The realms where power is negotiated and distributed are arguably where identity is often most salient. What class does this councillor represent? What race is this campaigner? What religion? What kind of family is our leader from? What school did she attend?
The salience is in part due to the importance of a transparent and representative personal identity on the part of the politician.
But even more important is the pervasive use of power, through policies, laws and sometimes brute force, to identify, marginalise, exclude and sometimes exterminate those people with ‘undesirable’ identities. Those of mixed race, Blacks or African Americans, women, Jews, Gypsies, Sinti or Roma, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witness, Presbyterians, ‘untouchables’, to name but a few, of the multitudes of ethnic, cultural and religious peoples who have experienced systematised discrimination.
It is therefore not unexpected, and indeed hardly unknown, that throughout history many people have sought to ‘pass’ as a member of an acceptable or politically privileged group. And some individuals have gone to extreme lengths to fit in, such as altering their appearance, acquiring false documentation, or converting to another faith. They may deny or even attempt to erase any tangible evidence that suggests they are not what they seem, that could reveal their true heritage and disadvantage or even endanger them.
An out and proud dual heritage political leader, like President Obama is rare indeed. Most politicians, on all scales, have either been in the dark about their true ethnic and religious origins or have employed arduous methods to keep their heritage hidden. Just how many political figures discover that their personal heritage includes ‘one drop of blood’, or more than a little DNA of a hated, undesirable, disadvantaged group, is remarkable and startling.
In Ontario, Canada Robert Keith Rae, known as Bob Rae, was the leader of the New Democratic Party during the 1900s. Born into a family of career diplomats, Rae grew up in several international postings. His mother’s parents immigrated from England and his fathers grandparents from Scotland. Blond and blue eyed, Rae grew up as an Anglican, oblivious to the fact that his surname and phenotype obscured a crucial part of both his ethnic and religious identity.
When Rae was twenty years old he learned that his father’s grandfather although from Scotland, was in fact from a family of Lithuanian immigrants to Scotland. And they were Jewish.
The revelation made a decisive impact upon the young politician. He explored Jewish culture, socialised with the Jewish community and dated only Jewish women. Ultimately he married Arlene Perly, herself typically Jewish in all respects, and Rae became a member of the Holy Blossom Temple, a reform Jewish congregation in Toronto, Canada. Although he has never publicly spoken about his personal identity journey, its importance is transparently evident in all aspects of his life.
Far more startling are the recent revelations that Hungary’s Far Right leader Csanad Szegedi has Jewish roots. Szegedi, who was raised Presbyterian came to prominence in 2007 as a founding member of the Hungarian Guard, a revitalised pro-Nazi party, which briefly governed Hungary at the end of World War II and killed thousands of Jews. A rising star in Hungary’s far right Jobbik Party, Szegedi made his reputation on inflammatory anti- Semitic rhetoric, blaming the Jews of Hungary for every possible problem, and identifying them as Hungary’s main detriment. Since 2009, Szegedi served in the European Parliament in Brussels as one of the party’s three EU lawmakers.
In 2010 former convict Zoltan Ambrus contacted Szegedi stating that he had documents proving Szegedi is Jewish. The right-wing politician was genuinely surprised by the news. And possibly devastated as well, because he offered Ambrus funds and privileges to keep the news quiet. Their conversation was taped by Ambrus who revealed the truth to the public.
Following a long discussion with his grandmother, Szegedi acknowledged in June of that year that his maternal grandparents were Jewish. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and his grandfather a veteran of a forced labour camp.
The Holocaust remains taboo in Hungary, owing in large part to decades of authoritarianism. Many survivors of Hungary’s Jewish community kept their ordeals to themselves and their true identities a secret. Szegedi’s experience is not unique. In 2001 the Russian far-right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, similarly distinguished for his anti- Semitism acknowledged that his father was Jewish.
The reaction to the news, both politically and personally against Szegedi was swift and decisive. His personal assistant resigned, his business partner abandoned him. The party president Gabor Vona stated,
“We have no alternative but to ask him to return his EU mandate. Jobbik does not investigate the heritage of its members or leadership, but instead takes into consideration what they have done for the nation.”
Szegedi meanwhile attempting to rescue the situation declared himself to be of Jewish origin but 100 per cent Hungarian. But that the revelations of his true identity had provoked a deep personal and spiritual crisis was also evident. Late in the summer of 2012 Szegedi met with Rabbi Slomo Koves of Hungary’s Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community, whose own parents were in their teens when they discovered they were Jewish. Szegedi apologised for any statements he made that caused offence to the Jewish community and also vowed to pay his respect at Auschwitz.
