Budapest rabbi raises hackles after interview with far-right news website

(JTA) – A senior rabbi from Budapest stirred controversy in his community by granting an interview to a news website that is widely identified with the far-right Jobbik party.

Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, chair of the rabbinical council of the Mazsihisz Jewish umbrella group in Hungary, spoke with a reporter for the Alfahir news website in a wide-ranging interview published Friday about the meaning of the Hungarian Jewish identity.

The interview followed two unusual gestures made recently by Jobbik Chair Gabor Vona amid an effort by the party, which has been shunned by Hungarian Jews and labelled a neo-Nazi party by European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor, to gain greater respectability in Hungarian society.

In December, Vona sent a holiday greeting to Mazsihisz and other Jewish groups, and the following month said his country would cease to single out Israel for criticism. Jobbik leaders have frequently inveighed against Jews, Israel and Zionism.

Although Alfahir is not officially part of the party apparatus, it features content consistent with Jobbik’s radically nationalistic point of view.

Radnoti told JTA in an interview Monday that he decided to grant the interview in light of the gestures by Vona.

“I’m no Jobbik fan, but you can’t ignore the million voters and supporters this party has,” he said. “We need to overcome our own reservations and explain who we are rather than pretend they don’t exist.”

But the Szombat Jewish-Hungarian weekly published an article Sunday accusing Radnoti of “giving Jobbik a kosher certificate” by granting Alfahir the interview.

Attila Seres, a Hungarian journalist, criticized Radnoti’s move in a post on Facebook.

“Ultimately, giving a kosher stamp to a medium nursing anti-Semitic sentiments does not seem politically mature,” he wrote Sunday.

But Radnoti insisted to JTA that his speaking to Alfahir was done with the consent of other members of the community and not as an official representative of the Mazsihisz federation, but rather as a rabbi.

“A rabbi has a duty to communicate and serve, in a way, the whole of society, not only Jews,” Radnoti said.

Mazsihisz in a statement Monday wrote that Radnoti, whom the statement described as “esteemed,” gave the interview on his own accord and that the decision did not represent the position of the federation.

“We recognize the senior management of the Jobbik party has changed its messaging. However, we believe that the party’s membership is unaffected, and that its ranks still contain strong currents of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and anti-Roma sentiment. All this does not allow the Mazsihisz on behalf of the Jewish community to engage with Jobbik,” the statement read.

In 2012, a Jobbik parliamentarian called for registering Hungarian Jews as threats to national security, though he later said he meant to say Israelis. Last year, a Jobbik alderman from Budapest, Laszlo Benke, boasted about refusing to stand up at a memorial service for a rabbi. The party defended Benke’s actions.

Also in 2012, Marton Gyongyosi, then Jobbik’s foreign policy chief, said “The Persian people and their leaders are considered pariahs in the eyes of the West, which serves Israeli interests, which is why we have solidarity with the peaceful nation of Iran and turn to her with an open heart.”

That same year, Gyongyosi delivered a national tour of lectures on the “Zionist threat to world peace.” Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel articles took up more than 30 per cent of the content on the party’s English-language website that year.

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