David Mandler

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

In Memoriam Erzsi Szabó

In Memoriam

In seventh grade, Ms. Erzsi Szabó, or Liz Taylor  in English,
Shared an article with us. It was a survey of sexual practices.
It came out that I was a tiger.

Literature class in Hungary, 1987.
With the Soviet army kicking its last in isolated barracks throughout the land,
With slender, seductive glass bottles of Coca Cola playing hide and seek
at the last overnight class trip, our seventh-grader bodies curling under a large blanket,
With a pipe-puffing writer of right leaning articles in her bed right next door,
With oblique speeches full of word flowers against world powers, and the brutal refrain
“Only one thing is missing: a shovel full of dirt…that will make everything all right”),
With her lessons on grammar and spelling forming legs for Literature,
With a smile that could only live on a face kissed by two ex-husbands,
(her last name changed three times in five years like Hungary’s borders)
With pop oral quizzes–me analyzing the epic poem, Miklós Toldi, for twenty minutes,
With her thank you note in pearly letters in my drawer next to Allen Ginsberg’s,
(she liked the tape I’d recorded for her with my new keyboard so much she even cried),
With that slender figure, careful makeup, clear voice, and still smoldering ashes ofpassion,
With that voice of concerned and tearful apologetics poured out to my parents one afternoon,
(she felt awful that I broke my wrist in a duel with the son of the said right-wing writer hero),
With the mist of time suddenly lifted by an unexpected email that she died,
With everyone around me unaware and unaffected while the Earth revolves just the same
with her heart
With her body in a fresh grave and spirit in my mind shining more brightly for a few moments
through the veil of romanticized darkness,
I am forced to think of a time when I will be recalled for a few seconds thirty years from  now.
I fear to know just how.  I question just how.
I hope anyhow.

© David Mandler

Note: the lines are off a bit here. Here’s the poem in pdf format. That is how the poem should look on the page:



The Sacrificial Chicken (Yom Kippur 5776)

I haven’t asked anyone to forgive me this year.
Not because I’ve thought about or done
The right things all year–
Oh no.
I spent too much time on
Facebook and writing poetry
Talking at the world while
Failing to connect with and refusing to hear
The muffled sounds of my caged love songs.

I spent too little time listening with my heart
To my wife’s daily musings and nightly longings,
To the pleas of the homeless in the subway cars,
Thinking my feel-good quarter’s gift to them was enough.

I spent no time at all in a hospital ward
Visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry
In a homeless shelter filled with ruined lives
Hidden from me
Only because I had no desire to find it.

Forgive me, everyone!
I can’t be silent when I see inhumanity,
Even if it’s perpetrated on the enemy of my people,
Even if it’s directed against those who,
In happier times, would gladly
Celebrate my death as a victory.

But I know, not all of “them” are like “that.”

And if you all forgive me for all of my failings and sins,
Whether they be open or hidden,
Loud or mute,
Searing your skin as molten lava
Or freezing your blood as liquid ice,
Then I can ask the Master of the Universe
To forgive me
For being late
From synagogue almost every time
And glossing over words I don’t understand and
Have no time to articulate with serene concentration.

Forgive me for being on Facebook too much
And writing poetry only a handful of people
Will ever read.

Forgive me for not asking you for forgiveness
In person.

I’m a sacrificial chicken laden with
Other people’s sins to be slaughtered and made into
Chicken soup for the destitute.


An Urgent Open Letter to the Worldwide Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of J. Walter Thompson Company

Rendorsegssept2Dear Chairman Martinez,

In the last few weeks, thousands of migrants and refugees, predominantly from civil war-torn Syria, have made their way though Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Austria with one purpose: to settle in Germany. While each European country has taken its own approach to the emerging humanitarian crisis, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, acted quickly to turn public opinion totally against the refugees who chose to travel through Hungary towards Germany. Now, it appears that your reputable advertising firm, the largest U.S. advertising agency with a long and illustrious past, is poised to become an accessory to Hungary’s anti-immigration campaign abroad. The purpose of this letter is to make it clear to you that acting as Orbán Viktor’s voice in foreign countries would be very controversial and would, thus, damage your brand name.

From the beginning of 2015, the ruling Fidesz Party, firmly under the direction of Viktor Orbán, began what some would consider an incitement against immigrants in a way that gave permission to the proverbial average citizen in the street to manifest freely his or her baser human instincts about foreigners.

Mr. Orbán’s first formal move in this area was to launch his so-called National Consultation initiative in June of 2015. The first round included the mailing out to the entire Hungarian population a staunchly anti-immigrant letter by Orbán in which he pejoratively calls refugees “economic migrants” along with a questionnaire of twelve manipulative questions. Incidentally, only ten percent of the recipients bothered to respond.

