Gábor Vona, who heads Hungary’s far-right party, Jobbik, famously showed up on his first day as a member of Parliament in 2010 wearing the uniform of a banned racist and an anti-Semitic paramilitary group.
But the morning of Wednesday, February 1, sitting in his office overlooking the partially frozen Danube River, Vona was dressed in a simple gray suit for his first-ever interview with a Jewish publication.
The 38-year-old leader of one of Europe’s most electorally successful far-right movements once said that “if it turned out about me that I were Jewish, then I would resign from my position.”
But as he sat down for his interview with the Forward, Vona projected a different, cordial — and at times even friendly — tone.
“Hungarian Jews have such serious trauma that it makes working together more difficult,” he said reassuringly. “This could change, perhaps in my generation or with young Jewish people now entering the active phase in their lives and getting into positions of responsibility. If we are able to extend hands to one another and understand each other, perhaps we can open a new chapter.”
He added: “If Jobbik comes to power, the Hungarian Jewish community can continue living its daily life as it has. We don’t want conflict with the Jewish community.”
With national elections in 2018 looming, Vona, who is infamous for his long record of anti-Semitic stands, is trying to shift his party’s public image and portray himself as a tolerant politician.
Last December, Vona sent a letter to the Hungarian Jewish community, conveying Hanukkah greetings — an unprecedented move for the far-right politician.
But Vona’s new rhetorical support for tolerance contrasts greatly with his past statements and with his actions, as well as with the ideology that he has nurtured over the past decade within Jobbik — today, Hungary’s second-largest party.
In 2012, Jobbik’s vice president, Márton Gyöngyösi, speaking in Parliament, called for the creation of a list of Jews in Hungary’s government. That same year, another Jobbik member of Parliament, Zsolt Baráth, gave a speech accusing the Jewish community of blood libel, referring to an infamous 19th-century case when Hungarian Jews were wrongfully accused of murdering a young girl.
Vona himself has engaged in strong racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric over the past years. In one open letter in 2013 to Israel’s then-ambassador to Hungary, Ilan Mor, Vona wrote: “I find it distasteful if any nation or people wants to rule the world. The Jewish people, too. And I see this arrogance in your behavior.”
“I won’t be Israel’s dog.” he wrote.
In 2013, at a so-called “anti-Bolshevik, anti-Zionist” rally against a World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest, Vona told the crowd that “Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves, because Hungary is not for sale.”
But the far-right leader now says that his views on Israel have always been consistent.
“We have criticisms of elements of Zionism,” he told me in his office. “But I never questioned Israel’s existence.”
“Our position is that there are two states, Israel and Palestine.”
He also said that Jobbik’s position is based on resolutions passed in the United Nations and that he hopes for peace in the region.
As an example of his party’s current tolerance, Vona pointed to one of Jobbik’s spokesmen, Péter Jakab, a practicing Catholic of Jewish origin whose grandparents survived the Holocaust.
As Vona spoke amid the simplicity of his neat office, his continuing ultra-nationalist ideological leanings could be seen plainly in a map hanging on his bookcase, portraying pre-World War I Hungary. Parts of modern-day Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Italy and Slovakia were encompassed within Hungary’s borders, and keeping the memory of Greater Hungary alive is part of Jobbik’s political agenda.
Vona was also one of the founders in 2007 of the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a paramilitary organization that was later ruled illegal and forced to formally disband. The Hungarian Guard’s mission included protecting Hungarians from so-called “Gypsy crime,” and the group physically intimidated members of Hungary’s Roma community. Some of the perpetrators of a series of racially motivated murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, including the killing of a 5-year-old, were found to have connections to the Guard.
In his interview, when asked about his party’s past rhetoric, Vona responded with a mix of denial and an emphasis that Jobbik is changing. Of his party colleague’s blood libel accusations against the Jewish community, Vona said, “At the time of the statement, we already said we do not agree.”
In fact, when asked about the blood libel speech controversy during a 2012 press interview shortly after it occurred, Vona told the Hungarian newspaper Mandiner that Jobbik is a “diverse party” on some issues, with members sharing the same “basic values.” He made no serious effort to criticize or disagree with his colleague.
As for the case of Gyöngyösi, the Jobbik parliament member and party vice president who proposed creating a list of Jews in government, Vona said, “After his statement, Gyöngyösi himself clarified that he means he wasn’t just thinking about [listing] Jews or Israeli dual citizens … but all double citizens.”
Vona contended that he had taken steps to ensure that Jobbik members understood that bigotry was unacceptable. “Over the past two or three years I made it clear that there is no place for any racism or anti-Semitism in the party,” he said. In fact, he added, “There are already sanctions for anti-Semitism.”
Asked for examples, he offered, “When a fellow member of Parliament wrote something anti-Semitic… I sent him down to lay a flower at the shoes memorial on the riverbank” — a reference to “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” a memorial erected in memory of those shot and thrown into the Danube River by members of the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross during World War II.
Founded by a group of students, Jobbik is particularly popular among young Hungarians and people living outside the capital, Budapest. The party has honed an image as a social, media-savvy, youthful group that appeals to both anti-establishment sentiments and century-old nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments.
