(JTA) — A longtime former leader of Hungarian Jewry was ousted as president of a small Jewish community in Budapest following his nomination as a government consultant on Jewish matters.
Nine of the 10 members of the board of the Jewish community of the Dohany Synagogue voted last week in favor of ejecting Gusztav Zoltai, the synagogue’s ex-president and former director of the Mazsihisz Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary. The 10th member abstained.
Zoltai, who resigned as Mazsihisz director earlier this year after decades on the job, stunned many Hungarian Jews last week by accepting the offer to work as senior consultant for Janos Lazar, a minister who runs the office of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The center-right head of state has come under intense criticism from Mazsihisz and other Jewish groups over Holocaust commemoration issues.
“I read the news with dismay and disbelief,” Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler told nol.hu in an interview, adding the nomination “ruined the record of a life’s work” for Zoltai.
Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti, who works for Mazsihisz, told JTA, “This outrageous move has cost Mr. Zoltai any shred of respect he used to have within the Jewish community.”
Reached by JTA, Zoltai declined to comment. But in an interview that Nol.hu published on Friday, he was quoted as acknowledging that some regard his nomination as a betrayal.
“I’m not a traitor,” Zoltai said. “Those who think I am working against Hungarian Jewry are crazy, these are insane thoughts.”
He also said that in the months following his resignation, “No one called on my experience for help” in talks with the government. Upon receiving Lazar’s offer, “I immediately said yes because I wanted to help the Jewish community,” Zoltai said.
Relations between Mazsihisz and the Orban government soured this year over the government’s erection of a controversial monument in Budapest for victims of Nazi occupation.
Mazsihisz, which complained that the monument served to whitewash the Hungarian state’s Holocaust-era complicity, pulled out of talks on the issue with the government over its refusal to consider an alternative.
Last week, the government and Mazsihisz had their first roundtable meeting since the falling-out, with Zoltai sitting squarely between government officials and Jewish community representatives.
Zoltai reportedly resigned as Mazsihisz director in April in protest of the government’s actions, though many believed he was pushed out by the reform-oriented Heisler over financial irregularities.