Tamás Fellegi: Zero Tolerance For Anti-Semitism And Racism

2013. március 1. 15:28

Earlier this week, the US Congress convened a hearing entitled, “Anti-Semitism: A Growing Threat to All Faiths.” Included on the panel of witnesses speaking about trends in Europe was Dr. Tamás Fellegi, Budapest native and son of Holocaust survivors. The former government minister’s testimony, which repeated the Government of Hungary’s policy of zero tolerance of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma views, received widespread coverage. Hungarian Globe Editor Gellért Rajcsányi reached Dr. Fellegi by phone in Washington, D.C. following the hearing.

Hungarian Globe: We have followed the hearing (here and here it was even live tweeted). Who were you representing in Washington, D.C.? Did you speak on behalf of an organization or the conservative Hungarian government you used to be a member of?

Dr. Tamás Fellegi: The opinions I expressed were my own. I testified as a private individual. My testimony did not represent the current Hungarian government by any means. However, I emphasized that during my preparation I consulted several Hungarian experts on the issue, public figures, researchers of anti-Semitism, as well as government and opposition politicians. Listening to them, tapping their views and knowledge, I formulated my remarks, but while doing that my goal was to penetrate as many of the different aspects of the issue and viewpoints as possible.

How did Hungary end up in the list of countries represented at the hearing?

The Subcommittee asked me to testify as a witness and I was happy to accept the invitation, but I’m not going to guess about their reasons. My goal was to – by formulating a well-grounded position – participate in a hard, but fair debate about one of the most important topics of the day and to make my firm belief clear that the fight against racism is one of the basic duties of any democracy and that every form of anti-Semitism, especially when it is present in politics is a threat to democracy. Any debate that is open, honest and not based on myths but facts is welcomed. I looked at the Congressional hearing as an opportunity for dialogue.

Anti-Semitism exists in Hungary, but what do you think is the reason that it’s growing?

Anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that has existed in Europe for centuries. In each era, it has taken on different forms and significance in public life. It has been part of Hungarian society throughout the last century too. It is true that during Communism it was a problem swept under the carpet, but with the democratic changes, especially with the freedom of speech, latent anti-Semitism was brought to the surface again. Democracy did not bring anti-Semitism, but democratic rights made it possible for anti-Semitic thoughts to appear in new movements or even political parties, and these thoughts are now openly expressed. These groups are able to speak their minds in public, even reaching as far as the parliament. This is a fundamental part of democratic development and – as the hearing clearly showed– it is a problem from which every democracy suffers.

In Hungary, as we also discussed, imperfections of the transition over the past two decades, society’s frustrations after the change of the regime, the political, economic, social crises mounting since 2000 have all served as fertile ground for extremists. I made it clear, though, that in Hungary, there is only one political force, Jobbik, which could be considered anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. Furthermore – and I find this fact more dangerous than anti-Semitism itself – the ideological framework of racism can be found in public statements of the party.

Throughout the hearing the issue of hate websites operating from the United States was a recurring topic. Do you expect any progress in this regard?

A Congressman from North Carolina, who is a member of The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet was present at the hearing. [The subcommittee includes three representatives from North Carolina, including both the majority chairman and the ranking minority member – the editor]. He – as a congressman dealing with legislation on Internet freedom – made it clear that this is a rather lengthy and slow process. But, he also added that Congress is aware of the problem as many countries have raised the case of non-English-language hate websites operating from the United States and hiding behind laws on freedom of speech. The Swedish witness, Mr. Silberstein also addressed this issue at the hearing [along with Ukrainian witness, Rabbi Bleich – the editor].

Despite that, I am not optimistic in this regard. If we can achieve any results on this front, it will take years. The Government of Hungary, even during the period when I was a member, officially raised the issue of a Hungarian-language hate website operating in the same way, but the request to shut down the site was declined. It has to be emphasized that Hungary is not the only country facing these problems. The conflict of freedom of speech and racism, hate speech is a debate in every democratic country.

Talking about other countries, do you think Hungary is “picked on” or subjected to double standards when it comes to this issue?

From within the borders of Hungary, it is hard to see objectively how much attention Hungary is getting and how positive or negative is the attention given to other countries. It is true that, especially due to some statements coming from Jobbik representatives, we are attracting more attention, but more significant problems of other countries, such as France, the Netherlands, Greece or Sweden, are also given a great deal of attention.

Double standards are not being used against Hungary, and we do not get undue attention. Hungary is not an anti-Semitic country. Hungary as a whole cannot be associated with Jobbik.

In Washington, you emphasized that there is a strict line between Jobbik and the other political parties. Do people outside of Hungary see that line? Should the government distance itself more from Jobbik?

I keep emphasizing that Hungarian society and the vast majority of Hungarian political forces are not racist, not anti-Semitic and reject these ideas. I also keep emphasizing – it’s a clear fact – that the Government of Hungary always condemns racism and anti-Semitism. The starting point should be the statement of Prime Minister Orbán: The government has zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and anti-Roma statements. You cannot phrase it any clearer than that.

It is true that there are opinions – and I too heard that from some during my preparation – saying the current government’s responses distancing itself and stepping up against these statements and actions are sometimes not hard enough, not firm enough or not quick enough. I too have examples of when this might be true. But one needs to look at the whole picture, the tendencies of these actions: that is zero tolerance towards racism. In the meantime, the level of sensitivity of society should be increased. That’s the solution.

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