Shortly after this colossal waste of public resources came a print advertising campaign. The large blue-and-white billboards placed throughout the country contained such grandiose proclamations as follows: “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our laws!”, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away the jobs of Hungarians!” and “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture!” Since the messages on these billboards were all in Hungarian, it is clear that this whole campaign was intended for domestic consumption.

The campaign elicited mixed reactions. It aided in strengthening the more xenophobic elements in Hungarian society even as hilarious spoofs of these billboards went viral on Facebook. Any sense of hilarity evaporated, though, with the announcement that Hungary would build a barbed wire fence along its border with Serbia. Since then, the suspiciously overpriced and surprisingly flimsy barbed wire fence has been completed, and, just as quickly, breached.

Using the migrant crisis as a pretext, Fidesz legislators proposed a string of new laws effective September 15th that will result in the curtailment of individual rights by empowering the military to search the homes of individuals suspected of harboring illegal immigrants without a warrant, stopping cars on public roads, and the ability to deploy tear gas, rubber bullets, arrest nets, and even fire arms with deadly force if necessary against refugees. At the same time, the Hungarian government has decided to spread its anti-immigrant campaign in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. It is at this point that your reputable advertising firm enters the picture. A few days ago, it became clear that J. Walter Thompson’s Hungarian affiliate was selected for this purpose, shocking many in the advertising world.

Dr. Martinez! While it is not in your power to solve the refugee crisis by asking each EU country to take in its fair share of refugees as well as pressuring affluent Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar to step up to the plate or orchestrating a satisfactory solution to the Syrian conflict, it is in your power to prevent the deterioration of your brand name’s reputation that will inevitable result from proceeding with this contract. Major news outlets such as the BBC and NPR have already begun to devote significant space to this issue of Hungary’s treatment of war refugees and migrants and will continue to do so with increased attention. In the next few days, the focal point of news, Keleti Rail Station, will be emptied of migrants and refugees. They will reportedly be sent to the city of Debrecen and housed in refugee camps with no end in sight. Judging by the leading questions of the questionnaire, refugees will be responsible for their own expenses and may even be sent to work in Hungary’s workfare system.

Clearly, no reputable international advertising firm would want to become an accessory to spreading Hungary’s dual message of coded Islamophobia and its policy of turning away all war refugees from Syria or elsewhere. Signing a contract with a country that is moving away from a system of checks-and-balances towards what Viktor Orbán has called “illiberal democracy” may result in more costs than benefits for your company. Considered from a moral point of view, anyone with a developed sense of empathy, especially people who consider themselves “global citizens” can only find this one-size-fits all rejection of all immigration objectionable. According to some Hungarian news outlets, even some of JWT’s Hungarian employees have found their position morally untenable and are, thus, considering resignation. The short and arguably cynical statement JWT Budapest’s Creative Director, Tamás Faragó, made in a Facebook reaction that was later republished with his permission may only help to push out some of JWT’s morally-inclined creative staff. Faragó stated that “the campaign would be worth it if it prevented even one child from stabbing him or herself on top of the barbed wire fence by knowing ahead of time what awaited him or her” (my translation). Were JWT’s Hungarian affiliate to proceed with this assignment, you would have to look forward to designing a PR campaign in defense of your assent in participating in the PR campaign ordered by Hungary’s opportunistically nationalist government against refugees.

In light of all of the above, I ask you to reconsider and, ultimately, reject this deal.


David Mandler, Ph.D.
P.S. The photo on top was taken on September 2nd near Keleti Railway Station and is courtesy of Petra Parker.


This open letter was republished in The Budapest Times on September 11, 2015. http://files.theschoolsystem.net/stuy/mandlerd/OpenLetterBudapestTimes.pdf

Glück Simon történetei: emberiesség a pokolban

Glück Simon 1921-ben született. Nyolc évvel ezelőtt volt szerencsém megismerkedni Vele egy brooklyn-i stibelében, vagyis egy picinyke kis zsinagógában. Akkor még Ô volt ott a rangidős samesz. Nagyra becsült tagja volt akkor és maradt a mai napig a gyülekezetnek, sok vallásos leszármazottal. Gyermekei nem beszélnek jól magyarul. Unokái egyáltalán nem. Talán éppen ezért alakulhatott úgy, hogy Simi bácsi szinte pótunokájává léptetett elő. A reggeli ima után a nyári szünetekben sokszor adódott meg számomra az szerencse, hogy lakásáig hazakisérhessem. Habár egészsége romlott az évek során, rendkívül jó emlékezőtehetsége teljesen megmaradt csodálatos humorával egyetemben. Íme négy rövid történet a sok közül amelyet Simi bácsi mesélt sétáink során.

