Hungary’s Ambassador to Norway was asked not to attend a holocaust conference and came under pressure to resign this week amid accusations of employing a racist stereotype of Roma in a university course book
“The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other,” Géza Jeszenszky wrote while lecturing as a professor at Budapest Corvinus University. The whistle-blowing website atlatszo.hu uploaded on 26 October a scanned copy of the relevant page from Jeszenszky’s 2004 coursebook, which index.hu reported was required reading for a module on “Post-Communist Europe and Its National/Ethnic Problems”.
Calls for ambassador to Norway to resign
The issue came to a head on Tuesday, after a letter of protest signed by 100 academic staff, researchers and students was sent to the state news agency MTI.
This came a day after the opposition green party LMP and the left-wing Democratic Coalition called on Jeszenszky to resign.
Corvinus University distanced itself from Jeszenszky later on Tuesday, noting that the historian had not been a full time employee since 2006, and ceased working as a private tutor in 2011 in order to concentrate on his diplomatic career.
That was then…
News emerged that Jeszenszky was asked by organisers not to attend an event in Oslo commemorating the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday to the effect that the news about Jeszenszky concerned his work as a university teacher, not as part of the diplomatic corps: “Although the lines in question are open to misinterpretation, Géza Jeszenszky’s life’s work and most recent publications prove that he stands on the side of minority rights and cannot be accused of prejudice.”
Facts are the facts: Jeszenszky
The day after his work was posted online, Jeszenszky had told the state news agency MTI that the chapter in question was supported by a wealth of academic research (a contention disputed by the authors of the protest letter). “Looking at this interpretation with a sober mind will reveal nothing offensive, and levelling accusations of racism is an outrageous slander,” Jeszenszky wrote. “Even a committed roma rights activist would be unable to take exception to the way the theme is presented. Hundreds of Hungarian and foreign students have found my book useful,” Jeszenszky said.
Speaking by telephone to the news broadcaster ATV on Tuesday evening, Jeszenszky confirmed that he had been asked not to attend the Wallenberg memorial conference.
He said the Hungarian holocaust historian László Karsai had raised the issue with the organisers and said he would not participate if Jeszenszky were to be present.
“I apologise to anyone who felt offended, but if they read the book they will find that it speaks out against racism,” Jeszenszky said. However, if he were to republish the book he would reconsider whether the sentence in question should appear again.