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A Moment of Illumination

Over the past decade a Hungarian man, now in his early forties, has attracted attention for converting to Judaism, beginning to eat Kosher food and observing the Sabbath. He’s also undertaken speaking engagements at synagogues all over the world. There’s nothing unusual about this until we consider what he was doing in the decade before.

Csanad Szegedi joined Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party as a teenager, became its Vice President at twenty three and in 2009 became its loudest voice in the European Parliament when aged just twenty six. 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 when Szegedi’s maternal grandparents were revealed to be Jewish. Indeed, his grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor who had subsequently kept her faith hidden for fear of the kind of persecution that her grandson had built a career on. He left the Jobbik Party in search of a new identity and in the years that followed became a voice of tolerance, speaking warmly of building a bridge between Hungary’s Jewish population and their compatriots of other religions.

Those questioning his motives saw over time that he had no intention of parlaying these events into a long-term political career. Szegedi left the European Parliament when his five-year term ended in 2014, and now lives a quieter life. The hatred that fuelled the words and actions of his youth are a distant memory.

The far right views Szegedi has moved so far away from still have their share of mouthpieces in Hungary, and British voters will recognise them too. But while people speak of momentum gathering for the politics of intolerance 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:

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

That’s a comment that may ring true for many people across Europe, and certainly for many in the UK. People without hope tempted to listen to people who offer none. Clinging to narrow isolationism, quick to apportion blame and slow to give credit. Slow to recognize the contribution of the migrants responsible for one in seven British business start-ups, and one in three of the start-ups that survive and succeed. Casting aside the promise of a future in which the British economy, revitalised by the youth and work ethic of its economic migrants, had been on track to become the largest in Europe by 2040. That was before Brexit, of course, but however you feel about that particular development, it doesn’t have to permanently define our relationship with the people who come to this country with the will and the talent to make it a better place for all of us.

Many of those living in doubt, fear and despair could 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 kick out so you can get “your country” back are your country. If you’re lucky, your country could still evolve into something richer, more interesting and more competitive. And if you give it a chance you may well enjoy being part of it.

One of the most notable acts of Szegedi’s conversion came when he burned thousands of copies of “I Believe in Hungary’s Resurrection”. His own book, full of anti-Semitic abuse, written a few years and a lifetime before. He made a bonfire of his own prejudices. Having read it with the lights on, how could he do anything else?

January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It may seem unusual to mark it by discussing someone who, at one time, would have denied that the Holocaust happened at all, but Csanad Szegedi has had an unusual life. With apologies to Shakespeare, some are born tolerant, some gradually learn tolerance and some have tolerance thrust upon them. 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.

Shalom aleichem, Csanad Szegedi.


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