MONTREAL — Can a leopard change his anti-Semitic spots?
In the case of Csanad Szegedi, absolutely not, say some local Hungarian Jews and Holocaust survivors who are outraged over a scheduled Dec. 9 visit to Montreal – at the invitation of Chabad of Westmount – of Szegedi, a former major figure in the Hungarian neo-fascist movement.
The visit by Szegedi to Chabad of Westmount is his first outside Hungary before a Jewish audience.
For almost a decade, Szegedi, 31, was a notoriously anti-Semitic figure in Hungarian ultra-nationalist and far right circles – and from 2009 to 2012 vice-president of the neo-fascist Jobbik party – until it came to light almost two years ago that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor, news he allegedly tried but failed to suppress through bribery.
Only at that point, opponents of his visit say, did Szegedi seek to “embrace” his Jewish identity, and Jobbik ousted him from the party.
“It’s evident he is an opportunist,” said Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Paul Herczeg. “There have been cases of neo-Nazis truly changing, but in this case, he is doing it only because bribery failed. Chabad is being duped.”
But Devorah Shanowitz, Chabad of Westmount’s program director who made the overture to bring Szegedi to Montreal, says Chabad believes Szegedi has been acting in good faith in seeking to turn his life around, to atone for his past, and to connect to his Jewish identity.
“The concept of ‘tshuvah’[forgiveness] is very important in Judaism,” she said.
Shanowitz said even if it is true that when Szegedi first found out he was Jewish he attempted to bribe a convict (Zoltan Ambrus) into not disclosing the news, that came out of fear.
She said the bribery issue fails to take into account the fact that former Jobbik confreres and the Hungarian media, which are sympathetic to ultra-nationalist elements, have been determined to discredit Szegedi since news of his Jewish identity came out.
Skeptics of Szegedi, Shanowitz suggested, might appreciate the amount of time – almost two years – it has taken for someone like Szegedi to confront and come to terms with his past and face his Jewish identity for the first time.
“He was scared, very scared, shaken to the core,” said Shanowitz, who has been in regular contact and consultation with other Chabad officials, including Hungarian Chabad Rabbi Slomo Koves, who has overseen Szegedi’s re-connection to Judaism.
“There are many Jews in eastern Europe, including Hungary, who have no idea they have Jewish mothers and are Jewish,” she said.
In the case of Szegedi’s genuineness, she said, “we have researched it very carefully,” but for those opposing Szegedi’s visit, “it can be difficult to talk logic to emotion.”
Shanowitz noted that Szegedi now studies Torah, keeps kosher, and has even undergone a ritual circumcision, “not an easy thing to do as an adult.”
Shanowitz said although Westmount Chabad has received some calls from the Hungarian Jewish community – “some very upset,” she said – others have been more open to coming to the event with an open mind.
Someone who has not yet decided whether or not to attend is Peter Sipos, a Hungarian-Jewish musical theatre composer who does not for one minute accept Szegedi’s purported turnaround.
“I know Hungarians, and a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” Sipos said. Chabad inviting Szegedi was “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
But Chabad of Westmount’s rationale is simple, Shanowitz said. “If we can fix what is broken, then we should be given permission to fix things.”
For more information on the evening, call 514-937-4772 or visit www.chabadwestmount.com.