Gyöngyösi: Jews should trust the Hungarian party’s ‘rebranding’

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Márton Gyöngyösi is vice chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and head of international affairs for Jobbik. (Courtesy)

Márton Gyöngyösi, who himself once said Israel was ‘running on a ‘Nazi system,’ insists ahead of Hungary’s contentious elections that his party is no longer racist

07 April 2018 |YAAKOV SCHWARTZ | Times of Israel

BUDAPEST — Sitting in his modest office a few hundred meters from Budapest’s famous Parliament building, Jobbik party spokesman Márton Gyöngyösi looks like anything but the bullies and thugs his party has been associated with since its early years — and is lately trying to distance itself from.

Tall, polished and soft-spoken, Gyöngyösi has the bearing of a seasoned politician, no great surprise given his upbringing in the Middle East and Far East as the son of a foreign trade expert, a history that manifests itself during discussion of the region. It also comes in handy in his roles as vice chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee and head of international affairs for Jobbik.

Gyöngyösi spoke with The Times of Israel shortly before Hungary’s upcoming April 8 elections, in which a fractured opposition — led by Jobbik, which is polling a distant second nationally — is trying to block incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ultra-conservative Fidesz party from a third term.

Despite recent overtures by party leader Gabor Vona to reach out to Hungary’s Jewish community, many Hungarians find it difficult to forget the party’s vicious not-so-distant history.

Since its founding in 2003 as a “conservative and radically patriotic Christian party,” Jobbik members have spewed virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric, defiled Holocaust monuments, and marched in intimidating mobs in Jewish and Roma population centers.

In 2007, Vona founded the Hungarian Guard, a now-banned paramilitary group that bore a chilling likeness to the Arrow Cross, the World War II-era fascist group that collaborated with the Nazi extermination of Hungary’s Jews.

Vona initiated what the party claims is an about-face in 2013, issuing apologies to those it hurt in the past.

“We are trying to appeal to everyone in Hungarian society and to represent all Hungarians regardless of background,” Gyöngyösi told The Times of Israel.

“I know that we still have an issue with credibility. It’s one thing to change, but you also have to be credible and convince the world that this change is inherent and it comes from within, that it’s not just a tactic to attract more votes,” he said.

Gyöngyösi himself is no stranger to controversy. In the past he has touted his relations with Iran, said Israel was running on a “Nazi system”and suggested keeping a list of Hungarian Jews.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, the politician struck a more conciliatory tone and appeared more focused on bettering the quality of life for Hungarians, something critics say the Orban government has been disappointingly lax in as it focuses on the sole issue of immigration.

Comfortable with laying it all on the line, Gyöngyösi sat down for a candid interview that proved despite his evolving views, he’s still not afraid to make the occasional incendiary statement.

Has Jobbik really turned over a new leaf and abandoned its old ways? That’s for the reader — and, come Sunday, the Hungarian electorate — to decide. The following has been edited for length.

Why should a Jewish person vote for Jobbik?

I think Jobbik has spent a lot of time and energy rebranding ourselves. We know that we’ve had problems in the past. We have, from our establishment up until 2013, had an appeal to a particular segment of Hungarian society which might have been labeled a conservative, right wing, radical segment, and thanks to two things we came to the conclusion that we really had to find [ourselves].

One is the inherent life cycle of every individual and every organization. Like an individual, an organization has its life cycle. For an individual you have the adolescent and teenage years — a time when you do your crazy things, and things that perhaps when you reach adulthood you don’t particularly like to remember. But I think they’re essential to becoming a reasonable adult. Everybody has — or hopefully everybody has — from their teenage years things that they regret. But they shouldn’t regret, because those are the mistakes that you learn from for your later years.

There are many other parties who don’t have those same mistakes in their “childhood.”

True. But nonetheless, we have come to learn from these mistakes not only because we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on ourselves, and on our past, but also — and this is where I come to the second factor — because we have had the opportunity to enter the Hungarian parliament and be the opposition of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban and [the] Fidesz [party] for almost eight years now. And we have seen Viktor Orban move from the center, from a moderate conservative right-wing position, out to the extreme in the past three or four years, while we were moving to the center. We have seen Viktor Orban do what we would have done if we came to power in our immature years.

I think it was a very good lesson for us — it’s a tragedy for the country, but for us it’s a very big lesson — to see how not to do politics, and how you can alienate a big majority of the Hungarian people, and how you can isolate and marginalize your country on the international stage and on the global sphere.

