Csanád Szegedi, the former Vice President of the Jobbik Party in Hungary known for its radical (that is anti-Semitic) stance in Hungarian political issues, was deported from Canada on December 9th within 24 hours of his arrival for his extreme right-wing past.
At least, this seems to have been the reaction of almost all of my Facebook friends from Hungary who have followed the unbelievable saga of Csanád Szegedi’s learning of his Jewish maternal ancestry, his subsequent attempts at staying on as Jobbik’s Vice President, his eventual resignation from the party following the airing of a recording in which he had allegedly offered a bribe to those with the “damning” information about his mother’s Jewishness to keep silent, and finally, his total renunciation of his earlier persona with the intention to become a practicing Jew with the help of Budapest’s Chabad rabbi, Baruch Oberlander.
Why the animosity, resentment, and outright hatred? After all, Szegedi has been recently featured in Pat Robertson’s 700 club show and in the New Yorker Magazine. Why the interest? Americans may find Szegedi’s story a very appetizing narrative. Culturally, it resonates very strongly. American culture celebrates bad-guy-turns-good stories. Spiritually, it feels like the story of the Prodigal Son, and could very well be a Church service narrative of “finding Jesus” (in this case, finding God through being broken and rebuilt). Praise the Lord!
Most Hungarians–whether on the extreme right or left–see Csanád Szegedi, who did not renounce his position as a member of the European Parliament despite leaving the party that sent him there, as an opportunist who has jumped ship when he had no other choice. He is seen as an insincere career politician now without the prospects of a political career who realized he had to reinvented himself as a Nazi-turned-Jew to make money in the future (his mandate in the European Parliament expires in 2014). For his former home base, Szegedi is an incredible turn-coat. He is a traitor who gave up everything sacred to that camp as he went to the arch-enemy. But I’m not concerned much about the reactions of Szegedi’s Jobbik ex-buddies and supporters. That, and much worse, is entirely to be expected.
What interests me is why Hungarian Jews, outside of a very few people around Rabbi Oberlander, have reacted with such visceral hatred and rejection towards an ostensibly remorseful and reformed Csanád Szegedi.
Here are the top three some reasons most Hungarian Jews do not accept Csanád Szegedi the way I see it:
1. Szegedi is a hypocrite. He’s in it for the fame and future job opportunities.
2. Szegedi should have waited much longer (five to ten years) and have done much more to repair the damage his political career caused in the last ten years before appearing in public to talk about himself.
3. Szegedi’s way back to his Jewish roots is a private affair. Any publicity is a cynical attempt by the Chabad rabbis to enhance the reputation of their own movement at the expense of the older and more indigenous movements in Hungary.
While I sympathize with people who still continue to resent Szegedi, I believe that a complete rejection of his attempts at changing his life from a hater of Jews to a Jew who tries his best to learn about what it means to be a religious Jew is simply short-sighted. For sure, it must be very annoying to Hungarians, many of whom now struggle to make ends meet, to see Szegedi turn his story into money. After all, it would mean that a career built on xenophobia and anti-Jewish propaganda can be seen as money-making tools (for that part of Szegedi’s life is an indispensable prelude in Szegedi’s narrative).
So, from a Hungarian’s perspective, the only decent way for Szegedi forward is to shut up and disappear.
Clearly, Szegedi should not entertain any false hopes of re-entering the Hungarian political scene. His name is now tainted. Nobody in Hungary admires him for making the, no doubt, heart-wrenching decision to face his identity crisis by taking the most radical step possible: to sit in a synagogue and learn with Rabbi Oberlander, an Orthodox rabbi. Jewish atheists scorn him (yet feel threatened by this Nazi-turned-Jew) and think “what? this guy was a rabid anti-Semite yesterday, and now, it looks like he’s a better Jew than I am!” Those who are in the Neologue movement–a uniquely Hungarian denomination that is between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism–scorn him for joining the Chabad who are seen as a foreign import and, currently, seen as having closely aligned themselves with Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party for economic gain.
Then what should Csanad Szegedi do? He is only 31 years old…
I believe that Szegedi should go back to school and learn a profession or vocation and make his money that way. (He may have to move to another country once he returns from Brussels to Hungary since his safety in the streets may not be guaranteed). If here were to write a book, it’s doubtful that he could make that much money out of it in any case.
Yet, I deeply believe that Szegedi should not be written off. I deeply believe that my fellow Hungarian Jews who know him best should take the more noble path and ignore the stomach cramps occasioned by watching the many vitriolic interviews and speeches the old Szegedi Csanad gave that are still available on Youtube. I deeply believe that Csanád Szegedi’s story, while a complete anomaly in the degree and extent of his recent identity transformation, has many lessons for us about identity, human emotions, God and country and cliche, and many many other things. Thus, he should be encouraged to write a detailed book about his life, his feelings, the Jobbik movement’s behind-the-scenes motivations and leaders, and his experiences. It could be a fascinating read not only to Hungarians wondering how and why the radical right has gained such momentum–and why it seems to be losing some of it today–but more importantly, how ideology can both poison and cleanse the human spirit, which transcends nationality.
What would be an unconscionable act for Hungarian Jews is to block Szegedi’s road toward repentance and the many acts of kindness that he would have to make by discouraging him from continuing his Jewish learning and synagogue attendance. I ask my fellow Hungarians to let Szegedi continue to cleanse himself and, by witnessing his incredible turn-around, recognize that we all have to do better as human beings by stopping the cynicism and hatred.
My newest short story, “The Loft,” is now available.