When a Racist Hungary Politician Finds Out He’s Jewish
‘It almost reads like a gag,” Sam Blair said. “Have you heard about the fascist politician who found out he was a Jew?” Blair was talking about Csanád Szegedi, a former leader of Hungary’s extremist right-wing Jobbik party. Jobbik is widely, but not officially, associated with anti-Semitism; as an example, in the run-up to the 2015 election he eventually won, Jobbik member Lajos Rig posted an article to his Facebook page that accused Jews of using Gypsies as biological weapons against Hungarians. As one of the directors of “Keep Quiet,” a new documentary on Szegedi, Blair — whose previous work includes “Personal Best,” a documentary long-listed for the 2012 British Film Awards — spoke with me while in New York to promote the film.
As a member of Jobbik, Szegedi openly expressed anti-Semitic sentiment; in a 2013 New Yorker profile, Anne Applebaum described a 2012 rally at which he joked that Hungarian leaders had “made us believe that if we enter the European Union it would bring us to Canaan,” but instead membership “just brought us a whole lot of Canaanites.” He rose rapidly through Jobbik, becoming a founding member of its short-lived paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, and, in 2009, one of its two representatives to the European Parliament. And then, in 2012, he revealed that he’d learned he was, in fact, Jewish. He was expelled from Jobbik — nominally for reasons separate from his newly discovered heritage — sought out the Chabad Lubavitch rabbi Boruch Oberlander and became a practicing Jew.
To get an idea of what that meant for Hungarians, imagine what you would think if Donald Trump announced he’d learned he was Muslim, retreated from politics, started to practice Islam and began speaking publicly about the dangers of Islamophobic extremism. If you were Muslim, you’d be faced with the difficult decision of whether to welcome him into your community or treat him as an outcast.
That circumstance, and those reactions, is what the team behind “Keep Quiet” sets out to explore.
“He’s a product of a time and a place,” Blair said, “and I think that was what I focused on, trying to look at those themes and those layers and understand how he came to be.”
Up close, Szegedi looks powerful: He’s tall and broad-chested, with a meaty face and sharp, guarded hazel eyes. Meeting him and Oberlander on a cloudy April morning in SoHo, I was impressed by his deliberateness. His facial hair, a pared-down goatee, was carefully trimmed; his light blue button-down shirt crisp, and his gaze direct. We spoke through a translator, but even with that barrier I understood why he’d made such an effective politician. No matter what I asked — what he found hardest to accept about Judaism, whether he was worried that having a film made about his story would make his change of heart seem less genuine — he seamlessly, almost expressionlessly, pivoted back to his message: Right-wing extremism is wrong; Judaism is full, rich and rewarding, and his transformation is real.
At 33, Szegedi has been a poster boy for a mind-boggling number of diametrically opposed groups: far-right extremists and those opposed to them, anti-Semites and Orthodox Jews, Eastern European practitioners of Holocaust denial and those who have been victimized by that rhetoric. It’s impossible to know how this series of postures has influenced his understanding of himself, but when I asked him what his life is like now, he responded implacably. “Basically I am a normal person,” he said. “I have a family, I have work.”
Something his story highlights, though, is that normalcy can have a lot of different meanings. When he was a teenager, Szegedi picked up Hungarian Forum, an anti-Semitic newspaper that spoke of a Jewish global conspiracy. That event, combined with the simmering spirit of nationalism in Hungary, set him on a path toward developing — as he explains in the first minutes of “Keep Quiet” — “a perfectly crystallized, right-wing, nationalist worldview.” For people of his age, in his country, that path was fairly normal. “There were lots of young people from right-wing groups who shared my ideology,” he says in the film.
Szegedi’s maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor. When she got out of the camp and returned to Hungary, which had been home to strong anti-Semitic sentiment long before the Nazi occupation, she decided to hide her background. Szegedi’s mother, at some point, learned the truth. She also kept it hidden. That was also normal. “I felt it was more important to experience the feeling of being Hungarian,” she says in the film, telling Szegedi, “I thought that you’d rather experience that, too.”
“After [the first screening],” Blair told me, “there were quite a few [people] who said, ‘We don’t really know who we are.’ There was one who said, ‘I think my grandmother was Jewish, but she died and I don’t know.’”
So yes, Szegedi is, in many ways, normal. There are a lot of people like his grandmother and mother, who hid their story, and who never felt safe. The question of why so many Hungarian Jews feel the need to keep quiet, or uninformed, about parts of their personal history is one that Blair and his co-director, Joseph Martin, made central to “Keep Quiet.”
What makes Szegedi exceptional is the extent to which he propagated the prejudice with which he was inculcated. “Keep Quiet” includes footage of him speaking at the Jewish Youth Congress in Berlin, where an impassioned young Hungarian woman accuses him of faking his transformation and helping create an environment of hatred in Hungary so pernicious that she felt compelled to leave the country. Later, he travels to Canada to meet with the Jewish community in Montreal; he’s stopped by authorities in the airport and compelled to return to Budapest. Within Jobbik, Szegedi was seen as an effective mover for the party’s future. For those the party subjugated, his prominence means that many still view him as an object of not only suspicion, but also of outright danger.
That legacy has colored his entry into Jewish communities, starting with Budapest’s Chabad Synagogue.
