Former anti-Semitic Hungarian politician embraces his Judaism

Csanad Szegedi, once a prominent member of the far-right Jobbik party, discovered Jewish roots and is studying with Chabad

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Csanad Szegedi celebrating his entry into the European Parliament after the European parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary in 2009. (photo credit: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)
Csanad Szegedi celebrating his entry into the European Parliament after the European parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary in 2009. (photo credit: AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky, File)

A former rising star in Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has been drawing closer to Judaism after learning of his Jewish roots.

Csanad Szegedi, who once accused Jews of “buying up” the country, railed about the “Jewishness” of the political elite and claimed Jews were desecrating national symbols, has been studying with local Chabad rabbis, German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported this week.

Szegedi, 31, said he is keeping Shabbat and trying to observe the laws of Kashrut. “I have discovered that I can reconcile my conservative viewpoints as Hungarian and as observant Jew,” he told Welt am Sonntag.

Following weeks of Internet rumors, Szegedi acknowledged in June 2012 that his grandparents on his mother’s side were Jews — making him one too under Jewish law, even though he didn’t practice the faith. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and his grandfather a veteran of forced labor camps.

He became a pariah in Jobbik and his political career reached the brink of collapse.

Under pressure, Szegedi resigned from all party positions in July 2012 and gave up his Jobbik membership. That wasn’t good enough for the party: the next month it asked him to give up his seat in the European Parliament as well. Jobbik said the issue was suspected bribery, not his Jewish roots.

Szegedi stayed in the European parliament as an independent.

Szegedi came to prominence in 2007 as a founding member of the Hungarian Guard, a group whose black uniforms and striped flags recalled the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party that briefly governed Hungary at the end of World War II and killed thousands of Jews. In all, 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, most of them after being sent in trains to Auschwitz and other death camps. The Hungarian Guard was banned by the courts in 2009.

By then, Szegedi had already joined the Jobbik Party, which launched in 2003 and became the country’s biggest far-right political force. He soon became one of its most vocal and visible members and a pillar of the party leadership. Starting in 2009, he served in the European Parliament in Brussels as one of the party’s three EU lawmakers.

Szegedi, who was raised Christian, acknowledged his Jewish origins in interviews with Hungarian media, including news broadcaster Hir TV and Barikad, Jobbik’s weekly magazine. He said that he had a long conversation with his grandmother, who spoke about her family’s past as Orthodox Jews.

“It was then that it dawned on me that my grandmother really is Jewish,” Szegedi told Hir TV. “I asked her how the deportations happened. She was in Auschwitz and Dachau and she was the only survivor in the extended family.”

Judaism is traced from mother to child, meaning that under Jewish law Szegedi is Jewish. Szegedi said he defines himself as someone with “ancestry of Jewish origin — because I declare myself 100 percent Hungarian.”

In a November 2010 interview on Hungarian state television, Szegedi blamed the large-scale privatization of state assets after the end of communism on “people in the Hungarian political elite who shielded themselves in their Jewishness.”

He further said that “the problem the radical right has with the Jews” was that Jewish artists, actors and intellectuals had desecrated Hungary’s national symbols like the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, the country’s first Christian king.

Szegedi also complained of “massive real estate purchases being done in Hungary, where — it’s no secret — they want to bring in Israeli residents.”

Szegedi met in August 2012 with Rabbi Slomo Koves, of Hungary’s Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community, whose own parents were in their teens when they discovered they were Jewish.

“As a rabbi… it is my duty to receive every person who is in a situation of crisis and especially a Jew who has just now faced his heritage,” Koves said.

During the meeting, Szegedi apologized for any statements which may have offended the Jewish community, and vowed to visit Auschwitz to pay his respects.

Koves described the conversation as “difficult and spiritually stressful,” but said he is hopeful for a successful outcome.

“Csanad Szegedi is in the middle of a difficult process of reparation, self-knowledge, re-evaluation and learning, which according to our hopes and interests, should conclude in a positive manner,” Koves said. “Whether this will occur or not is first and foremost up to him.”

Szegedi joked that he was treated by some Jews “like a leper” when he began attending synagogue. But he persevered, learning Hebrew and studying basic principles of Judaism. “It is changed everything. It is like being reborn, and the changes in my life are still happening,” Szegedi said. “I had this set value system that I had to change completely. I had had this value system until I was 30 and I had to admit that it was all wrong and to find the will to change.”

Hungary has seen a rise in anti-Semitism in recent years, characterized by the emergence of the Jobbik party, which controls 47 of 486 seats in the parliament. Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi said in late 2012 in the legislature that it was time “to assess… how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk.”

He later apologized, but the perception that the Hungarian government is not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism has taken root in the minds of many. The government recently launched a campaign to combat that image by hiring a powerful New York public relations firm and pledging to commemorate the mass deportation of Hungarian Jewry.

Ferenc Kumin, an adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who handles international communications, reached out to JTA last week to counter what he says are unfair perceptions of his government’s treatment of Jews and other minorities.

“In the American public discourse, there is a lot of talking of anti-Semitism and racism in Hungary and the connected concerns,” Kumin said in an interview. “We try to bring a realistic picture. We don’t want to say it’s not there. But in certain accounts this issue is exaggerated.”

In July, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy said in a letter to Jewish groups that Hungary’s government must do more to condemn political anti-Semitism.

Pablo Gorondi and JTA contributed to this report. 

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