Working to Rebrand his Far-Right Party, Jobbik Leader Gábor Vona Sits Down for Interview with Jewish Magazine
Tom Szigeti 2017.02.10.
This week, The Forward, an American Jewish newspaper based in New York City, published an interview with Gábor Vona, head of the far-right Jobbik Party. The interview is the latest step in Vona’s efforts to soften the image of his formerly radical-nationalist party.
Vona, who began his political career as a founding member of the banned, quasi-paramilitary radical right group Magyar Gárda, has made great strides to bring his party towards the political center over the past few years, in an effort to attract more votes (he even sent a letter of Hanukah greetings to Hungarian Jews this past December). By doing so, however, he has alienated some members of his party who view him as a “traitor” to the Hungarian radical nationalist movement.
The Forward’s interview is Vona’s first with a Jewish publication; in it, the Jobbik leader attempted to project a “different, cordial—and at times even friendly—tone,” which the piece’s author, Lili Bayer, saw as a marked departure from his anti-Semitic rhetoric of the past, when Vona wrote to Israel’s ambassador to Hungary that “I find it distasteful if any nation or people wants to rule the world. The Jewish people, too. And I see this arrogance in your behavior…I won’t be Israel’s dog.”
Jobbik leader Gábor Vona in the Parliament in 2010, wearing the vest of the radical nationalist paramilitary group Magyar Gárda (Photo: MTI)
The ‘new’ Vona, by contrast, the man willing to sit down for an interview with a Jewish newspaper, attempts to strike a very different image. He reassured The Forward that
If Jobbik comes to power, the Hungarian Jewish community can continue living its daily life as it has. We don’t want conflict with the Jewish community.
When pressed on his party’s racist, anti-Semitic statements and actions in the recent past, Vona emphasized that the party had changed, saying that “Over the past two or three years I made it clear that there is no place for any racism or anti-Semitism in the party.”
By way of example, Vona told The Forward that
‘When a fellow member of Parliament wrote something anti-Semitic… I sent him down to lay a flower at the shoes memorial on the riverbank’— a reference to Shoes on the Danube Bank, a memorial erected in memory of those shot and thrown into the Danube River by members of the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross during World War II.
In its article, The Forward pointed out that there is reason to suspect the sincerity of Vona’s new, friendlier approach, given his, and Jobbik’s, continued reluctance to address the trauma and tragedy of the Holocaust in Hungary (in the past, members of Jobbik have denied the very existence of the Holocaust).
As a result, many Jewish intellectuals and public leaders have a hard time taking Jobbik’s supposed new leaf seriously. Randolph Braham, a Hungarian professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York argued that “When Vona takes the initiative to publicly and courageously admit the real disagreements between Christians and Jews in general and offer a public apology for the Hungarian Christians’ role in the Holocaust, I would be ready to take him seriously.”
The Forward also spoke to Rabbi Ferenc Raj, a Hungarian American Holocaust survivor, who, responding to Vona’s new centrist turn, said that these were “empty words uttered by a quite controversial politician with a rather checkered past…I strongly believe that first he and his followers must repent.”