József Debreczeni on the Roma question

After describing Bishop Miklós Beer’s efforts on behalf of the Roma minority and publishing the English translation of an article by Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, I think I should mention a book by József Debreczeni entitled Ne bántsd a cigányt!: political vitairat (Don’t hurt the Gypsies: A polemic). A rather odd title that needs some explanation. It echoes the name of a book by Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian-Hungarian politician and writer (1620-1664), Ne bántsd a magyart – Az török áfium ellen való orvosság (Don’t hurt the Hungarians – An antidote to the Turkish poison). In his book Zrínyi wrote: “How it is that you, Hungarians, can see the danger with your own eyes and yet are not awakened from your deep sleep.” Zrínyi was referring to the Turkish danger, but Debreczeni finds the quotation equally applicable to the danger that exists in Hungary today as a result of an uneducated, unassimilated, poverty-stricken underclass with a very high birthrate.

Debreczeni is neither a sociologist nor a historian of the Hungarian Roma. After getting an M.A. in history, he taught high school for a while but then became politically active in the late 1980s. After a short stint as a member of parliament (MDF), he became a freelance writer. He is best known for his biographies of József Antall, Viktor Orbán, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, he wrote two books on Orbán. The first appeared in 2002 a few months after Orbán lost the election and the second in 2009. The title of the second, Arcmás, means “portrait” but the word has two parts: “arc,” “countenance” and “más,” “other.” The message was that the Orbán of 2009 was very different from his earlier self.

Debreczeni considers the “Gypsy question” to be the greatest problem threatening “the existence of Hungarian society,” in which he includes the Roma minority. He highlights three aspects of the problem. First, the increasingly hopeless socioeconomic situation of the Gypsy minority. Second, the growing geographical isolation of Gypsies from non-Gypsies. Third, the demographic problem. The average Hungarian woman bears 1.3 children, a statistic that includes Roma women. Without them, that number is only around 1.0. Gypsy women have on average more than three children, and among the least educated and the poorest that number goes up to more than four. Given the low employment figures among the Roma, if these demographic trends continue Hungary will become “a third world” country. That is, if Hungarian society does not do something to answer the Gypsy question in the next decades.

After the regime change the new political elite was unable to handle the growing problems of the undereducated, unemployed Roma men and women. Just to give an idea of how little attention the new democratic parties paid to the Gypsy question, it was only SZDSZ that mentioned the problem at all in their first party program. But, in Debreczeni’s opinion, they went astray when they looked at it as simply a human rights issue. To “left-liberals” the fault lay only in prejudice and racism. This view became a “dogma,” which in turn became an obstacle to facing facts.

Meanwhile came Jobbik, a far-right party whose popularity was based in large measure on its anti-Gypsy rhetoric. At the EP election in 2009 it got 400,00 votes or 15% of the total. In the same election SZDSZ got a mere 2.16%.

“The democratic, left-liberal, anti-racist Roma politics has failed,” Debreczeni contends. He believes that the continuation of “the intolerant, confrontative, and by now unproductive liberal human rights approach” will lead nowhere and that Hungarians should find a new avenue to offer “a decent, democratic discourse and politics that would assist the integration of the Roma.” “If we can’t find it, we are lost.”

Ne bantsd a ciganytDebreczeni’s book, published two months ago, caused an upheaval in those “left-liberal” circles he criticized. A Roma activist, Jenő Setét, a close collaborator of Aladár Horváth, was the first to speak out against Debreczeni’s book. He complained about the very notion that Gypsies “are different.”

Indeed, Debreczeni, relying on research done by others, does claim that ethnic groups carry cultural baggage that may make them different from other folks. For example, he thinks that Hungarian-Germans are harder working than Hungarians. Gypsies, who until quite recently were self-employed, have a rather lackadaisical attitude toward time since they could work at their leisure. But critics charge that Debreczeni didn’t stop with a description of cultural differences. What upset people most is that he seems to make a value judgment: certain cultures are superior to others.

The second critic was István Hell, who belongs to the group of left-liberals Debreczeni criticizes. He wrote on Galamus that “we have created the current socio-cultural state of the Roma,” and he cites “segregation, limited educational opportunities, and not doing anything about these problems in the last twenty-five years.” The last and most outraged critic, Magdolna Marsovszky, expressed her surprise that such a book, which she considers racist, can be published at all.

Debreczeni answered all three. See his answer to Jenő Sötét in HVG and his article on Hell’s criticism in Galamus. István Hell wanted to continue the debate, but Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, put an end to it, claiming that it is not fair to criticize an author for the opinions of others that he quotes.

Most likely not independently from the appearance of this book, Sándor Friderikusz decided to have a three-part series on the Roma question on his excellent program, Friderikusz, on ATV. The series aired on October 7, November 4, and November 18. I highly recommend these programs, which point out the complexities of the issues.

József Debreczeni is one of the vice-presidents of Demokratikus Koalíció, and therefore some people might consider the opinions expressed in the book to be DK’s position on the issue. However, I’ve seen no sign of either an endorsement or a criticism of Debreczeni’s suggestions on how to handle the Roma question.