Who determines who is a Jew?

In his 2008 Atlantic review of  Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite Christopher Hitchens retells a "sour old joke" from the Nazi era.

Two elderly Jews [are] sitting in a Berlin park, with one of them reading a Yiddish paper and the other one scanning the pages of Der Stürmer. The latter Jew is laughing. This proves too much for the former Jew, who says: "It's not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?"

"Look," replies the other. "If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there's finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!"

Change the setting, transform Der Stürmer to any one of a number of Arab-language newspapers or television broadcasts, move the date to 2012 and the same joke would be fresh and relevant today. While the Muslim world today may be the most vocal source of Jew hatred, European anti-Semitism is alive and well too. And it takes a surprising number of forms: from the Church of England to 68'ers, in the salons of the chattering classes and amongst pro-Palestinian activists. Anti-Semites can be found from left and right.

Anti-Semites have also risen to prominence in some political parties including Hungary's Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom). Jobbik leaders have accused Jews of buying up the country's lands, taking over the banks and newspapers, and exercising a fell hand over the affairs of state. Into this mix comes an Associated Press story about one of Jobbik's leaders, Csanad Szegedi. The lede begins:

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — As a rising star in Hungary's far-right Jobbik Party, Csanad Szegedi was notorious for his incendiary comments on Jews: He accused them of "buying up" the country, railed about the "Jewishness" of the political elite and claimed Jews were desecrating national symbols.

Then came a revelation that knocked him off his perch as ultra-nationalist standard-bearer: Szegedi himself is a Jew.

Following weeks of Internet rumours, Szegedi acknowledged in June that his grandparents on his mother's side were Jews — making him one too under Jewish law, even though he doesn't practice the faith. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and his grandfather a veteran of forced labour camps.

Since then, the 30-year-old has become a pariah in Jobbik and his political career is on the brink of collapse. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Szegedi is reported as being shocked by these revelations. However, his fierce xenophobic politics and his Presbyterian faith appear not to be enough to prevent his Jobbik allies from cutting him dead. A Jew is a Jew by blood -- not by faith or self-identification it appears for the fascists in Hungary, who seem perturbed at having a Jew in their midst.

The odious Mr. Szeged has sought the counsel of Rabbi Slomo Koves of Hungary's Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community to help him through this trauma of learning he is Jewish.

"As a rabbi ... it is my duty to receive every person who is in a situation of crisis and especially a Jew who has just now faced his heritage," Koves said.

..."Csanad Szegedi is in the middle of a difficult process of reparation, self-knowledge, re-evaluation and learning, which according to our hopes and interests, should conclude in a positive manner," Koves said. "Whether this will occur or not is first and foremost up to him."

The Szegedi controversy reminds me of a passage from Alan Furst's 2001 book  Kingdom of Shadows: "Morath didn’t mention Bethlen’s well-known definition of the anti-Semite as 'one who detests the Jews more than necessary'.”

Though this wonderful novel may be the non-specialist's introduction to the aphorism, it is none the less a true statement made by Hungary's pre-war Prime Minister Count István Bethlen.

The article goes into further detail as to why Szegedi is considered to be a Jew.

Judaism is traced from mother to child, meaning that under Jewish law Szegedi is Jewish. Szegedi said he defines himself as someone with "ancestry of Jewish origin — because I declare myself 100 per cent Hungarian."

Under the traditional definition of "who is a Jew", this definition is correct and is the criteria used by Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Yet Reform Judaism in 1983 recognized patrilineal Jews—those born of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother—as full Jews, provided they followed the Jewish faith.

A further twist in this debate is Israel. Reform Judaism’s position is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate, which takes matrilinealism as the criterion for Jewish descent. Most Conservative rabbis and almost all Orthodox rabbis would also decline to recognize conversions performed by Reform rabbis for converts to Judaism on halachic grounds.

How should journalists decide who is a Jew? In this story the conservative/orthodox matrilineal definition is used. This may be appropriate as the Jewish community in Hungary follows this line. Yet the AP's readers are found in the Angl0sphere, where the majority of Jews follow the Reform view of Jewish identity. Should it not interpret events according to the lights of its readers?

Nazi race ideology would classify Szegedi as a mischling -- a half Jew. A German mischling was subject to severe restrictions under the Nazi race laws, but mischlinge in the Eastern territories occupied by the Nazis were classified as full Jews and exterminated. Szegedi appears not to want to accept his Jewish ancestry -- and protests that he is a Christian and 100 per cent Hungarian.

Distasteful as this topic may be, has Szegedi the right to construct himself? Is he a Jew? Should he be a Jew? Who gets to say?

What say you GetReligion readers? Who has the right to decide -- and how should the press approach such situations?


Please respect our Commenting Policy