How would you introduce yourself?
When I hold a Haver class and I have to introduce the most important aspects of my identity, I usually say I am a Hungarian Jew, a mother, and a sociologist. Right now Haver and motherhood take up every second of my life. However, I try to find time for the things I enjoy: good movies, books, world conquering discussions with a glass of wine. I am a team player, a social person.
What does Jewish identity mean to you and what role does active participation in the Jewish community have in your life?
I was born Jewish; both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were Jewish. I went to Lauder school for 12 years. At home we never talked about our Jewishness. It was just not something we would talk about but it wasn’t a taboo either. Then again, I already know it had a big impact on how we lived our lives when I was a kid. It was a fact. Due to all those years at Lauder, most of my friends are also Jewish. However, it wasn’t a topic with them either. One of my grandmothers told me a lot about how she was hiding during the Holocaust and how she escaped. This was my own personal relation to Judaism, not something I got in school. Therefore, for a long time I felt like I was Jewish only when I met anti-Semitism. This has changed since then, especially since I manage Haver, which also has a huge impact on my evolving Jewish identity. It might sound strange but right now I would not be able to define specifically my Jewish identity as it is just evolving and as I feel it is also getting ‘stronger’. What I know for sure is that I would like to show to my daughter the widest possible range of definition of what it could mean to be Jewish today. Then she could decide on the path she wants to take.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian Jewish community today?
It is a tough question. I have been active in the community for about a year. I have met a lot of people recently and I am grateful for most of them because they help me a lot. However, it is rather interesting that I have not been able to make contact with many of those who are actively shaping the Jewish community. This might be an issue, this sort of segmentation; that many within the community have no contact with each other or even worse they might consider each other rivals in their quest for the scarce resources. The other could be the question of representation: who represents me, who represents the Jewish community, and if there is such an organization, is it really legitimate?
What kind of Jewish community would you like to see in 18 years? What steps would be necessary in your opinion to have this vision realized?
A colorful community where the representatives of the different groups are in touch with one another and help each other if and when needed. It would also be good to have legitimate representation of the Jewish community, in which the most important groups – not only the religious groups I have in mind here – and their ideas would be represented. In certain questions the community should show unity, but in order to look united outwards, first we should sort things out among ourselves.
What do you think about the coexistence between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary? How successful do you consider the dialogue between Jews and non-Jews?
In my opinion there is basically no such dialogue. I would not call it a dialogue when a statue is erected on Szabadság square in spite of the protest of the vast majority of the community. Moreover, when ‘old men’ and ‘old women’ express their displeasure at the statue, they are surrounded by police. This is not a dialogue. Jews and non-Jews live together today in Hungary so that they do not talk about the fact that they live together. We also experience this in the classrooms: the complete ignorance, the false information, and the existence of the most common stereotypes. This also proves to me that there is not even a trace of a dialogue. There is only a pool among certain Jewish leaders and the country’s leaders at most.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian society today?
Wherever I turn I see challenges. I think the Hungarian society is in a terrible apathy. Therefore, it is hopeless to expect societal response to these challenges. For years there have been steps taken to dismantle the democratic institutions. Therefore, the system and the behaviors of those living in it remind me more of a soft dictatorship than democracy. The inequalities among the people have been growing and growing; there are more people living in poverty and there is also a new, rich social group, which is rather small in number, and there are less and less people in between these two. Today in Hungary there are two hundred thousand children who starve each and every day, yet the majority – believing the propaganda – is busy deciding who to hate, who to be afraid of because that person came from another place and believes in something different, has a different skin color or simply has different ideas about the world, different from us. If things continue this way, it will be worse and worse to live here. Yet, in spite of all this, I do not want to leave because my roots are here, and they are very important to me. I hope we can stay.
In order to overcome these challenges, what do you think is the role of each individual, and what is the role of the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities?
In order to overcome these challenges, each individual, the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities have huge roles. We can only change if we believe that it is also up to us, moreover, it is mostly up to us to decide about our environment. The communities’ role could be to draw their members’ attention to the fact that they are important and they can change things. Of course the very first step should be to get to the idea that we want to change our environment.
What does Israel mean to you and how do you look at Israel?
I have not been to Israel. I would love to go there in the near future partly because it is not only the media that shows a rather contradictory picture of the country but also people who are close to me and who have been there differ on the subject.
What matters do you speak out about and what matters do you support within and outside the community?
For me Haver is also such a matter and that is why I like working for it. I consider every initiative that deals with the representation or the support of those who are marginalized, oppressed, or disadvantaged important. In Hungary there are more and more people who belong to the above mentioned groups. I have done volunteer work at various places and – although I do not have time currently to deal with it – my PhD topic is the equal opportunity in education of disadvantaged and Roma children. I’m notorious for attending demonstrations for I believe we have to stand by those matters that are important for us. These days there are more and more reasons to demonstrate, yet there are less and less demonstrations.
Júlia Dés is the CEO of Haver Foundation