                           Az életmentô nyilaskeresztes papír

1944 december tizedike lehetett. Razzia az Üllői út és a Ferenc körút sarkán. Egy pár nyilas és német rendőr minden járókelő papírját átnézi. Pont azokban a percekben egy helyi pékségben hamis papírokkal dolgozó két fiút a pék 50 kiló sóért küld.

–Itt az utalvány. Erre kiadják majd a sót.

A nyilasokat látva a fiúk egyike magabiztosan kihúzza zakója zsebéből a frissen szerzett sóutalványt amely tetején nagy nyomtatott betükkel áll az “Éljen Szálasi” felirat. Ezt látván az egyik nyilas így szól.

–Testvérek. Látjátok ezt a zsidó nőt? Vigyétek be a központba. Keressétek Varga testvért, és adjátok át Neki ezt a zsidót.

Nagy zsidózás közepette a két fiatalember karon fogva elvonszolja a szerencsétlen asszonyt. A barrikádok már állnak, hiszen a szovjet csapatok már nagyon közel vannak. A nő kérleli, hogy engedjék el. Az unokáknak akart egy kis kenyeret venni és a sorból húzták ki…

–Fusson amilyen gyorsan tud,–mondja váratlanul az egyik ember miután alaposan körülnézett.

Két hónappal később, Kecskeméten a Joint által üzemeltetett jótékonysági konyhán nagyon ismerősnek tünik egy nő két fiatalember számára. Beszélgetésük során hamar kiderül, hogy ez volt az a nő akit a nyilas rájuk bízott, mondja az egyik fiatalember unokatestvérének, Glück Simonnak.

–Én meg azt hittem–mondja az asszony ámultan, kezeit összecsapva,–hogy a nyilasok közt is akadtak rendes emberek. Most már látom, hogy azok is zsidók voltak…


Simi bácsi a háború utolsó hónapjait az újpesti szalézi kolostorban vészelte át Fazekas István névvel. Csak egy pap tudta, hogy ez a Fazekas zsidó. 1945 január 10-én ez a pap azt mondta Neki, hogy ha másnap a kolostrorral szembeni udvarról, ami a németek által elfogalt kórházhoz tartozott, ha onnan eltünik a légvédelmi ágyú, akkor minden rendben lesz. El is tünt. Nem sokkal később egy csoport nő kért menedéket a kolostorban. Az szovjet katonák elöl menekültek a kolostorba.

–Prefektus úr, mondta Simi bácsi felkavartan, amikor meglátta a csoportot. De hiszen ezek nyilasok. Tegnap még zsidókat öltek.

–Nézze, Fazekas. Amikor magát befogadtuk, nem kérdeztük, hogy kicsoda. Egyet láttunk: az embert.

Simi bácsi vallomása szerint erre nem tudott mit felelni.

      A budapesti rendőrök

1945 február. A fővárosban nagy az éhezés. Az a hír járja, hogy Kecskeméten egy amarikai zsidó szervezet, a JOINT, ételt oszt. Simi bácsi és testvére elindulnak gyalog. Az úton felveszi őket egy szekér, majd ismét gyalogolnak Kecskemét felé. Egy szovjet katona megállítja őket. Mindenüket oda kell adni a katonának (a ruhába vart dolláron kívül amit nem fedez fel).

–Nu, mi voltunk eddig a kapitalisták,–kezdi Simi bácsi testvére. Most mi lettünk a proletárok, és ez a katona a kapitalista.

–Igen,–feleli Simi bácsi. Addig amíg egy másik katona ki nem rabolja. Akkor megint proletár lesz ez is.

Éjjel, már Kecskeméten, egyszer csak egy ismetelen fiú ébreszti az akkor huszonnégy éves Simont. Egy rövid beszélgetés során kiderül, hogy ugyanonnan származnak. A fiú is Budapestről érkezett ugyancsak aznap.

–Na, és Te hogy kerültél ide,–kérdi Simi bácsi.

–Apámmal beugrottunk a Dunába amikor lőttek. Fogtam a kezét sokáig. A jeges vízbe is utánunk lőttek. Elengedtem Apa kezét. Elmerült…én úsztam a part felé. Jóval lejebb, kihalásztak a rendőrök. Pokrócba csavartak, megszárítottak, és elengedtek. Mi a neved?

–Fazekas István.

A budapesti rendőrök rendesek voltak, teszi hozzá Simi bácsi a történet végén.

  Hitlernek viszem

Szegeden Púrim után az utcán egy szovjet katona megállítja Simi bácsit. Rövid beszélgetés után kiderül, hogy a katona is zsidó.

–Jöjjön velem,–mondja a katona a kissé rémült Simi bácsinak.

Egy frissen lefoglalt lakásba viszi fel. Kinyít egy hatalmas dobozt, tele fegyverrel és golyókkal.

