In a 2003 appearance at the Jewish Funders Network, reportedly the first time he had “spoken in front of a Jewish group or attended a Jewish function,” George Soros faulted the U.S. and Israeli governments for rising anti-Semitism. “There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe,” he said, and “the policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that.” Lest one find “self-hating Jew” an uncouth description of Soros, consider how, regarding the conspiracy theory “Jews rule the world,” he remarked, “As an unintended consequence of my actions I also contribute to that image.” Last year, leaked documents revealed that Soros’ Open Society Foundations had secretly funded groups like Breaking the Silence, which sponsors ex-Israeli soldiers to tour the world describing alleged Israeli war crimes, one of the few Jewish causes to which the billionaire has deigned to give. Other Soros-backed initiatives played a leading role rallying support for the Obama administration’s controversial Iran nuclear deal and attacking its opponents as dual-loyalists.
It is fine for Jews of all political persuasions to find Soros’ hostility towards his own Judaism and towards the Jewish state to be repulsive. But the idea that Soros, because of his politics, is therefore a legitimate target for an anti-Semitic campaign is perhaps even more repulsive. Yet that seems to be the logic of the Israeli government, which has assisted its Hungarian counterpart in spreading dark insinuations about the Budapest-born Jewish philanthropist. Earlier this week, a report by the Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov revealed how the Likud party’s director of International Relations provided information to Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party six months ago detailing how Soros “supports organizations that undermine Zionism in Israel and help terrorists and infiltrators.” The latter is a term used by Israeli rightists to describe migrants, and indicates a point of concord with the Hungarian right, for whom opposition to immigration has become a signal issue.
This collaboration between Likud and Fidesz added fuel to an ongoing campaign against Soros led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. For just as Soros’ funding of left-wing causes in Israel-Palestine annoys Benjamin Netanyahu, so does his backing a variety of non-governmental organizations in his native land cause headaches for Orbán. Earlier this year, the Orbán government initiated a procedure to revoke accreditation from the Budapest-based and Soros-founded Central European University, the top liberal arts institution in the region. (Ironically, Orbán was himself the beneficiary of a Soros scholarship, using one to study at Oxford in 1989).
The ur-text of the Hungarian government’s crusade is the so-called “Soros Plan,” a supposed plot by which the Hungarian émigré hopes to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants. It centers upon the call Soros made, at the height of the migrant crisis, for the European Union to accept “a million asylum-seekers annually for the foreseeable future,” a figure he later reduced to 300,000. The intake, he said, should be voluntary, with EU member states choosing how many migrants to take, if any. As a country on the southeastern border of the EU, Hungary has been at the frontline of the migrant crisis, which at its peak in 2015 saw hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim Middle Easterners illegally traverse its border.
From the beginning, Orbán took a harsh stance against the migrants, erecting a border fence and issuing caustic rhetorical barbs in favor of “ethnic homogeneity.” He has coupled these policy pronouncements with paranoid attacks on Soros, going so far as to hold a “national consultation” of the Hungarian electorate about the merits of the “Soros Plan.” The survey asked voters whether or not they agreed with seven highly leading statements, such as, “George Soros would also like to see migrants receive lighter sentences for the crimes they commit.” Posters across the country feature Soros’ grinning countenance alongside the slogan, “Don’t Let Him Have the Last Laugh.”
To be sure, George Soros is a famous public figure who has spent a lot of money advocating various positions on highly controversial issues. He is squarely, as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “in the arena” of public life. Soros is therefore hardly above reproach as an individual, his views on immigration are entirely fair game for criticism, and his Jewishness does not automatically render such criticism anti-Semitic. And yes, there is indeed something rich about a man who has contributed more than most to the delegitimization of the world’s only Jewish state claiming to be the victim of anti-Semitism and seeking kinship in a community that, up until now, he never had much time for.
Yet context matters. And the context in Hungary is that, when a government committed to institutionalized Holocaust revisionism plasters a rich Jew’s face all over the land a là Emmanuel Goldstein, it does so in hopes of appealing to latent anti-Semitism in a country which carried out the swiftest large-scale deportation of the entire Holocaust (over 400,000 Jews shipped to Auschwitz in less than 10 weeks). The politics of memory remains hotly contentious in Hungary, with many on the right seeking to absolve the nation of responsibility for the extermination of its Jews and disproportionately blame Jews for the sins of Bolshevism. Since taking power in 2010, the Orbán administration has assisted in these efforts, erecting a perverse “Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation” and engaging in other feats of historical distortion. It is in this context that, last May, Hungary’s state broadcaster quoted an Iranian government leader who called Soros “an evil Zionist-American multi-billionaire” and a Fidesz member of parliament posted a photo of himself on Facebook standing behind a dead pig with “THIS IS SOROS!” branded on its back.
Despite the evident unseemliness of the whole spectacle, the Israeli right has essentially kosherized it. Last July, just after the posters of Soros were unveiled across Hungary, Netanyahu blessed Orbán with a state visit. Two months later, Netanyahu’s son Yair posted a lurid alt-right meme on his Facebook page which depicted Soros holding a fishing rod with the planet earth dangling as bait, alongside a reptile and hook-nosed Elder of Zion taunting the Netanyahu family’s political enemies. So heinous and bizarre was the image that, following a worldwide outcry, one of the only personages willing to defend the son of the Israeli Prime Minister was David Duke.
There exists no test to determine if someone is a worthy victim of crude bigotry. The Nazis never distinguished between Hasidism and fully-assimilated Jews–they all went to the gas chambers. The campaign targeting George Soros, therefore, targets all of us. The first victims will be Jews who live in Hungary, and the people who will victimize them will have been incited to do so by their government, which will in turn have been emboldened by Likud officials who provided the kosher sign for this political treif. Whether George Soros is a friend or enemy of Israel, whether he is proud or ashamed of his Jewish heritage, is irrelevant—except as a way to excuse anti-Semitism and its murderous consequences.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.