Jobbik’s Gábor Vona wishes Happy Hanukkah to Hungarian Jews and sparks controversy

Gábor Vona has been trying to shift his Jobbik party away from the far right; he must have thought that one of the best ways to show Hungary and the world that he is serious about ridding the party of its antisemitism is by wishing a Happy Hanukkah to Rabbi Slomó Köves and to his Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation.

“Allow me to greet you and your faith community with respect on the occasion of Hanukkah,” wrote Mr Vona and added that he hoped that Hanukkah would “bring true light, which can also show the way forward.”

Rabbi Slomó Köves responded by suggesting to Mr. Vona that it would be “more effective to offer these gestures in those circles where up until now hatred, slander and darkness, rather than light, won ground.” He then added that Jobbik did not consider Jews “members of the Hungarian nation deserving of equal treatment.”

Rabbi Slomó Köves

Rabbi Slomó Köves

It was a simple, yet startling gesture from a politician who has a long history of antisemitism himself, but who has undoubtedly matured a great deal over the past seven years. I recall how in 2009, a petulant Mr. Vona told reporter János Betlen during a television interview, that he should get lost and go back to Israel, purely because the journalist was asking the neophyte Jobbik leader about antisemitism and the Holocaust. In the past, Mr. Vona implied that liberal Hungarian Jewish politicians had “huge haughty noses.” In 2010, he had this to say about the Holocaust. “Oh, I’ve really had it with the Holocaust–it’s coming out of my ears. On the last day of the parliament we have a million and one concerns, but this is the most important to us? And we always have to remind our children of this and always spark a guilty conscience?”

Fast forward six years, and this is what Mr. Vona had to say in a letter to Rabbi Köves, which he wrote after the Jewish leader effectively rejected the Jobbik party’s Hanukkah greetings:

“As a basically conservative and Christian person, I found myself in a cultural and philosophical space where one side constantly labelled Hungarians as Nazis, and where the other side constantly labelled Jews as traitors. And I did what I thought was appropriate, based on the models that I saw on my own side. This is not meant to serve as an acquittal. It is simply an explanation”

Mr. Vona also claimed in his letter to Rabbi Köves that Jobbik has “passed its often irresponsible, prodigal teenage years and has entered adulthood.”

The Jobbik leader then suggested that the Hungarian nation is comprised of both Christians and Jews, though added: “Christian Hungarians and Jewish Hungarians wounded each other innumerable times,” referring specifically to 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic (which many right-wing Hungarians regularly point out was led in large part by people of Jewish origins), the Horthy era, the Second World War, the Holocaust and Stalinist terror. “In these moments, we drifted ever further apart in terms of Hungarian and Jewish co-existence and from the ideal of building a common homeland together,” Mr. Vona added.

Gábor Vona. Photo: Facebook.

Gábor Vona. Photo: Facebook.

These lines convinced me to write a Hungarian-language open letter to Mr. Vona.  It is folly to suggest that Hungarian Jews, as such, were responsible for wounding and attacking Hungarian Christians. Some Hungarians of Jewish origins took part in the Stalinist regime, much like Hungarians from a Christian background did as well. But at no point were Hungarian Christians attacked by Hungarian Jews as a result of their religious or cultural identity. In contrast, Hungarians of Christian origins played a critical role in enthusiastically deporting and exterminating Hungarian Jews, due to their origins.

Yet there are two elements of Mr. Vona’s letter that I find noteworthy for a Hungarian politician who began his career on the far-right. First, Mr. Vona suggested that the Hungarian nation is diverse–incorporating both Christians and Jews. He even spoke about a joint nation-building project, involving Christians and Jews. Second, Mr. Vona recognized the Holocaust–he mentioned it by name, even though he attempted to relativise it.

But Mr. Vona is naive or perhaps overly optimistic to think that one Hanukkah greeting sent to Rabbi Köves would somehow erase years of antisemitism. And that Rabbi Köves or others would see this as an authentic gesture indicative of real ideological conversion, rather than simply part of a pragmatic electoral strategy aimed at moving Jobbik to the moderate right–even to the centre of the ruling Fidesz party.

Mr. Vona has managed to convince some people on the left that he is now turning into a bona fide moderate force. Former Socialist Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy declared on ATV that the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Democratic Coalition (DK) must partner with Jobbik before the 2018 elections. Mr. Medgyessy then said that those on the left who are unwilling to ally themselves with Jobbik were “overly squeamish.”

But Mr. Vona’s Hanukkah greetings were not greeted with enthusiasm within the Jobbik party itself. Jobbik’s local organization in the Budapest suburb of Vecsés had this to say:

“Jobbik of Vecsés does not send any greetings to the Jewry on the occasion of Hanukkah (of whatever the f-ck). If anyone ever gets such an idea, our organization will distance itself from them.”

Mr. Vona promised to discipline the Vecsés chapter and launch an ethical inquiry for “shamefully attacking a religion.”

The Jobbik leader has his work cut out for him.

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