MONTREAL — They watched his video, but more than a few of the 200 people in the audience were disappointed that former Hungarian fascist leader Csanad Szegedi wasn’t there personally for a controversial appearance Dec. 9 at Chabad of Westmount.
It would have been Szegedi’s first address to a Jewish audience outside Hungary.
Organizer Devorah Shanowitz speculated that Szegedi – a onetime leader of Hungary’s fascist Jobbik Party, who for a decade railed against Jews before discovering his own Jewish roots – was absent because unknown parties, possibly Jewish, didn’t want him to appear and intervened with immigration authorities.
Still, Szegedi was allowed to stay in Montreal for 24 hours after arriving on the evening of Dec. 8. He met with a few journalists and recorded a 35-minute video just one hour before the audience began to arrive, as he returned to the airport to take the next available flight back to Hungary.
Chabad officials – including Shanowitz and Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, head of the Hungarian Chabad’s beit din – stressed repeatedly to the audience that Szegedi’s visit to Montreal was not intended to convince anybody of his sincerity and that he had been prepared to field any and all questions.
“I am myself the grandchild of Holocaust survivors,” Shanowitz said. “Judaism does not have absolution. We are here for an evening of return, reparation, and repentance.
“This evening was about the first step in a journey… he needs a chance before God to repair what he did… he wanted to face the community.”
The actual grounds for Szegedi’s deportation were unclear. He continues to sit as a member of the European Parliament and has spent the last year studying and practising Judaism under Rabbi Oberlander’s supervision. He has even visited Israel without hindrance.
The Montreal Gazette cited an unnamed Citizen and Immigration Canada official as saying that a case worker would look at Szegedi’s case to determine why he was deported, adding that the decision was likely made by Customs and Border Services.
Speaking to The CJN, Shanowitz speculated that officials were concerned Szegedi’s talk might contain “hate speech.”
They held his Hungarian passport as “procedure” while he was in Montreal and allowed him stay in the city on his own recognizance, but Shanowitz said she was shocked and offended by speculation that Chabad got cold feet about hosting Szegedi and was behind his deportation.
“You have to know that the vast, vast, vast majority of people who came [to hear him] were overwhelmingly positive about Szegedi’s video and the discussion that followed,” she told The CJN.
“They through it was fascinating, thought-provoking, educational evening,” and that’s Chabad’s mandate, she said.
“This is an educational centre above all else.”
However, some people who attended the Chabad event were ready to confront him.
“I am not fooled. He will never be a Jew,” said angry Holocaust survivor Andrew Fuchs. Fuchs later engaged Rabbi Oberlander in an animated conversation as organizers tried to fix a balky video player.
Rabbi Oberlander said he fully appreciated skepticism about Szegedi’s good faith – and he admitted to having his own initial doubts – but he said it was the duty of Jews to at least be open to the possibility that Szegedi’s intentions are sincere.
He told the crowd about Szegedi’s journey to Judaism and explained how he emphasized to him that he was obligated to publicly repudiate all forms of racism and to repent fully before God and his fellow Jews.
In his video, Szegedi chronicled his life story, saying, “It pains me that I cannot be there is person… My intention is to continue the path to Judaism I have begun, a path that feels good in my consciousness… I know many of you objected to my visit, and I understand the skepticism, but I was looking forward to meeting you today.
“I acknowledge I have a lot of sins, and am trying to rectify them through words and deeds.”