The sense of security of the Jewish community in Hungary is one of the best in Europe, says Köves Slomó. Mandiner sat down with the leading rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Federation about the ninth amendment to the Hungarian constitution, the legacy of Donald Trump, and the pressure on him to call the Soros campaign antisemitic.
Köves Slomó was born in 1979 in Budapest. In 2003, he was the first Orthodox rabbi to be inaugurated in Hungary in 50 years, and Ferenc Mádl, President of the third Republic of Hungary, also took part in the event. Köves previously studied in Hungary, Israel, the United States and France. In 2004, he was one of the founders of the United Hungarian Jewish Community, and the synagogue belonging to the status quo stream elected him chief rabbi that year. He has been the rabbi of the reopened Óbuda Synagogue since 2010, and in 2012, he was appointed chief rabbi of the Hungarian Armed Forces as well.
Recently, the president of the Association of Jewish Communities in Hungary once again expressed harsh criticism, calling, among other things, the United Jewish Congregation of Hungary a political organization. Has the relationship between the two groups deteriorated dramatically?
It is a natural sign of a living community that its members do not agree on everything. The ancient Jewish sages put it this way: „The Torah has seventy faces — seventy interpretations.” This has never been different in Hungary. Different communities follow different religious patterns. I’ve always been a believer in value-creating discourse, but
I find the culture of hatred, which is also alien to the Jewish religious tradition, extremely unfavorable,
And this is what some secular leaders of Mazsihisz have been trying to establish lately. Moderate Neolog rabbis are increasingly raising their voices against community-wide communication. We have a distinctly good and cooperative relationship with most of the religious leaders working at Mazsihisz. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided. There are also secular leaders who maintain such a healthy view.
So, what is the problem?
Some members of the secular leadership have taken this long-standing religious organization hostage and are poisoning the community by inciting personal hatred while asserting their own economic interests and political viewpoints. I think it is absurd for the leader of Mazsihisz to proclaim a boycott against another Jewish community, or to refer to members of our community as spreaders of the virus during a pandemic and “forbid” Mazsihisz workers to attend EMIH services.
What do you mean by political viewpoints?
It is not easy to answer this question because at times, they refer to the “political orientation” of the organization, and then, other times, they emphasize staying away from politics. What is certain, however, is that since 2014, the president of Mazsihisz has become more and more confrontational, increasingly speaking in the political arena, and by milking the potential for extortion, he has pushed government subsidies billions higher every year; meanwhile,
in a dishonest, sneaky way, he has proclaimed a struggle against all that the Jewish religion entails.
He first clashed with us and the Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel; it was then, after 70 years of cooperation, that the Orthodox community broke away from the Mazsihis alliance. Most recently, he has spoken out against his own Neolog rabbis as well.
What happened exactly?
In the 150-year history of Neolog Judaism, there has been no example of the dismissal of one of the rabbis from the community (Tamás Róna), w ho, moreover, is the national leader of the Neolog Rabbinate. With all this in mind, it was no longer surprising that, as a Jewish leader, he declared a few weeks ago that he had last believed in God 40 years ago, and even then, only for a few moments. András Heisler’s most recent statement was brought to my attention by my Neolog rabbi colleagues, where he said in connection with his faith: The last time he perhaps thought about God was when he went down to the pharmacy in 1986 for his children’s lice shampoo and was almost hit by a car. I do not think this is a worthy spiritual heritage of Lipót Lőw, Sándor Scheiber or Chief Rabbi József Schweitzer.
But Mazsihis and Neologs have a centuries-old tradition of secular leadership.
Yes, that is true.
So what’s wrong with being a secular leader, say a non-believer?
To be Jewish in the 19th- 20th centuries was not merely a matter of religious or cultural identity. There was a need for so-called general advocacy, as people of Jewish descent, regardless of their religious identity, were deprived of their rights more than once, and the issue of advocating for non-religious Jews was also a matter for the community. Thus, in the struggle for emancipation, under the numerus clausus or even the Jewish laws of the 1930s, the understandable —- albeit unnatural — situation was that secular leaders represented Jewish communities. Today, however, there is no reason why a Jewish religious organization — the Association of Neolog Hungarian Jewish Communities — should not be led by rabbis.