What kind of concrete steps has Jobbik taken to rid the party of anti-Semitism?

I think if you not only listen to what we have to say, but also look at what we’re doing, then you can say that we are making progress on the credibility line. Gabor Vona in the past couple of years has made very clear gestures to the Jewish community. You have probably heard of the Hanukkah greetings he has issued in the last couple of years — with an explanation for why he was reaching out.

Gabor Vona has accepted the invitation of circles which would have been very much identified with a liberal Jewish intellectual background, if you know what I mean — the visit to the Spinoza house, where a lot of such questions have been put to him. We have made a number of gestures which have not necessarily finished the job — we are not there, I know that this is a work in progress. All we want to achieve and receive feedback for, is that something has started and that there is an openness to receive these gestures. We don’t have to be given 100% credit for this as yet, but what we do want to acknowledge credit for is that we have made initial steps and we are moving in a direction which should be received.

In a 2015 interview in Magyar Nemzet, years after the new strategy was announced, Gabor Vona said that “There is no room in Jobbik for irreverent, vulgar actions that express collective judgment. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to speak about domestic Jews, [or] Israel’s policies…” What is there to discuss about domestic Jews?

I think it shouldn’t be taken out of context, and we shouldn’t imagine or read things into this that aren’t there. All he was saying is that we can’t tolerate racism or anti-Semitism. But it shouldn’t stop us from addressing certain issues which in a democratic society should be, or have to be, spoken about. For instance, while we cannot tolerate anti-Semitism, we can still speak openly about Israel’s policies. Just because I criticize, for instance, Emmanuel Macron, or Donald Trump, it doesn’t mean that I’m anti-French or anti-American. If Israel does something, or the government of Israel does something, which we do not think contributes to the peace process in the Middle East — if it’s going anywhere at all — then we should be able to say so.

If the Jewish community here in Hungary, for instance, one of them in particular – and I’ll give you a concrete example: If [Rabbi] Slomó Köves, whom you perhaps know, campaigns on behalf of a Fidesz candidate in the 5th district, as it happened a month and a half ago, then we should be allowed to say that Slomó Köves is doing a lot of damage not only to his own career, his own church, but also to the Jewish community, who he thinks he’s representing, for bringing domestic politics into a sphere where it doesn’t belong. (Author’s note: Köves, a leader of the Status Quo community which is closely affiliated with Chabad, has been criticized for overstepping his bounds as a religious leader and endorsing a candidate from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party this past February.)

And it’s not only me who is criticizing Slomó Köves for this, but some Mazsihisz [Jewish umbrella organization] leaders have also done so, very correctly. And I think we should be allowed to do that and not be responded to as exercising hidden anti-Semitism for criticizing certain segments of the Jewish community for doing something in a political campaign.

Does Jobbik have a foreign policy in place regarding Iran?

Iran in particular, no, you wouldn’t find in our foreign policy program Iran, which I think is a dominant country in the Middle East, it’s a 1,000 year old civilization, one of the oldest civilizations around, and it is a big country, it’s the leader of the Shia community in the world, and hence it’s a very important player in the Islamic world.

It’s currently under many sanctions from the West.

Well, let’s put it this way. I think the United States, under some Israeli pressure, is insisting on the sanctions, especially the Trump regime, which I think is a disaster. I was very happy to see Obama’s — I don’t think much of Obama’s foreign policy, I think it was a disaster in many respects, don’t get me wrong — but one thing is, I think Obama, especially in his second term, has come to understand and maybe value stability over democracy in the region.

Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt — I’m naming countries in our surroundings, in the neighborhood of Europe, which basically meant stability, and they had created some sort of cordon sanitaire around Europe, protecting it to some degree from the problems of the world, and we can see how things are directly linked today. As soon as these countries were destabilized, migration has become an enormous problem for all of Europe, and some people in the span of a couple of years have started to talk about the fall of Western civilization under the pressure of political Islam and migration. I think you have to be very narrow-minded not to see the link between the geopolitics and migration.

Iran is a big country, it’s a stable country, I think since the Ayatollah’s takeover the country has shown that it can resist all the sanctions and all the pressure in the world, and that it has gained from all these sanctions and all this isolation.