–Berlinbe megyek innen hamarosan. Viszek Hitlernek egy kis ajándékot. Ezt a nagynénémért, ezt a szüleimért, ezt pedig a testvéreimért kapja,–mondja a katona egy egy golyót felmutatván.

Simi bácsi a mai napig nem tudja elhinni, hogy mi történt a zsidósággal Magyarországon.

A háborút követôen először Kanadában majd az USA-ban telepedett le Glück Simon, egy átlagon felüli szerény ember.


Glück Simon a stibelében
2015, Július 27


The Two-States Solution: Sadly, a Fairy Tale in the Making

Netanyahu’s pre-election eve statement (directed at his political base) that a Palestinian state would not emerge under his watch spurred many governments around the world to voice their concerns. With Netanyahu’s seemingly contradictory post-election reassurance that he is not against the two state solution, “the world” could not help but brand Netanyahu a liar and a flip-flopper. In a deafening din of indignation, a host of fundamental issues about the viability of the two-state solution were bracketed once again. So, how consistent is Netanyahu’s pre-election statement with his post-election clarification? Let us see what a narrow and pragmatic look at the current situation in the Middle East reveals by asking two questions.

1. Would even the most dovish of Israeli primer ministers be able to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians?

The current political landscape makes such a deal impossible to reach or implement. The inconvenient fact is that Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank, despite having a unity government on paper, have nothing but contempt for one another. The unity agreement is a sad joke. (A quick google search will suffice to yield countless stories on arrests, bombings, and assassinations in Gaza and the West Bank definitively tied to this bloody conflict).

Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and is firmly entrenched with its tentacles reaching all levels of Gazan society. Hamas’s own charter speaks of liberating all of Palestine (that means, replacing the State of Israel) with a Muslim state. How could Israel ever come to an agreement with this most rabidly anti-Israel group without a radical shift in their internal composition or the jettisoning of their essential ideological foundation as codified in their charter? The answer is obvious: Israel cannot. Consequently, an agreement with Fatah (in and of itself fraught with fatal weaknesses) would be totally worthless unless it includes the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip as well.

Feeding merely one head of the two-headed Palestinian body politics would leave this entity as hungry and dissatisfied as ever.

Thus, Netanyahu was right to suggest that there could be no Palestinian state under his watch as prime minister because Hamas would never accede to anything less than the disappearance of Israel in the long run, despite its shifting rhetoric on the acceptability of pre-1967 borders. And Israel could not accept Hamas in charge of the West Bank as well, for then the situation would revert to what existed before 1967: constant terrorist attacks against the State of Israel.

2. If Israel decided to withdraw unilaterally from territories captured in the third Arab-Israeli war in 1967 war (also launched against Israel by its Arab neighbors), what would the day after look like? Would freedom and democracy suddenly replace “Israeli oppression”? Would this move satisfy the so-called international community?

To answer this question, it’s enough to shift our eyes to the Gaza strip and note what followed Ariel Sharon’s decision to “disengage” that is, completely withdraw, from Gaza: Hamas violently assuming control power, periods of missile showers into Israel as well as anti-Israel voices maintaining that Israel has kept Gaza under occupation by virtue of its “siege” of Gaza. If Israel left the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Fatah would most likely be unable to maintain its grip on power for long. It does not take much to imagine how much more dangerous the situation would become on the ground for hundreds of thousands of Israelis (not to mention those Arabs in the area who do not share in the totalitarian vision based on a harsh interpretation of Islam Hamas represents). Ironically, Hamas may now be considered to be moderate in comparison to so-called radical Islamic groups such as ISIS, Jamaat al-Islamiyya, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram that have no compunction about murdering hundreds of people inside and outside  of mosques for political reasons. Naturally, these groups would be even less hesitant to murder (Israeli) Jews in great numbers given the opportunity. To maintain its reputation and it’s tight grip on Gaza, Hamas is likely to intensify both its anti-Israel rhetoric and actions of building and fortifying tunnels that reach deep into Israel for future attacks.

In both scenarios, Israel would gravely endanger itself by withdrawing from the West Bank either with a negotiated peace settlement or without it.

Therefore, Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre- and post-election declarations are consistent.

While in theory Netanyahu is not against the emergence a state of Palestine under specific conditions, he is fully aware that no matter what he believes or does as the freshly re-elected prime minister of Israel, he is not in a position to engineer a situation anytime soon in which a peaceful, unified and economically viable nation of Palestine could emerge (with Gaza and the West Bank at each other’s necks) without endangering the very lives of countless Israelis as a consequence.

That is a price the rest of world, perhaps, is all too willing to pay to satisfy a deeply flawed and misplaced meta-narrative of Israeli decolonialization of Palestine. From his pre- and post-election declarations, it is clear that that is not a price Netanyahu is willing to pay.

