University teachers, students and researchers on Tuesday protested against remarks by Geza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, which they think “stigmatise” the Roma minority. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Jeszenszky cannot be blamed for prejudice for his lines.
Over 100 people signed the statement concerning a textbook used at Budapest’s Corvinus University (BCE), in which Jeszenszky suggested that “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”.
The statement said that the textbook’s conclusion was not scientifically supported and insisted that the community of BCE could not “accept pseudo-scholarly claims disguised in the cloak of science, especially not those harshly stigmatising an ethnic group.”
Jeszenszky has rejected accusations of racism. In a statement, the diplomat said that “as a teacher, minister and ambassador” he has always supported cases of persecuted ethnic or religious communities.
He admitted that he was not an expert on Roma issues, and said that a 15-page chapter in his textbook on the community was based on other authors. “Not even a biased Roma civil rights activist could find fault with my handling of the subject; hundreds of Hungarian and foreign students have used my book and found it useful,” he said.
Jeszenszky added that the issue of mental disabilities among the Roma are usually attributed to the community’s closed nature and the resulting frequent marriage between brothers and sisters. Due to his assignment in Oslo, the seminar has not been advertised for two years and the textbook did not go to bookstores, he added.
On Tuesday, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Jeszenszky had written his remarks as a university teacher rather than as Hungary’s ambassador. The statement said that though the contested remarks “could be misunderstood”, Jeszenszky’s life achievement and his latest publications all demonstrate that he is committed to minority rights and cannot be charged with prejudice.
In the meantime, organisers of a Holocaust conference in Oslo suggested that it would be “prudent” of Jeszenszky to stay away from the event.
Head of the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities Anton Weiss-Wendt told MTI that the conference was supported by the Hungarian, Swedish and Israeli embassies in Oslo, and noted that Hungarian Holocaust expert Professor Laszlo Karsai was one of the guests invited. Karsai, however, declined to participate, and referred to Jeszenszky’s “biased and racist” remarks in the textbook, Weiss-Wendt said.
Weiss-Wendt quoted Jeszenszky’s email to the centre, based in Norway, saying as the Roma community was “inbreeding” and “suggested that Roma as a people have little idea of the dangers posed by incest”, he said.
“These and similar comments are deemed uninformed, if not offensive, in this country,” Weiss-Wendt added.
In a telephone interview to commercial TV channel ATV on Tuesday evening, the ambassador said that if he were to publish his textbook now, he would consider how to quote the contested sentence, if at all. He insisted that it had been a direct quote from medical papers.
Jeszenszky said that the chapter in question attempted to present “the real weight of the problem” and that it suggested his “understanding for the Roma”, the author’s desire to improve their situation.
The ambassador said he was sorry if any readers found his lines offensive, but said that not only the contested passage but the whole chapter or the entire book should be read.