How would you introduce yourself?
My values, in my opinion, are simple: I support everything that aims to help the vulnerable, the poor, the disadvantaged; everything that helps sustainability and environmental awareness; everything that fights for the equal rights of the different social groups, the peaceful coexistence of nations and cultures.
I oppose every concept, theory, and viewpoint that incites people against each other, or brings about the full or just partial destruction of the planet.
I think it is a simple formula.:)
I believe in the principle that everyone is entitled to equal rights, especially in the field of education. Today in Hungary this is an undeservedly ignored field; even when we talk about the education, we mostly talk about the different views’ and ideologies’ take on the educational system instead of raising young people – and thus a society – who are able to face modern challenges with a sense of understanding, criticism, and creativity. A society can be best developed through its educational system. There is no other system that would be somewhat centrally managed and controlled. For quite some time, religion – including education – fulfilled this role – rather mistakenly.
It is hard to make only positive statements about religion and religiousness. In my opinion, it leads human thinking to a lot of dead ends, thus causing – in spite of its civilizational and historical benefits – immeasurable damage to humanity. I think it is time to move on. Do not misunderstand: there is no problem with someone believing in something. On the contrary, it is very honorable, especially if they can stand up for those values. The problem starts when we try to apply those very abstract and insoluble religious texts to our daily lives, and when we try to force our own narrative on others. It is a mistake because it takes away the chance that the other person might convince us – and how great that is!
What does Jewish identity mean to you and what role does active participation in the Jewish community have in your life?
Since high school I have been interested in the community, and around that time I learnt that I was Jewish. At first, I was just interested, but as the years went by I drifted closer and closer towards Jewish initiatives and organizations.
I am an atheist Jew, who can look at religion only as an interesting tradition and cultural element, yet religion in itself is not part of my identity. On the contrary, I was drawn to Judaism because it is more than a religion. It is more than a nation. Moreover, it is more than any category we would be inclined to put it in.
It is needless to deny that an important part of my Jewish identity is my relationship to the holocaust. It has a lot to do with the realization how lucky I am because from our family it happened to be my grandmother who survived the holocaust; and that my father, who was born 2 months prematurely in 1944, was incredibly fortunate to survive despite the circumstances. And what a terrible destruction was carried out by what we mock as human civilization.
To be Jewish is also a responsibility, in my opinion. We are responsible to tell the world how dangerous it is when different groups of people instigate hatred and stigmatize one another. How fatal it is when fear and hatred are let loose. They do not spare children, the elderly, or anything… we have to be clear about that…this is part of my Jewishness.
Of course, the family Seder dinners and the various positive community events are at least as important as the previously mentioned aspects if not more important. However, these different aspects do not have to, they should not exclude each other.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian Jewish community today?
Normal democratic representation; people who are not only elected by the delegates of the different congregations but also by those who can think outside the religious narrative. I lack secular Jewish events and the expansion of this subculture. This would be extremely important.
And, in general, more alternatives so that going to synagogue would not be the only measure of Jewish life. More Bálint House, more Marom, more Szarvas (camp) ….
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?
As I have mentioned, a more democratic representation would be needed. In addition to that, I would be happy if the Jewish community expressed its opinion more sensitively and visibly in such social issues that do not directly connect to Judaism but to humanity, or they are highly important from a democratic point of view. In order for this to happen, the Jewish intelligentsia would need to consider itself more Jewish, and in order for this to happen, the community needs to become more colorful. I hope the direction represented by Marom and Balint House – almost exclusively – will gain support. To be Jewish means to be Mensch. It would also be great if we could feel Jewish not only during the religious holidays or holocaust commemorations but this state would be complimented by our sense of responsibility for our fellow human beings in our urgent attempt to make this world a better place.
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?
It is not successful. The Jews only have a dialogue with philo-Semites. This must change radically. In my opinion, this is not a good situation as everything is swept under the carpet and treated as a taboo to a certain extent. However, there are much more serious problems with the coexistence between the Roma and the non-Roma. Sadly, there is hardly any dialogue between the Jews and the Roma either.
What are the biggest challenges of the Hungarian society today?
The biggest challenge in the Hungarian society is the ever growing ignorance. Not only towards politics but towards public affairs in general. The lack of faith that change and progress can be achieved if we deal with the things that surround us. The Hungarian society is very closed and very homogenous. I would be much happier with a place that resembles a multicultural society. In order for this to happen, we have to mingle, we have to get to know each other, and we have to accept one another. This is sorely missed, especially in people’s mentality.
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?
Concerning this issue, only individuals can achieve change. The Jews have a special responsibility in this matter because we should know best what it feels like to be excluded, stigmatized, and hated. Yet, such narratives also appear among the Jews. We forgot very quickly what happened to us. It is a historical responsibility that not only we but the whole society should remember. Mankind paid too big of a price not to learn from its mistakes. Small communities are capable of wonders. I have experienced this several times. You can only make a difference in baby steps. However, if many small steps are taken in the same direction, it is an avalanche. I still have some hope in this.
What does Israel mean to you and how do you look at Israel?
Israel is very important for me. Its existence is important, my friends and family who live there are important. I’m also attached to it emotionally. What makes this relation more difficult is the unfortunate geopolitical situation Israel has got into and the chain of even more unfortunate decisions that Israeli politicians have made. Of course, this is also a social challenge because it is about such a nation that has been trying – rather efficiently – to survive from the very beginning. Therefore, nobody should pass a judgment on Israel. However, sometimes I imagine such an Israel that, in contrast with its public image, would even more vehemently embrace the Palestinian cause, an Israel that would receive refugee families from Syria risking its own security, an Israel that would not have to build its entire existence on fear and self defense… then it would not only be important and emotionally significant for me but I would also be incredibly proud…. Today this pride is only partial.
What matters do you speak out about and what matters do you support within and outside the community?
Within the Jewish community I feel very passionate about the activities of Haver, Balint House, or Marom. I also root for the reform Jewish group, Sim Shalom, to be able to expand and become more successful.
Outside the community the organizations that fight for citizens’ rights and information are my favorite, namely TASZ and atlatszo.hu – these are the organizations I regularly support. Rooting for the teachers’ representative bodies is a professional obligation for me. I also sympathize with the History Teachers’ Society.
I have never considered as important to support the civil society as today. However, I do not think I am alone with this.
Marcell Kenesei is the CEO of Centropa Hungary