I just wish he had articulated this more precisely.


Evil, Thy Name is ISIS: Why Western Inaction is Unforgivable

I was against the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein following the horrifying attacks on September 11, 2001. The case that Iraq was somehow connected to the terrorist attacks in the United States never made much sense to me when it morphed into an allegation that Iraq had chemical weapons and, by implication, that it presented a clear and present danger to the United States or to any of its neighbors.

The subsequent decade of U.S. presence in Iraq, with enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure to the United States and incomparably more so to the people of Iraq has shown to most Americans why this adventure George W. Bush and Dick Cheney pulled the United States military into was so tragically ill-conceived.

So, it is understandable that President Barak Obama, having taken the pulse of the American people before his first election, has been reluctant to change his course and admit that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 has left the country open to a new kind of threat: the spread of a violent group that wants to distinguish itself as the most callous, violent, aggressive and intolerant militant group that has surfaced in the name of Islam in recent memory.

The name of this modern day manifestation of unbridled evil is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The list of monstrous crimes ISIS fighters have committed has been growing with each passing day. From expelling all Christians from Mosul, beheading children, forcefully converting Christians to Islam, driving 40,000 Yazidi men, women, and children out of their homes and currently holding them hostage on a mountaintop until they either convert or die of hunger and thirst, kidnapping and enslaving hundreds of women in Mosul, blowing up ancient Muslim shrines and graves in Mosul (because they view “worshipping graves”) to videotaping the gruesome and barbaric murder of captured Iraqi soldiers for propaganda purposes (allegedly 1500 of them), the the Islamic State has made it clear that its vision of life on Earth is the only one it tolerates. And this vision contains nothing but misery, domination, and subjugation.

In the past few weeks, ISIS has been spreading like cancer and its staggering military successes only serve to attract more youngsters from Western Europe as well. It is truly frightening that ISIS flags have appeared in European cities during demonstrations against Israel in the past few weeks, showing that this murderous group, the utterly barbarous cruelty of which would have amazed even the Nazis, finds supporters in Europe.

ISIS represents the most urgent challenge to basic human rights today. It must be confronted and defeated immediately.

I believe that Americans would overwhelmingly support even a major offensive that required ground forces if people were informed about the aims if this group that has declared an Islamic Caliphate on June 29, 2014 with the purpose to spread all over the Islamic and the non-Islamic world to impose its cruel ideology on the rest of the world.

While the world is busy protesting against Israel as it faces Hamas–a group that has apparently decided to sacrifice the people of Gaza and commit suicide by indiscriminately shooting missiles at Israel using civilian infrastructure, knowing full well that Israel will respond rather than change its core goal of destroying Israel–the lives of millions of people have deteriorated as ISIS has established sovereignty over large geographic areas in Iraq and in Syria. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and the number of dead and wounded only grows as ISIS remains in control.

President Obama can no longer ignore the dire situation in Iraq. Dropping a couple of bombs to scare away ISIS fighters only emboldens them. The American people, and people around the world, should make their voices heard now with as much ferocity as supporters of the Palestinian cause have done in recent weeks.

No to ISIS, no to real genocide, no to brutality.

Remove this evil from the face of the Earth before it infects the Middle East and spreads all over the world.

Inaction is intolerable. In fact, inaction in the face of this tangible evil constitutes a crime against humanity.


The Power of Palestine: Making Peace with Reality

Property rights, human rights, and  national self-determination are but a few concepts that, on the surface, guide how people react to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that the reactions in the anti-Israel camp are based on deeply-ingrained beliefs regarding the very nature of Israel. It is clear that those who virulently oppose Israel’s move against Hamas in Gaza have deeply internalized the normative Hamas–and, to a great extent, general Palestinian–narrative that Israel is built on stolen land and that the Gazans are justified in shooting rockets (and, if they succeeded in assassinating or kidnapping Israelis, that too) because they have been dispossessed (to use Edward Said’s favorite word), oppressed, imprisoned and have been treated badly in all sorts of cruel and even demonic ways.

And the pictures and youtube videos–even if they are from Syria, a Hollywood horror film, or five years ago in Lebanon–are there to illustrate the horror of Israel’s actions.

Clearly, nothing I could write here would serve to convince those who have given in to passionate hatred of anything Israeli. They operate from the assumption that Israel as a country does not have a right to exist–and if it does exist, we should all understand that it is built on stolen land and the blood of the “Palestinians” (not exactly a reassuring belief for long-term peace). Having said that, I feel frustrated because I would want these people to read all about how Israel came into existence, how many Jews had always been living in the Land of Israel (that was renamed multiple times as its sovereign rulers and populations changed throughout history, with Palestine as the last name before it was changed into Jordan and Israel).

