By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's once virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik party tried to show a more tolerant face this year by sending Hannukah greetings to local Jews. Neither their rabbi nor some Jobbik members appreciated the gesture.
The main opposition group, which has been moving away from its earlier far-right stands, was rebuked both by Rabbi Slomo Koves and by one of its Budapest party chapters after sending its greetings for the Jewish holiday being celebrated this week.
Jobbik chairman Gabor Vona defended the gesture as an effort to reconcile Christians and Jews in Hungary and said party members who loudly denounced it would be disciplined.
Although the party does appear to be softening its strident nationalist tone, its recent history of anti-Semitic tactics - such as denouncing Israel and demanding lists of Hungarian Jews who pose a "national security risk" - seems too fresh to be overcome easily.
In his greeting for Hannukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, Vona wrote: "We wish this time of reflection and joy offers a chance of spiritual renewal and, like the celebration of light, emanates real brightness that can show the way."
A Jobbik chapter in the Budapest suburb of Vecses protested on Facebook, saying: "Jobbik Vecses does NOT greet Jews on the occasion of Hanukkah (or what the f***) ... If anyone might have that crazy idea, our organization will not support them!"
Koves, a rabbi of the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement, also gave the Jobbik greetings the cold shoulder.
"We normally appreciate such greetings, but the greetings from you, the leaders of Jobbik, rather surprised and confused us," he wrote in an open letter to Vona. "I think you would do better to make these gestures at the forums you have used to spread hate, filth and darkness, not light."
Vona told the daily Magyar Nemzet on Friday that the response by the Vecses Jobbik chapter was unacceptable and he would expel the members who posted the slur. "Nobody who talks like that has a place in this party," he said.
To Koves, Vona wrote that he wanted to "build bridges not walls" and vowed to work for reconciliation between Hungarian Christians and Jews.
Hungary had a large and thriving Jewish community before the Holocaust, which only a small minority survived. About 430,000 of the 1.3 million people killed in the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp in Poland were Hungarian Jews, the community says.
The community has been growing in recent years, especially in Budapest, but is worried by resurgent anti-Semitism.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Tom Heneghan)