But observers agree that with parliamentary elections next year, Jobbik faces a fateful crossroads. Under Viktorn Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, and his right-wing nationalist party, Fidesz, the country has taken what domestic and international critics see as an increasingly authoritarian turn. Orban’s government has adopted anti-refugee policies, building a wall along Hungary’s southern border, and a strong Euroskeptic stance. In essence, the ruling Fidesz party has adopted many of Jobbik’s ideas, leaving the far-right party’s leadership searching for a way to set itself apart.
Jobbik won 20% of the popular vote in the country’s 2014 election, making it Hungary’s No. 2 party. But faced with competition from the governing party for right-wing votes and the stigma, in the eyes of some voters, of its racist and anti-Semitic sentiments, Jobbik, in its present form, faces a possible ceiling on its support. To compete successfully for power, or at least for a position in a coalition government, Jobbik would have to reach out to new constituencies, including voters who may be attracted to Jobbik’s ideas on improving economic conditions and combating corruption but are uncomfortable with racist and anti-Semitic elements of its ideology.
In late January, Vona said in an interview with Hungarian television that voters do not necessarily have to agree with the party’s Christian, conservative ideals in order to support Jobbik. According to Vona, Jobbik welcomes any Hungarian who believes that “Hungary does not belong to Viktor Orbán, Hungary belongs to Hungarians.”
In his interview with the Forward, Vona seemed to acknowledge that Jobbik could not reposition itself by simply snapping its fingers and telling voters to forget the party’s — or Hungary’s — history. Instead, he proposed that Jobbik could work with Jews and more liberal segments of the population while it continued to hold fast to its own version of national memory and the other groups held fast to theirs. There was no pressing need, he seemed to say, to resolve whose version was accurate.
“I won’t deny that, unfortunately, the Hungarian Christian and Hungarian Jewish intelligentsia have long had disagreements,” he said. “If we look at the history of the 20th century, then almost for every important or tragic moment there are two versions in people’s heads. I won’t say what’s right. Who am I to say who’s right or what happened exactly?
“All I’m saying is… it’s better to show understanding and respect, and to focus on the future.”
The “disagreements” Vona was referring to are, in part, connected to his movement’s reverence for the map hanging behind him showing Hungary’s more sprawling borders before World War I.
Far-right nationalist Hungarians believe the 20th century’s biggest tragedy was the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which led to the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territory.
At the same time, Hungarian nationalists tend to overlook and minimize the tragedy of the Holocaust in their country. Hungary was a Nazi ally during World War II, and Hungarian society, unlike Germans, never took responsibility for its role in the murder of 600,000 Hungarian Jews. Moreover, some far-right Hungarians associate the Jewish community with Communist rule. Anti-Semitic Hungarian publications and politicians at times point to the Jewish origins of many of the country’s early Communist leaders.
The far-right leader maintains that Jewish and Christian Hungarians should put the 20th century behind them. He sees the 19th century as the golden age of relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians, and a template he would like to emulate.
In the 19th century, “Hungarian Jews were patriotic; they took part in the freedom fight in 1848 and 1849. Wouldn’t it be great if we returned to this, and Jewish people once again could consider Hungary their home?” he said.
But when asked about specific civil rights issues in Hungary, like the segregation of Roma children in schools, Vona did not set aside his old views completely.
“It is constructive not to think in black-and-white terms,” Vona said. “There are situations when integration is needed, and situations when segregation is needed. Segregation is not a great word, but … there are situations when separation is best for the children.”
For Jewish experts and observers, and for many members of the Hungarian Jewish community, Vona’s new friendly attitude appears far from credible. His unwillingness to address Hungary’s role in the Holocaust is among the points that rankle.
“The disagreement of the post-Holocaust period in Hungary is not only between ‘the Hungarian Christian and Hungarian Jewish intelligentsia,’ but between the survivors — all the surviving Jews of Hungary — and the successive post-World War II Hungarian governments that consistently refused to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the role the [Miklós] Horthy regime played in the destruction of close to 600,000 patriotic Jews,” said Randolph Braham, a Hungarian-born history professor emeritus at City University of New York and a leading expert on the Holocaust in Hungary.
“When Vona takes the initiative to publicly and courageously admit the real disagreements between Christians and Jews in general and offer a public apology for the Hungarian Christians’ role in the Holocaust, I would be ready to take him seriously,” Braham said.
Many also cited Vona’s failure to take more serious steps to address racism and anti-Semitism within his party’s own ranks.
These are “empty words uttered by a quite controversial politician with a rather checkered past,” said Rabbi Ferenc Raj, a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor who serves as the founding rabbi of Congregation Bet Orim, in Budapest, and as rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El, in Berkeley, California. “I strongly believe that first he and his followers must repent.”
Citing Maimonides, Raj evoked three steps to repentance: regret, rejection and resolution — resolving, with strong determination, not to do it again.
“It is not enough to change the ideology of the party, you have to change the people,” said Raj.
Contact Lili Bayer at firstname.lastname@example.org