History, though, is rejected by the committed anti-Zionist if it does not tell his story.

Let’s take a few of the guiding assumptions now and see where it takes us.

1. Property Rights: Zionists took the Arab land of Palestine by kicking out the owners of the house and moving in.

Has this happened? Jews have, indeed, moved into houses abandoned by Arabs in 1948 following the defeat of the Arab armies intent on destroying the nascent Jewish country. Most Arabs left as a result of propaganda regarding Israeli brutality (very much like the kind you see now on twitter and Facebook with the added horror of fabricated stories about Israelis raping Arab women). Many Arabs from the former British Mandate of Palestine and former Ottoman province of Palestine were forced to leave. As to the proportion of how many left voluntarily at the urging of their own leaders and how many were forced out, the debate is still on amongst Israeli historians. How many of the Arabs who left permanently were legal owners of property abandoned is yet another question. Why the neighboring countries did not absorb the Arab refugee population from Palestine who spoke the same language and shared their religious beliefs and Arab ethnicity is yet another question others have already addressed (even as Israel fully absorbed an equal number of dispossessed Jewish refugees who were pushed out of Arab countries at that time as well).

But how did things come to this?

How did the Jews manage to establish a presence in great numbers in Palestine prior to 1948? Did they show up and say to the Arabs living there, “get out. This is my house now”? Palestine’s total population was 350,000 in 1850 only to quadruple in less than a hundred years to 1,339,763 in 1946 (according to Justin MacCarthy). Jews acquired land not through violence and dispossession prior to 1948 but rather through valid purchases of land from the Turkish or Arab property owners. More often than not, Jews were sold the least fertile parcels of land. It was these lands that the “settlers” transformed with backbreaking hard work into fertile lands–often to the great irritation of the original owners. 

Property rights. Yes, we all believe in property rights. The question is whether or not these rights are absolute on an individual level or not. Doesn’t a war of aggression that the aggressor loses change our calculations or assumptions regarding property rights? Is it not clear to the anti-Zionist crowd that the element of violence was introduced not by the Zionists–who had accepted the U.N. plan of division and the amount of land thereby offered–but by the Arab countries who told the people living in Palestine that they would push the Jews out of their legitimately purchased and legally acquired lands? So, it’s only in the case of Israel that violence should never be answered with counter-violence, right?

Human rights.
There is something inexpressible hypocritical about people who espouse a system of values associated with Western countries imposing that system on Israel but not on any of its neighbors to claim that “human rights” are violated by Israel. Israel’s current population is almost 20% Arab. Just the fact that the Israeli-Arabs are the most vociferous opponents of the idea of land transfers in a possible peace deal should be enough to let an objective observer see the extent to which Israeli Arabs appreciate the rights afforded to them by virtue of being citizens of Israel (even as they wave Palestinian flags during demonstrations against the idea of becoming Palestinian citizens). Why would these Israeli Arabs not want to become Palestinian citizens? The answer is clear if you look at the human rights records in Gaza under Hamas and, to a lesser extent, the West Bank under Fatah. Gay rights are non-existent and women’s rights are severely curtailed  as they are in all Arab countries.

National Self-Determination.
Much has been written about the emergence of the Palestinian as a separate identity since 1967. Well, it’s a complex question that needs more attention than can be afforded by this present article, but clearly, it’s an identity with a strong political purpose. Why does it resonate so well with European and American intellectuals? Because the word “Palestinian” has become synonymous with “oppressed” and “downtrodden.” The David and the Goliath effect is inescapable. Israel has developed into a technological superpower while the  Palestinians have been left behind (subsisting on handouts from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere). So, if you suspect that there will be fewer human rights in Palestine (i.e. no Israelis allowed even in the West Bank) than in Israel then why support a Palestinian state? Aren’t you for human rights and equality? You say you are because you want to see the Palestinians “liberated” even though the liberation would lead to fewer human rights then are afforded to Israelis.

And the tug of war between various values would continue if not for the overwhelming trump card that puts to rest these concerns: the occupation of Palestinian lands.

The question is this: when did Israel begin to occupy Palestine? In 1948 (following the War of Independence forced upon Israel) or 1967 (following the Six Day War)? Those who believe that Israel was wrong to occupy the abandoned villages settled by Arabs in 1948 would have to take the moral position that the very existence of Israel is morally unacceptable. Again, a tug of war breaks out between property rights, human rights, and national self-determination (in this case, the self-determination of the Jewish people in its national homeland). Of course, we are leaving God out of the equation altogether since the Western European and U.S. advocates of Palestinian rights tend not to believe in any narratives about God promising and giving the Land of Israel to the Jews. That argument, an overwhelmingly strong one for most religious Jews and a sizable portion of American Christians, is out the window.

