the population of a deeply-divided country. At least, so it seemed in the first moments of euphoria. Since then, even this event has managed to inspire columns maligning Gyurta and counter-columns defending him. The issue at hand is, once more, what it means to be Hungarian and how self-consciously Hungarian Mr. Gyurta intends to be.

(http://jobbegyenes.blog.hu/2012/08/02/gyurta_dani_bune?utm_source=bloghu_megosztas&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=blhshare)

Today, we have learned that Mr. Gyurta has decided to send to the family of Norwegian swimmer, Alexander Oen Dale who died of a heart attack at the age of 27 on April 30th, a replica of the gold metal, touching the hearts of many Norwegians. The title a popular online paper gave its article on this says it all, “The Entire Country of Norway Honors Daniel Gyurta”(http://sportgeza.hu/2012/london/cikkek/gyurta_daniel_elott_tiszteleg_egesz_norvegia/).

Finally some good news coming from London about Hungary.

Daniel Gyurta, with this gesture, has given another reason for Hungarians to feel proud of this particular athlete. Sending the replica of the gold medal he won at the Olympics to the family of his greatest former rival has elevated Gyurta from the status of being a great athlete to that of a great human being.

Compassion, friendship, and empathy are but three universally human characteristics. Gyurta cultivated strong ties of friendship with Dale Oen. At his death, Gyurta reportedly expressed shock and great sadness. Four months later, sharing the gold medal, as it were, with the family of his fallen rival is the greatest embodiment of compassion and empathy Gyurta could have shown at a time when most people in his position would have been overwhelmed with the sensation of success and the expressions of love and admiration. Gyurta could have celebrated his own well-deserved victory with no other thoughts. There is no doubt that he was celebrating. But even in the moment of his greatest triumph, Daniel Gyurta did not forget about the man who possibly could have taken the gold away from him, Alexander Oen Dale.

The moment an individual from any nation transcends the boundaries of nationality (not to mention other social constructions) and honors people without regard to their nationality, he or she becomes a great representative of his or her own nation.

If only by that definition, Daniel Gyurta is a great Hungarian.