I’ve seen a lot of attempts to try to corner Iran, sanction Iran, put Iran under pressure. And regardless of what we think of Iran, I think we can state it as a fact that these sanctions didn’t work. If the idea was to marginalize and isolate Iran, it backfired. The regime gained support, the regime is strong, powerful, they are all well. I know that there are certain economic or financial problems in Iran, but it’s very, very far from being destabilized, if that was the idea.

It almost sounds as if you’re saying that we should do whatever it takes to stabilize the region, but mostly in order to stem the flow of Muslim and Middle Eastern migrants into Europe.

Well that’s only a consequence. It’s our problem at the moment, but I think the root of the problem is that we have created chaos in their home countries. Now we are only facing the consequences, and nobody is talking about the root of the problem, and this is what worries me the most. The real problem is that there are millions of people dying, failed states in place of countries which were not perfect, but functioned one way or another. Now we’ve destabilized our neighborhood, so we are left without any protection from the demise of the world, which by the way, the West has created by colonizing them, exploiting them, extracting all their resources. We have been sponsoring dictators all around the world, and now we’ve decided to kick them out, and it’s a disaster.

Political Islam is a product of Western civilization. It’s to some degree a response to what we have done in the past years, and it would suddenly disappear if we would find some sort of reasonable channel to moderate Islam.

But you would definitely still not want to open the borders in any way.

Oh, God no.

Look – this is like a burning house. First we have to put out the fire, and then we look for the root of the problem. Now we’re fire fighting. We have to protect the country from mass migration.

If there are refugees, we have to provide a helping hand because we have signed international treaties, the Geneva Conventions in particular. As far as economic migrants are concerned, there is a different approach since we have many problems and cannot integrate even some of our own communities — I’m referring to Roma integration — Hungary is just not in a state to integrate anyone at the moment, we have our own problems.

We have to protect our country, and it would be good to have a reasonable discussion at the global level on how we can rectify this whole issue, bring back peace and stability at the root of the problem, so the people who are seeking refuge can return back and find prospects in their own homeland. Because I think if there’s one right that every human being — Eskimos, and bushmen, and Jewish people, and Hungarians — every people on the face of the earth has, it’s to stay in their own country and to prosper in their own country.

What is Jobbik’s stance on Israel?

Israel is an important player in the Middle East. Israeli relations are very important not only due to the big Jewish community we have in Hungary, but also due to its geopolitical position. It’s an important trade partner and economic partner, not to mention the cultural ties. So that’s as far as diplomacy is concerned. Now I don’t want to ask myself more questions than I’m given, but I think you’re referring to the two state-solution.

Yeah, because the leadership in Jobbik has had strong words about Israel in the past. But also, I’m not sure Iran agrees with you about the right of every people in the world to return to their home countries and flourish there. In fact, as far as Israel is concerned, I think the Iranians have been very clear that in their eyes it does not have the right to exist.

I’m not sure. I’ve spoken with a lot of Iranians, including politicians, and I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of the Iranian position. I’ve heard [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad speak about this issue.

And support a two-state solution?

Well, the emphasis is on the right of the Palestinian people to a state. Which does not mean that Israel does not have a right to a state of its own, which is already a reality. But I’m not a spokesperson for Ahmadinejad, God forbid. I was making an extreme example. I think if there’s one person who you can quote ranting many, many things against Israel and Zionism, it’s him. But I once heard a long speech by Ahmadinejad and the emphasis there was not on — he was speaking against Zionism, a political term, Zionism — I’m not an expert on the area, but it’s not the Jewish people, Zionism is political.

I think Zionism and the very State of Israel, you can’t separate the two.

Yes, but speaking against Zionism is not anti-Semitic. I know anti-Zionist Jews, Orthodox ones.

But it is anti-Israel.

As a state, yeah.

So he does not support the existence of Israel as a state.

Yes, but I think Zionism at the beginning was about the creation of a state so that the Jewish people have a homeland. And that might beg the question, what is the grounds for Zionism after 1948? There is no need for Zionism, because Israel has been created. Now, Zionism today is associated — and I think it might not be right to associate it with — an expansionist Israeli policy.

But to make my position clear, Israel has a right to a state, and it’s very, very good, and very important, that Israel was promised and given a state after World War II there, where it received it, and if there’s a place where Israel has a right to exist, it’s in that particular place.

In 2012, you gave a speech in which you said the Israelis were committing a “genocide” against the Palestinians. Do you stand by that terminology today?