And so, you see why peace is such an elusive goal in Israel? With Hamas totally against the very idea of a Jewish State and Fatah merely giving lip service to the idea, no real negotiations are possible at this juncture. Even Jimmy Carter agrees that no peace agreement can ever be implemented unless it is also accepted by Hamas.

What remains is a tug of war between those who accept Israel as a legitimate country on a deeply personal level, those who really believe in the two-state solution and those who say they want the two-state solution but are really hoping for a final solution for Israel (namely, its total demise).

In the meantime, Israelis will fight to preserve what they have achieved in the past 66 years and Palestinians won’t give up on trying to secure a state of their own (however viable or unviable it may become).

If you are virulently anti-Zionist, you want Israel to be gone with all its human rights and democratic values because for you, property rights and what you perceive as national self-determination wins over human rights. But you deny this because you are a champion of human rights, which you see Israel violates in the occupied territories (not wanting to realize that  most of the restrictions are in place because a sizable enough portion of the population had been engaged in violent acts against Israelis and would revert to violence in the West Bank if they had the chance). So, there’s nothing anyone can say to you to change your mind to see that another model is also possible–one that operates within Israel proper, with its Arab minority population enjoying the rights that Israeli citizenship affords.

If you are on the fence, all I ask of you is to be fair and try to make peace in your head between the competing values of property rights, human rights, and national self-determination.

I hope you will come to the right conclusion and leave the knee-jerk reactions to jerks with knees.



Thank You, Mr. Carter, for Stating the Obvious: No Deal is Possible with Only Abbas

Jimmy Carter’s May 12 opinion piece in the Washington Post should be cut out, framed and hung on the wall.

Not because it lists all the unilateral steps Israel took during the last round of abortive peace negotiations  (the “14,000 new Israeli settlement units…approved, more than 3,000 Palestinians…arrested and 50…killed, provoking troubling examples of Palestinian retaliation, including the deaths of three Israelis”) even as the former president forgets to mention the 78 convicted terrorists Israel released by October, 2013. No, this is, so far, nothing unusual from Carter who, after all, used the word apartheid to describe Israel in his 2006 book.

So, what is so important in Carter’s latest opinion piece that it merits lasting attention?

It’s the former president’s rationale for welcoming the unity deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Carter writes, “This reconciliation of Palestinian factions and formation of a national unity government is necessary because it would be impossible to implement any peace agreement between Israel and just one portion of the Palestinians.”

Let’s remember these words when the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, once again, result in an acrimonious divorce.

Therefore, when pressure is inevitably applied on Israel once more to go back to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority after  the Palestinian unity government fails, Benjamin Netanyahu should be the first to point to Jimmy Carter’s words: “it would be impossible to implement any peace agreement between Israel and just one portion of the Palestinians.”

Thank you, Mr. Carter, for confirming what most rational people had already known: no comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, even in theory, is possible without an agreement to that effect from both the West Bank and Gaza.

And for the foreseeable future, Gaza, with Hamas in charge, will not be interested in living side by side with the “Zionist Entity” that the rest of the world calls Israel be it within or without a Palestinian unity government.

Be it as it may, one thing is clear: the charade will continue.

Why Everyone Should Boycott Official 2014 Holocaust Commemorations in Hungary

Imagine the White House chief of staff stating the following at a press conference after a significant meeting about a highly controversial issue with the leading representatives of American Jewry: “the President will address all of our fellow Americans as well as our Jewish citizens next week.” It does not take a lot of imagination to envision the firestorm of criticism that would follow such a division of the American people into real Americans vs. Jewish citizens of America.

Yet, this is precisely what János Lázár, the Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, said after the unsuccessful round-table meeting with leading Hungarian Jewish organizations. Of course, he was not talking about fellow Americans but rather “fellow Hungarian countrymen” and “our Jewish citizens.” Perhaps at other times, this statement would have drawn more fire from liberal Hungarians and Hungarian Jews alike. At this time, though, Hungarian Jews are, in a sense, too focused on the trees to notice the forest. The largest Jewish organization, Mazsihisz, in the past few weeks, has been on a collision course with the government. On Sunday, February 9th, Mazsihisz  identified three major issues with which the Hungarian government needs to deal in a satisfactory way for it to reconsider its decision to boycott the official commemorative events in 2014 scheduled for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary.

