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A Szegedi Moment

In recent years, a Hungarian man in his thirties has been in the news for converting to Judaism, beginning to eat Kosher food and observing the Sabbath. He's also been circumcised. There’s nothing outlandish about this until we consider what he was doing in his twenties.


A decade ago Csanad Szegedi was a member of the European Parliament, representing the right wing Jobbik Party. In line with party policy he was a committed anti-semite, perpetually angry with what he called the “Jewishness” of Hungary’s rulers.


In June 2012 the picture changed. His maternal grandparents were revealed to be Jewish. Indeed, his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who had subsequently kept her faith hidden. The revelation saw Szegedi expelled from the Jobbik Party and left to find a new identity. Step by step, he became a voice of tolerance. He began to speak warmly of building a bridge between Hungary’s Jewish population and their compatriots of other religions, and the hatred that fuelled the words and actions of his youth became a distant memory.


As Hungary’s response to refugees, to ethnic minorities and notably to its Jewish citizens draws criticism and dismay, it’s worth reflecting on the journey Szegedi has made. We can’t ignore the momentum that’s gathered for the politics of intolerance in the 21st century but today, as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we can point more optimistically to the politics of the moment. The moment of illumination.


A switch was flicked for Csanad Szegedi, and a light came on. He saw himself and his society with a new clarity. Enough to reach this conclusion after a national election in which the far right had made notable gains:


“The majority of Jobbik’s one million voters are not anti-Semitic or racist — they are simply people in despair.”


That’s a comment that may ring true for many voters across Europe, and certainly for many in the UK. People without hope voting for politicians that offer none. Clinging to narrow isolationism, ignoring the fact that immigrants are responsible for one in every seven British business start-ups. Ignoring the promise of a future in which the British economy might be revitalised by the ingenuity and work ethic of its economic migrants.


Many of those living in doubt and fear would benefit from a Szegedi moment. The moment when the lights come on and you realise that this diverse, ambitious, vibrant cross-section of people that you want to banish so you can get “your country” back belong exactly where they are. Because they are your country. Given the chance, your country could evolve into something better, more interesting and more competitive. And if you give yourself the chance you may well enjoy being part of it.


One of the most notable and symbolic acts of Szegedi’s conversion was his burning of a book he himself had written, full of anti-Semitic abuse. He made a bonfire of his own prejudices. Having read it with the lights on, how could he do anything else?

With apologies to Shakespeare, some are born tolerant, some learn tolerance, and some have tolerance thrust upon them. When it was thrust upon Csanad Szegedi he accepted it, embraced it and emerged as something new.


The man he always could have been.


The man who, deep down, he always was.


It’s difficult to come to terms with the bigotry and hatred that led to the Holocaust. Today of all days, let’s take comfort in people’s potential to turn their backs on it.


Shalom aleichem, Csanad Szegedi.




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