Jewish identity can take on many forms.
There is no doubt that cultural identity has a raison d’être. Dozens of Hungarian Jewish cultural organizations can be community organizers and advocates for this. There is also a need for community activity against antisemitism, separate from religious life, which can be provided by human rights organizations, such as the Foundation for Action and Protection.
We know that the Prime Minister was last angry at Mazsihisz’s leadership precisely because he did not speak out enough because of the antisemitic manifestations of an opposition candidate launched in the October by-elections. Is there no contradiction here?
Action against open political antisemitism is a basic Jewish interest. Cooperation, independent of worldviews, on such issues should be open and unambiguous. It raises a problem of credibility if the leader of a Jewish organization judges with a different vehemence the state award of a historian who voices antisemitic topos and the opposition who nominates an antisemitic candidate, or, for that matter, has no issue accepting the right-wing museum director who uses provocative language. And I could list more examples.
However, if we read the Sargentini report or other Western documents about Hungary, we can easily get the impression that antisemitism is rampant in Hungary.
It is difficult to argue that prejudice unfortunately runs deep in Hungarian society. We must oppose antisemitic sentiments by means of laws, education and dissemination. And in the meantime, we need to know that we are dealing with an issue that goes back hundreds of years and we will only be able to control it via a long and persistent struggle. Antisemitism is first and foremost a problem of society as a whole or, if you like, of civilization. However, this does not mean that Jews in Hungary are not safe or that they are victims of systemic discrimination.
A little detour: The government continues to criticize George Soros. Several people have previously noted that such a campaign may also help stir up antisemitic sentiments.
Frankly, the simplistic communication campaign used against George Soros is something I do not understand . Nonetheless, despite external pressure, I did not think we were dealing with antisemitic action:
Being Jewish does not make you inviolable
Nor did I think this campaign would necessarily reinforce antisemitic sentiment. This assumption was later confirmed by a Median poll, which revealed that 2 percent of those surveyed linked the notion of “Jew” to Soros. The majority of society sees him as a symbol of capitalism, not Judaism.
What do you mean by “external pressure”?
In the increasingly fierce struggle between political opponents, a strong weapon is the accusation of antisemitism, which is otherwise very wrong to use if it is not properly substantiated. If used as a weapon, supported by sufficient references, it can be effective. At the beginning of the Soros campaign, the Israeli ambassador, the leader of Mazsihisz, and myself all spoke to the press in a similar way regarding this accusation of antisemitism. After that, we felt tremendous pressure to change our position. For example, I have been on the front page of the Magyar Narancs twice in recent months with headlines that were not exactly friendly, such as “Judaism and Business.” I think the president of Mazsihisz was less able to withstand this pressure.
At today’s conference of the European People’s Party, you spoke about the fact that Hungarian Jews can live according to their faith and identity without any threat to their security. What is the situation in Europe?
As for antisemitic prejudices: In some Western European countries, at the level of society as a whole, the situation is better in terms of the degree of general prejudice than in Hungary, Austria or Poland. On the other hand, in states where an extremist minority turns its prejudice into action, the issue of antisemitism becomes a security issue. In France, England, Germany or Belgium, the number of antisemitic hate crimes is almost one hundred times higher than in Hungary. Unfortunately, these include several murders and cases of serious physical abuse. The perpetrators include both neo-Nazis and extremist Muslims. There is no trace of such phenomena in Hungary.
It is no accident that the Jewish community’s sense of security in Hungary is one of the best in Europe.
There is a new strategy, born in Brussels, for the integration of immigrants, which the Hungarian government does not welcome, saying it is an invitation to those who may cause such security concerns. What does the migration process mean for Judaism?
We are talking about millions, and yet, even an extreme minority is able to make the daily lives and sense of security of entire societies impossible, even with the successful integration of the majority. Unfortunately, the first victims of failed integration attempts are Jewish communities everywhere. In the wake of fundamentalist Islam and failed integration, the first extremists of the far-right and far-left are Jews.
Returning to the current debate, Tamás Róna, the founder of a new religious association, is accused by Mazsihisz leadership of organizing against them, partly in cooperation with EMIH.
It is hurtful and alien to the Jewish spirit when the main accusation against a Neolog rabbi is that he maintains too close a relationship with his Orthodox colleagues. If such a culture of hatred takes root around our own house, how can we make a credible stand against antisemitism?