“When the news came out that Csanád is Jewish,” Oberlander, who speaks fluent English, told me when we met, “I announced that I’m going to give a lecture on the question ‘Is an anti-Semitic Jew Jewish?’ I said, listen, the president of our community has just resigned. Do you people think that if Csanád walks in tomorrow and would like to be the president of the Jewish community, can we accept him? And what if we only have nine people, can he be number 10?”
Since Szegedi first made contact in 2012, Oberlander said, “we’ve been sitting almost every week for a two-hour lesson. In the beginning it was very intense discussions; it took for Csanád I believe half a year until I saw his first smile.” Szegedi, at first, was solemn about the spiritual relationship they’ve cultivated.
“I would very much like to feel that there is a master-and-disciple relationship between us,” Szegedi said, “but unfortunately it is only true that he is the master, and I should learn much more to be able to call myself a disciple.”
He warmed up as he kept speaking. “He didn’t have prejudice towards me,” he said. “If there is such a thing that you can have a rabbi as a friend, then I would like to believe that Rabbi Oberlander is my friend.”
“Being the senior Orthodox rabbi in Budapest, senior Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in Budapest,” Oberlander said, “it is my fault, quote-unquote, it was my decision to accept Csanád into the Jewish community.
“I hope people are going to give him at least some benefit of the doubt. I can’t expect everyone to say ‘Well, he’s a saint,’ but they should give him some benefit of the doubt.”
The fact that Szegedi’s story has been turned into a movie — and especially one gaining attention on the film festival circuit — raises a number of questions. There are many who, like the woman who confronted him at the Jewish Youth Congress see Szegedi’s public turn to Judaism as an act, a way to regain power and attention after the political setbacks that followed the revelation of his heritage. In fact, the creation and distribution of this movie — which takes a hard look at Szegedi and his choices, but treats him sympathetically — could be seen as validating that very belief.
Szegedi and Oberlander equivocated when I asked them what they thought of that possible critique.
“As to how people receive the film, as a politician I am used to the fact that there are always people who agree with me and people who don’t agree with me,” Szegedi said.
“Right after the whole story started, for months different media reporters approached Csanád about giving interviews,” Oberlander added. “I insisted, when he asked my opinion, that he should not give any interviews yet, because if he’s expected to say something and he didn’t internalize it, then it’s wrong. When the idea of this film came up, I said as long as it’s sincere, not saying what it’s expected to say, then it could go along.”
I was frustrated by the surface-level quality of those answers until I spoke with Blair several days later. I asked him the same question, and while he didn’t answer it in a directly meaningful way, he offered a thoughtful opinion on the effectiveness of film as a medium for Szegedi’s story. “At the end of the day, entertainment’s a strange word for a movie like this,” he said. “I really believe in documentary as a force for good, because if nothing else it’s a mirror to look at ourselves through.”
When surrounded — as “Keep Quiet” was, during these interviews — with the glitz and glamour of an event like the Tribeca festival, it was easy to see the film as a canny, self-aggrandizing venture for Szegedi. To Blair, that didn’t necessarily matter. What mattered was that as many people as possible took a look in the mirror that film provided, one that challenged them to think with greater honesty about their prejudices, the unresolved complications attached to their own identities, and the ways in which favoring the prejudices of those in power imposes costs on those without it.
For me, it worked. Talking with Szegedi and Oberlander, I found myself questioning the way I tended to imagine Judaism as a cultural entity. I used to think of it as a Diaspora with a definite center, but that might be a little too tidy. What if Judaism, in the wake of the Holocaust, hasn’t established a reliable center?
That question — who are we now, after this calamity? — is why Szegedi’s story is important. As I spoke to him, I found myself thinking about his story in an almost biblical framework. The Torah is filled with the tales of people who doubted, rejected or didn’t know of their Jewishness; those narratives are complicated, and sometimes troubling, but ultimately they can guide readers back to the faith. It’s a curiously effective tradition, proving the religion’s strength by codifying and constantly revisiting the challenges that have been posed to it.
It is, frankly, very good marketing: Expose potential flaws, demonstrate the ways in which they’re actually strengths, win or reaffirm loyalty. It might be crass to think about religion in those terms, but contemporary Judaism can seem to be at a loss on the question of how to motivate that kind of buy-in. Relying on traditional texts doesn’t, for many, do the trick; the texts can be inaccessible, and, especially to younger Jews, they can feel irrelevant. Israel is the other obvious motivator, but using it as a tool to breed loyalty is a tactic bound to fail; the country is too politically controversial among Jews to realistically serve as the universal spiritual rallying point many wish it could be.
Szegedi’s story, and those like it, poses an alternative. It acknowledges that collective Jewish identity has been changed radically by the Holocaust, and that finding a place in that wounded, confused world can be a gritty, messy, uncomfortable process. It takes an honest look at the honest difficulties of being a Jew in the world we live in now, and it shows that those difficulties can actually be part of the reward that identity offers.
Realistically, many of us share more with Szegedi than we’d like to admit. Treating that similarity as not only okay, but also as a powerful starting point from which to form a meaningful connection to Judaism? That’s a new normal I would very much like to see. As Szegedi told me: “Jewish people have a very difficult heritage, anti-Semitism. You need to handle this heritage, to deal with it, whether you want to or not.”