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Mark Wildes

Can Antisemites Change?

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Between 2003 and 2012 Csanad Szegedi was a leader in the radical far-right Jobbik party of the Hungarian Parliament.  In June 2011 he revealed that he had just learned that his maternal grandparents were Jewish and that his grandmother had survived Auschwitz. This dramatic revelation led Szegedi to explore his Jewish roots, and he began to meet with a rabbi. In August 2012 Szegedi apologized to the rabbi for his anti-Semitic remarks and traveled to Israel. He had himself circumcised and continued to learn with the rabbi. Today Szekedi goes by “David”, keeps kosher, observes Shabbat, and wears a yarmulke wherever he goes.
How does one go from being a rabid anti-Semite to fully embracing Judaism? Was Szegedi a fluke because he happened to be Jewish, or are we to believe people are capable of totally changing their perspective? After all, in the 75 years since Nazi Germany was defeated, a generally pro-Israel generation has been raised. People can change. Szegedi had that rare quality of being open to change. When he realized his philosophy was not in line with reality and that what he believed in was false and immoral he became someone else.
This quality of being open to change is a sign of a great leader. Judah emerges as the leader of all the tribes because he was the first to change his family’s unhealthy dynamic.  Much of the sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers can be boiled down to a feud between the sons of Leah and Rachel.  The sons of Leah resented the sons of Rachel who were favored by their father Jacob. Joseph added insult to injury by sharing his dreams in which the brothers bow to him. The resentment builds until they plot to do away with Joseph. Judah is the first to put a stop to all of this. Judah convinces Jacob, still grieving over the loss of Joseph, to let Benjamin go down to Egypt by telling his father that he – a son of Leah, will take responsibility for a son of Rachel: Anochi Aeraveinu – “I will personally guarantee him”.
Judah does it again with Joseph. After Benjamin is brought down to Egypt to verify their story that the brothers are not spies, Joseph, who is viceroy, accuses him of stealing.  Judah in a daring and bold manner stands up to the viceroy and declares: “ki avdecha arav et hanar” – “I’m responsible for him” – he is my brother. That is precisely when Joseph breaks down and reveals his true identity – when he sees the brothers are changing.  When Joseph sees Judah, a son of Leah, sticking up for Benjamin, a son of Rachel.  That is what convinced Jacob to let Binyamin go and Joseph to begin the process of forgiving his brothers.
This ability to admit fault and to be open to change is how Judah distinguishes himself as the leader. We saw this earlier in the Torah when he tells his daughter-in-law Tamar: “tzadkah mimeni: “you are more righteous than I.” In dealing with a hugely embarrassing situation involving sexual impropriety, Judah took responsibility and admits his wrongdoing. In doing so, he demonstrates he, and one day his family, is truly fitting for Jewish royalty – and not Joseph. Joseph courageously brings God’s name into polytheistic Egypt and becomes a model for how to combine success in the secular world while maintaining one’s Jewish identity, but we do not see him breaking away from bad family habits.  Only Judah does this.
John Maxwell in his book on the principles of leadership writes that adaptability – the ability to remold and modify one’s outlook to deal with new situations, is one of the key traits of all great leaders. As individuals and as groups we all develop certain fixed ways of thinking and behaving. Opening our minds to new possibilities is a game changer.
One of my favorite examples of this was Uri Zohar, of blessed memory. Once celebrated as a top comedian, TV and radio talk-show host, social satirist, actor, and film producer on the Israeli scene, Uri Zohar was quite anti-religious.  Much of his comedy and satire revolved around the jokes he made about Judaism and religious Jews.  At some point in his career, Uri set out to investigate Judaism ultimately with the purpose of impeaching the veracity of the claim that the Torah is divine in origin and thus relevant to the lives of contemporary Jews, rather than just some kind of cultural artifact. “If the Torah were not true,” he once wrote: “I couldn’t care less that it provides a marvelous respite from the barrenness of modern existence. Opium also provides a marvelous respite of sorts, and you don’t have to get dressed up in order to smoke it.”  That investigation into the Torah, although originally conducted to confirm his belief that Judaism couldn’t be true, led Uri Zohar to the belief that the Torah was Divine in nature.  He continued to keep an open mind and to investigate, and little by little he started becoming observant. Uri Zohar became one of Israel’s most celebrated ba’alei teshuvah and spent the rest of his life studying Torah and raising money for Yeshivot.
How does someone go from mocking Torah, from making fun of religious people to becoming religiously observant? How was Csanad Czegedi able to go from being an anti-Semite to a proud Jew? The answer is anything is possible when we have an open mind, when we are willing to question the way in which we have become habituated to think and behave.
It’s hard to imagine Hamas changing their way of thinking, and so Israel must continue to wage war against them. But perhaps some of their supporters, those who profess to have an open mind, will be able to look at things differently and one day change their view. As we say in Neilah, the concluding prayer service on Yom Kippur: “For You (ie-God) do not seek the death of the condemned rather that they turn away from their ways and live”.
About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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