In 2007 a television documentary company in Britain began a pioneering project; sampling the DNA of the population to uncover the true genetic origins of Britons.
The results for one politician were embarrassing. A key figure in one of the many manifestations of English nationalist political parties was particularly vitriolic in her statements against Gypsies and Roma. Fiercely proud of her White English ancestry, she was ready to participate in the DNA project.
What dark irony then, when the documentary revealed her maternal lineage to be descended from the very Roma gypsies she loathed, and upon the discrimination of whom, she had built her political career. She threatened to sue the documentary company if they revealed the results on television. The producers were undeterred and publicised the insanity of her belief in her own White purity.
Most tales of politicians who discover their true multicultural heritage are however far less sanguine. During the year that Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, the authorities of South Africa burst into the schoolroom of ten year old Sandra Laing. With her ‘toffee- coloured’ skin and curly dark hair Sandra was about to be expelled for being mixed race.
Sandra’s parents, Abraham and Sannie however were definitely White, tracing their roots back to The Netherlands and Germany. They were also committed members of the Nationalist Party and fervent supporters of apartheid. As Afrikaners, they had been indoctrinated in the Boer belief that to be White was pure and that people of other races were inferior.
And yet, their daughter exhibited the features of a Black Afrikaner. Though obviously Sandra;s appearance was a throwback of the DNA of some unknown ancestry, the gossip mill was rife that Sannie had had an affair with a Black man. This was particularly dangerous because under South Africa’s Immorality Acts, it was illegal to have sex with, or even kiss, a member of another race. Abraham and Sannie could not call upon such scientific evidence and their privileged position as White, and as members of the party was in jeopardy.
Though her parents sought to have her classed as White, taking the matter all the way to the Supreme Court of South Africa, Sandra was reclassified as coloured. To their relief, eighteen months later, a letter from the Home Affairs minister stated that the decision had been reversed. Although Sandra was officially ‘white’ again, nine schools refused to enrol her. The trauma of the conflict over her identity had devastating results in all aspects of her life, and that of her family. Rather than being a catalyst for unity, of overturning the pseudo scientific basis of racialised politics, Sandra’ life was but one more tragedy in the tale of apartheid.
The most astounding example however of a political figure hiding their true origins, is in fact, Adolf Hitler. Rabid anti-Semitic and self proclaimed Aryan Messiah, Hitler was in fact part Jewish. Hitler’s father was illegitimate, the child of a maid, called Maria Schickelgruber and a 19-year-old Jewish man called Frankenberger, making Hitler one quarter Jewish. Hitler was aware that there was rumour of this, originating with from his cousin. He sought the help of a lawyer to investigate, who deemed the rumour to be wholly groundless. More likely than not, for those of us with experience of political realities, both lawyer and cousin decided that silence was the most obvious strategy for staying alive.
But DNA evidence gathered in 2010 revealed that not only could Hitler be Jewish but that he was descended from the people of North Africa. Samples taken from surviving relatives showed the presence of the chromosome called Haplogroup E1b !b, Y DNA, which is rare in Western Europe. It is more common amongst the Berbers of North Africa, and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Indeed it is one of the founding lineages of the Jewish population. The very people Hitler despised and attempted to exterminate, were in fact his own.
Complex political factors make it expedient and sometimes vital to hide one’s true identity, as the examples of Szegedi’ grandparents aptly demonstrate. But equally, as the case of Hitler and the English nationalist demonstrate, one’s true origins, can also create catastrophic personal identity crises with results that reverberate throughout society and the wider polity. Some unfortunate people, hate the Other within themselves so much, that they must not only eschew the possible existence of some perceived less desirable heritage in themselves but also exterminate its visible continuation externally. If the personal is always political, and the political always personal, then identity, and crucially a cross cultural identity, is likely to be a more decisive and potent factor then is often credited.
Peace treaties, conflict resolution instruments, minority rights and tolerance campaigns have their place in building a secure society. But fundamentally, as these examples show, what is really required is the firm acceptance and equality of all ethnic, religious and cultural identities so that people of dual or multiple heritages can feel comfortable and accepted, and view their cross cultural identity as a resource, rather than demonising their Self and destroying all that is associated with it.