Jeszenszky’s troubles are far from over. This rather unfortunate affair is being prolonged partly because of Géza Jeszenszky’s well known graphomania and partly because of the assistance Jeszenszky’s friends offered to the beleaguered historian-diplomat.
The first supportive letter was fired off by eighteen American-Hungarians of a more conservative bent, including Csaba K. Zoltani who occasionally expresses his dissatisfaction with some of my posts and with readers’ comments. That letter didn’t surprise anybody, but when the media found out that three American liberals also wrote a supporting letter on behalf of Jeszenszky the right-wing media had a heyday. Heti Válasz introduced its article on the subject with these words: “Exclusive! A turning point in the affair of the ambassador.” Magyar Nemzet happily announced that “Not just anybody stood up for Jeszenszky.” The signers of the brief letter were Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University, István Deák, professor emeritus at Columbia University, and András Simonyi, Hungarian ambassador in Washington between 2002 and 2007. Both letters attested to the fact that, although the signers knew Jeszenszky for a long time, they never heard him utter a word that would have indicated prejudice.
Charles Gati, who is a friend of mine, after reading yesterday’s post wrote this letter to me and gave me permission to publish it:
By now everyone who reads your blog must know that you and I tend to agree. You publish some of my comments, and I keep recommending your blog. Let’s face it: I’m a fan. Everyone interested in Hungary should read you every day — as I do and as I will.
This time, with the greatest respect for you, I disagree. There’s no “Jeszenszky Affair.” I know a lot about his work as an ambassador to Washington and I’m familiar with his scholarship. For some three years we were barely on speaking terms. I’m offended when he reaches out to primitive emigres in the US defending the Hungarian rightwing — people with whom Mr. Jeszenszky has little or nothing in common. But at issue now is one sentence in a long book, a sentence that’s both unfortunate and wrong.
While you — but not always others — focus on important things (like how Orban has turned a functioning democracy into a semi-authoritarian regime and how he turned Hungary against the IMF, the EU, and the US), suddenly there’s a small furor over ONE SENTENCE in a book published years ago and probably unread. Until someone sought to divert attention from the real issues facing Hungary.
I have reason to believe firmly that Mr. Jeszenszky is not an antisemite. I have no reason to believe that he is a racist. I’m convinced that he’s a supporter of Western values.
One sentence doesn’t make a negative “Jeszenszky Affair.” What matters to me and what should matter to all is that Orban has led Hungary away from the paths of pluralist democracy and Western values.
Please continue to inform us about these painful issues as you have so brilliantly done over so many years.
As I understand it, István Deák signed the letter for somewhat different reasons. He found Jeszenszky’s exclusion from the meeting that he helped to organize unfair because of a number of sentences that he wrote on the Roma minority’s marriage practices in a textbook eight years earlier. He argued that if that rule had been applied to some Hungarian historians and other intellectuals, they would have not been allowed to enter the United States where many of them taught at prestigious universities. After all, they were supporters of the Rákosi regime before 1956.
I can’t quite agree with that comparison. A lot of young intellectuals, especially those of Jewish background, truly thought that the Soviet system would be able to obliterate antisemitism and prejudice. They also believed in an ideal society that was promised by the communists. Naturally, they were wrong and by 1953-54 they themselves were not only disillusioned but in 1956 they were the first ones to turn against the regime. The Rákosi regime was a brutal dictatorship with everything that such a dictatorship entails. Jeszenszky wrote his primitive lecture notes eight years ago in a democracy and republished it at his own expense a few years later.
The other difference I see is that universities are places for the exchange of ideas. Academic communities welcome diversity and public debate. In fact, they thrive on it. Historians, for example, not only write about the past but constantly debate among themselves about interpretations of that past. So, I think that Marxists and non-Marxists, liberals and conservatives can prosper intellectually in that kind of community. But a research institute that is committed to the equality of minorities can’t really have a participant who writes in a prejudiced manner about an ethnic group.
As for Jeszenszky, he wrote an open letter to the president of Corvinus University objecting to banning the use of his textbook. He claimed that a large majority of the teaching staff is with him on this issue.
For those who care about ferreting out the truth, two of our readers (Minusio
) called our attention to some literature on Roma marriage practices.
Finally, taking my friend Charles Gati’s advice, let’s move on to another, undoubtedly more important issue. Even Magyar Nemzet admitted that Viktor Orbán was under fire today in parliament.
Viktor Orbán under fire / Magyar Nemzet
Perhaps the most telling encounter was between Tamás Harangozó, a young MSZP member of parliament, and Viktor Orbán. Harangozó reminded the prime minister that in the 1980s he fought hard against the dictatorship but since then a lot changed. “Soon enough there will be no dictatorship left that [Orbán] didn’t visit…. He seems to entertain a pathological attraction to post-communist dictatorships.”
Orbán’s answer was that he “didn’t struggle against the dictatorship but against people who maintained that dictatorship and these people were your comrades [actually párttársak].” He went even further and objected “in the name of all people that members of a party that is the successor to the former communist party is lecturing us about democracy.” What makes the encounter worth parsing is that Orbán insisted on clarity of speech before he explained
his relationship to the dictatorship of the old regime.
Harangozó, who was born in 1979 and thus was ten years old at the time of the regime change, was quick to retort. He claimed that Orbán with this answer admitted that his only problem with the dictatorship of the one-party system was that “it wasn’t he who sat in Kádár’s chair.” He continued, saying that the prime minister has no moral authority to lecture him when his government and party are full of former MSZMP members and agents. Harangozó called Orbán’s attention to the fate of Berlusconi.
I’m sure that Orbán wasn’t happy to be reminded of his former friend Silvio Berlusconi who may (though probably won’t) end up in jail if his appeal fails.