I gave this speech in November 2012, when there was another one of these intifadas in the Gaza strip. And the Israeli army went in with heavy artillery, bombing raids, it was using weapons banned under international law — white phosphorous bombs. It was just after the Israeli army bombed a school run by the UN, and it was at a time when the civilian casualties on the Palestinian side approached 70, if I’m not mistaken — and this was the Israeli statistic.

I think if a country with the best military in the world, which I think is fair to say about the Israeli army, which is the best protected — by that time you had already finished the Iron Dome, which didn’t give the Palestinian homemade missiles or whatever they shoot, these things that don’t even come near Israeli territory – waging a war against the most deprived people of the world, living in the most desperate area which some media outlets call the biggest concentration camp in the world, what does that amount to in any fair, unbiased terminology?

An Israeli woman walks through a house in southern Israel that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip during Operation Pillar of Defense (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Yes. It is not war. I think it’s very misleading to call it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that suggests that you have two equal forces standing opposite each other fighting an even battle. What happened there and then, and let’s stick to that particular time and that particular event – I think what happened there, if we lived in an unbiased world, would be labeled a genocide.

In the same speech you also referred to the “Holocaust industry.”

I don’t think so. I don’t use that term, and if I did, I regret it. I might have said — you have to take a few things into consideration: the circumstances I was talking about, the sentiments of the Hungarian. Why do Hungarians care about such a far away issue? Because we are a small, freedom-loving nation that has continuously fought for over 1,000 years, continuously oppressed. We get very emotional and sentimental about small, deprived nations fighting a hopeless battle for sovereignty, independence, or their own land. So these are the circumstances in which we speak in front of the Israeli embassy in protest.

Now, especially with regard — I can’t remember the context, or what was said, but there’s definitely no such thing as a Holocaust industry — but I think I was trying to make reference to the Israeli people having suffered a lot in the past, for thousands of years, in the Holocaust and before. Especially the Jewish people should know what it’s like to be persecuted, to suffer. And a nation like this should show more empathy towards a nation suffering. I’m only guessing, but I think this is the direction I was trying to get at.

You said you were speaking to Hungarians. Do you think that particularly here in Budapest that might cause some Jewish Hungarians to be hurt by those kind of words?

It’s the Israeli embassy, Israel killing civilians, Israel having bombed the UN school, Israel having killed close to 70 civilians, Israel having occupied the territories, it’s Israel making this territory the biggest concentration camp of modern history, and basically, let’s call a cat a cat.

Okay, for the sake of the Jewish people, or for the sake of Jewish sensitivity, I can go about it in a diplomatic fashion, but it’s just an attempt to lose the point completely. Don’t misunderstand, but I think there are, and I don’t want to generalize, but I think there are politicians in Israel, and there are forces in Israel, which are playing on this as well. They say, “We can do whatever we want because if somebody criticizes us, we can shoot back with anti-Semitism straight away, and say, ‘Oh, a Hungarian talking about this, particularly in Budapest.’” And you also said, “particularly here.” Why? What is so particular about Hungary?

Because this city lost 50% of its Jews in the Holocaust.

I think it is for historians to discuss, but this country was protecting the Jewish population up until it was occupied by the Nazi forces in March 1944, at a time when countries like France had already deported everyone from their territories six years before to the concentration camps. You would never say, “particularly in France.”

It’s just suggesting that everybody in this country is anti-Semitic, or we have a history or track record of anti-Semitism… and I’d say that the Holocaust does not provide any kind of legitimacy, or you cannot hold this in front of you as a shield when you are killing Palestinian children in Israel. You can’t say, “Particularly you don’t have the right to say anything.” And the Germans don’t have the right to say anything since WWII because of what happened. In Germany the only thing they’re allowed do is say sorry — even children who are born today in Germany. I think this is a dangerous direction.

We have to remember the Holocaust, but when the Israeli state and the Jewish people are committing crimes against a people in the Gaza Strip, then we should be talking about that, and not everything else, and not what happened to the Jews earlier on. So I understand your point — there are sensitivities. Everybody should respect everybody’s sensitivities, and that’s how we will hopefully live in a better world. But if we use the Holocaust as a stick, and say, “There is no way you’re going to criticize [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, or Zionist policies, or the Israeli military, or the Israeli decision to occupy the territories, because then I’m going to call you an anti-Semite, Nazi, fascist, whatever,” then we are not going to live in a better world, because then I’m also going to get pissed off, and then we’re not getting anywhere in our discussion.

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