„A billion-forint hit for Köves Slomó’s kosher slaughterhouse filled with NER support,” wrote 24.hu just recently. Meanwhile, EMIH has also stepped back on the media front. Did you dream too big?
If you will it, it is not a dream — this is what Herzl Tivadar said more than a hundred years ago about his efforts to re-establish a sovereign Jewish state. Some of his contemporaries looked foolish, but today Israel is one of the strongest states in the world.
It is our duty to dream big in the effort to rebuild Jewish religious and community life in Hungary.
My dream is that there is a future in Hungary for a Jewish community that professes its identity, lives and proclaims its values with its head held high and an open eye. He creates the spiritual and material conditions of his existence step by step in a self-reliant and self-organizing way. Quality education, caring social care, cultural and community programs are all resource-intensive. I am also a believer in self-reliance and responsibility in creating this environment. But taking responsibility and initiative is never a barrier-free nor risk-free path. Overall, we are well on our way to developing the conditions for Jewish life that we want. In the last 10 years, we have opened primary and secondary schools and universities. We have established and operated half a dozen new synagogues and community centers. We have been able to raise young rabbis and community leaders.
If I understand correctly, you will not be giving up the slaughterhouse project either.
No way. In addition, in the year 2020, which was hit by the coronavirus, the slaughterhouse was already making a profit, and we expected the initial loss, of course. Building a business doesn’t happen overnight, and it costs a lot. With regard to the 24.hu article, I am compelled to note that I look with some horror at economic journalists who, in our sad experience, are either unaware of certain economic and legal concepts and processes, or are pursuing some other aim, giving the appearance of independent fact-finding. A billion-dollar greenfield investment that produces for a competitive market can hardly be expected to be profitable in a year, especially in the agriculture/food sector, which can be particularly exposed to environmental impacts.
And when do you expect the House of Fates in Józsefváros finally open? The building was completed six years ago.
EMIH started working on the concept of a permanent exhibition in early 2019. We involved renowned domestic and foreign historians and Holocaust museologists, and
it will be run by one of the world’s best-known museum development companies.
Washington-based Gallagher & Associates has excellent references and has been involved in the design of several other Holocaust museums. The 200-page script for the exhibition is finished, and we are now working on interior design plans, scripts, and multimedia content. This will take about another year and a half. We are planning an emotional exhibition approaching the Holocaust as a moral dilemma, the concept of which has been developed by capturing five key pillars — offering historical context, inviting emotional involvement, addressing viewers personally, providing the Jewish perspective, and using up-to-date language. An important goal is that, as a significant portion of visitors will be getting an impression of “Jews” for the first time, they get to know them as representatives of a world whose values and culture date back thousands of years and as well-known actors in the modernization of Europe and Hungary.
How did the epidemic affect religious life? What have you experienced?
In addition to the unfortunate consequences, the deaths and economic damage, among other difficulties, I also see many positives. New channels of community building have opened up, and people’s desire for community has strengthened. Where they have been able to make good use of this period, even serious expansion can be expected. EMIH rabbis, for example, have taught four hours a day online for the past seven months with the participation of tens of thousands, involving people who had never thought they would join such programs before. In general, it can be said that the vulnerability and fragility of the human condition have affected many people and thus brought forth more frequent manifestations of taking responsibility and caring for one another. This has also provided a good backdrop for talking about the bigger issues and life questions we have.
Again, the basic law has been amended for the ninth time, including the inclusion of a father as a man and a mother as a woman. This led to international outrage. What does a religious Jew think about this?
I find it amusing and thought-provoking when something like this needs to be recorded in a legal document. Religion sees the endowments of nature as the law of creation and not as an instrument of identity politics.
The father is a man, the mother is a woman, and we agree. It would not be very conceivable otherwise.
Joe Biden has now taken over the presidency of the United States. What does the departure of Donald Trump mean for Israel?
Although the U.S. has had a close and good relationship with Israel almost from the beginning, Trump prioritized the fate and security of the Jewish state. What’s more, he was able to launch a promising peace process between the Arab states and Israel. So, it is a question of how Biden wants to take this forward. We are optimistic.