One may argue that the comparison between Americans and Hungarians does not work since the American people is a rather recent construct that designates a group of individuals whose coherence is not determined along ethnic lines. That argument, however, also applies to the Hungarian nation since that, too, is not only an amalgamation of various ethnic groups tied together by history, cultural affiliations, and language but is also a constitutively heterogeneous nation. The history of Hungary shows that any ethnic group that wished to become absorbed into the body of the Hungarian nation could do so. The patriotic Hungarian Jews in the middle of the 19th century believed it was no different for the Jews. And indeed, the endeavors of Jews in Hungary for the past 150 years to acculturate within Hungary began to bear very significant fruits from the time Hungarian Jews committed themselves on the side of the Hungarians against the Austrians in the abortive Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-1849. Once the law removed all legal obstacles from Jewish Hungarians with the passing of the 1867 Jewish Emancipation Law, Hungarianization of Jews accelerated at a remarkable pace. An increasing number of Jews in Hungary began to think of themselves and carried on their lives as Hungarians with their Jewish cultural affiliations either remaining intact or shrinking rapidly.

The ascendancy of Jews in all areas of Hungarian culture occasioned a severe backlash with Admiral Miklós Horthy’s assumption of power in 1920. The first anti-Jewish measures in all of Europe were passed in Hungary in the same year Horthy took power. The Numerus Clausus law, a sort of reverse affirmative action law, greatly limited the number of Jewish students eligible for university admissions. From that moment on, the Jewish citizens of Hungary must have known that they were not considered as part of the Hungarian nation. The eruption of anti-Jewish violence in universities in the 1920s and 30s must was another painful reminder that Hungarian Jews were not welcome in the universities. In 1938-39, further anti-Jewish laws were passed that limited the number of Jews allowed in various intellectual professions. These measures were taken because Hungarians of Jewish descent had become “too successful” in Hungary in all cultural and professional areas and had to be restrained. Jewish success was also Hungarian success.  Hungarian Jews came up with amazing inventions, achieved olympic victories, expanded industrial output and furthered intellectual work to the benefit of the entire Hungarian nation. Yet, to the anti-Semite, a Jew remained a Jew no matter his or her acculturated appearance and estrangement from all things Jewish.

Nothing prepared Hungarian Jews to the horror that would befall them toward the end of World War II. The most tragic period for Hungarian Jews came in the summer of 1944 when Jewish life outside of Budapest came to an abrupt end with mass deportations and murder of an estimated 437,000 Hungarian Jews within a eight-week period. In Budapest itself, derisively called Judapest at the turn of the century the for its large number of Jewish residents, Jews were herded into a large ghetto or went into hiding with false papers (many of whom, in a figurative if not literal sense, stayed in hiding as a Jew in forever). That large numbers of Jews in Budapest could pass for non-Jews with the help of a piece of paper is eloquent testimony of the success of Hungarian Jewish acculturation. The significant role of the Regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, in allowing mass deportations from all of Hungary is clear to historians and Hungarian Jews. It is precisely the current Hungarian government’s attempt to reevaluate and whitewash the Horthy regime with the proposed erection of a statue commemorating the 70th anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary that has unified the otherwise very fragmented Jewish Hungarian part of the Hungarian people to an unprecedented extent.

Many in Hungary remember the rather placid and ineffective role Jewish organizations played in the face of increasing pressure just prior to and during the Holocaust. Although the facts are not as clear, the popular perception amongst many Jews today is that the Jewish council in 1944 collaborated with the authorities and, thereby, made the situation for the Jews much worse. So, the decision not to go along with the Hungarian government’s expectations of Jewish collaboration in the 70th anniversary’s commemorations constitutes a watershed moment in Hungarian Jewish history.

It is incumbent upon everyone to support this extraordinary self-assertion by the official representatives of Hungarian Jewry by urging everyone involved to follow suit and boycott all official government sponsored commemorations of the Holocaust in 2014. That means every international dignitary, speaker, or guest invited by the Orban government to participate in the official Holocaust commemorations in 2014 should now express solidarity with the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants in Hungary who have made the difficult but morally correct decision to boycott these events by declining the invitation.

Yet, complete non-action would serve no purpose.

I believe that all people of goodwill, whether inside or outside of Hungary, may now begin to contribute to conceiving and/or putting into action alternate modes of commemorations (both traditional as well as innovative ones) that would serve to educate people about what happens when age-old prejudices, greed, the active hatred of some as well as the callous indifference of the majority are combined, as happened in Hungary but seventy years ago, resulting in the gradual dispossession and large-scale murder of more than half a million people classified as Jews in death camps and in the streets of Budapest.

As far as Hungarian Jews are concerned, 2014 will not be a year of national reconciliation and forgiveness but rather the year in which even the most Hungarian of the Hungarian Jews will have to realize that they are still perceived as “our fellow Jewish citizens” rather than as “our fellow Hungarians.”

Miklós Horthy died on February 9th, 1957. Fifty-seven years later to the day, Hungarian Jewish resistance to the revival of the Horthy cult and its exclusionary definition of what it means to be Hungarian was born.


Csanád Szegedi Revisited: the Hatred Continues

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.