Two weeks ago, George Soros took to the op-ed pages of the largest paid circulation newspaper in the United States to explain why he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing progressive district attorney candidates across the country. “Americans desperately need a more thoughtful discussion about our response to crime,” the billionaire philanthropist began in a piece for The Wall Street Journal titled, “Why I Support Reform Prosecutors.” Decrying the “demagoguery and divisive partisan attacks that dominate the debate and obscure the issues,” Soros elucidated his reasons for championing prosecutors who support, among other things, abolishing cash bail, reducing prison time for violent offenders, and declining to prosecute whole categories of crime altogether.
The scope of Soros’ efforts has been extensive. Through a combination of direct contributions to candidates, subventions to political action committees, and funding of other third party groups via his Open Society Foundations, Soros has spent upwards of $40 million over the past decade helping to elect some 75 prosecutors in metropolitan areas ranging from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Manhattan to St. Louis. His pursuit of this agenda has been met with no small amount of controversy, and in some cases active resistance. In San Francisco, the Soros-backed District Attorney Chesa Boudin lost a recall vote earlier this year following a disastrous tenure marked by sharp increases in both violent and petty crime rates. George Gascon, a Soros-backed prosecutor in Los Angeles, will also face a recall. It was no doubt in response to the backlash his public efforts have caused that Soros decided, not unreasonably, to defend his political interventions. “I have done it transparently,” he wrote in the Journal of his massive outlays, “and I have no intention of stopping.”
All well and good. America is a free country, and Soros has every right to spend his vast fortune however he wants within the boundaries of the law, as well as to justify that spending in the public square. The same applies to those of us inhabiting lower tax brackets, who have no less a right to criticize Soros for how he’s trying to influence American public life—which, to repeat, he is very much, and by his own admission, trying to do. That extremely rich people with grand ideological designs should not be immune to criticism—indeed, that they should be subject to even more of it than the rest of us—is a pretty widely accepted view in America, especially on the political left, where the maxim “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” has long been a guiding principle. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that this lack of deference to the wealthy and the titled is one of our major distinguishing national characteristics.
Or used to be. A week after Soros published his piece in the Journal under his own name, proudly and defiantly justifying his expenditure of vast sums aimed at sparking a revolution in the administration of municipal criminal justice, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio introduced an amendment to the $750 billion climate and tax bill aimed at stymying this agenda by providing funds for local law enforcement to keep violent criminals behind bars. The measure had no chance of passing, and when the Democrat-led Senate predictably rejected it, Rubio took to Twitter. “The democrats just blocked my effort to try & force Soros backed prosecutors to put dangerous criminals in jail,” he tweeted in complaint.
What followed was the sort of Pavlovian response one has come to expect from progressive politicians, activists, journalists, and other social media impact influencers whenever the name of their benefactor is invoked.
Soros, in case you couldn’t tell, happens to be Jewish, a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with his ideas about criminal justice reform, or with Rubio’s opposition to them. Yet it was this utterly irrelevant detail of Soros’ birth that the progressive hive mind seized upon, spurring its minions to attack an unsubstantiated presumption about Rubio’s motives to the exclusion of his substantive arguments. The rebuke from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was particularly rich in light of her response to parents upset about their children being denied in-person schooling during the pandemic. “American Jews,” she said in April 2021, “are now part of the ownership class.”
Put aside the merits of the criminal justice policies Soros is trying to advance with his humongous largesse. Also put aside the fact that, while he was alive, the right-wing Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was routinely denounced by progressives in terms that, by their own lights, are no less “antisemitic” than what they accuse Rubio of fomenting. The question before us today is whether, in the course of criticizing activities that the country’s biggest progressive donor has undertaken “transparently” (his word), it is possible to even utter his name without being accused of bigotry.
The argument that the mere mention of the name “Soros” is tantamount to antisemitism, which is effectively the position of the progressive political, media, and activist elite, is made entirely in bad faith. Stating the plain and observable fact that some prosecutors are “Soros-backed” is no more of an attack on Jews than the broadcaster Soledad O’Brien’s warning to “full-time Florida residents,” an antisemitic dog whistle about God’s waiting room. If the mind of a Soros supporter, upon hearing his name, races immediately to an image of a “Jew,” and one who serves as a stand-in for “the Jews,” it’s probably not the motives of the critic that need questioning. The impulse to connect “Soros” with Judaism and Jewishness is not unlike the bigotry that associates the term “monkeypox” with Black people. It’s a form of essentialism that expects us to agree with the antisemites that “being Jewish” is somehow relevant to what Americans like Soros (or right-wing Jewish billionaires, for that matter) do with their time and money.
Those engaging in this rhetorical tactic are certainly not pursuing the “thoughtful discussion” that Soros says we “desperately need,” but rather the “demagoguery and divisive partisan attacks” he denounces. Worse, they’re minimizing the threat posed by actual antisemitism by cheapening the accusation.
It wasn’t so long ago that one could scrutinize Soros’ widely disseminated beliefs and well-documented activities without fear of being called a Nazi. “Is the speculator and philanthropist a one-man foreign-policy machine or an unregulated billionaire with a messiah complex?” The New Yorker asked in a long, critical profile of Soros published in 1995. No one thought this allusion to history’s most famous Jew was antisemitic. In a sketch aired during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, Saturday Night Live depicted Soros as a sinister currency speculator, single-handedly deciding the fate of the U.S. dollar and manipulating American politicians. “Multi-billionaire Hedge Fund Manager; Owner, Democratic Party” read the chyron under his name, displayed during a press conference at which he instructs a random man to sell him his wife.
In 2016, just as Soros was initiating his progressive prosecutor project, Politico reported the details in language that, by today’s standards, would lead to a denunciation as if it was published in Der Stürmer. “Democratic mega-donor George Soros has directed his wealth into an under-the-radar 2016 campaign to advance one of the progressive movement’s core goals—reshaping the American justice system,” the story began. The $3 million Soros had spent by then on just seven DA races exceeded “the total spent on the 2016 presidential campaign by all but a handful of rival super-donors.” As Soros planned to up his giving, “more local candidates should prepare for the shock of one of the biggest donors in American politics flooding their neighborhoods with ads.”
What accounts for this dramatic restriction in acceptable discourse regarding one of America’s most powerful private citizens? How is it that so many intelligent people who pride themselves on their capacity for making elegant distinctions and holding nuanced views about ethnic prejudice could bring themselves to spout such reductionist nonsense, denying the obvious reality that an increasing number of key district attorney races in American cities rise or fall on the interest and engagement of a New York billionaire, while also attempting to silence frank descriptions of that reality by portraying them as a species of bigotry?
The answer, as with so much of what ails us today, lies with another New York billionaire—in this case not so much the man himself as the response he’s engendered. There were a lot of things we were able to discuss in this country Before the Trump Era (BTE) with a degree of sanity—that is, before the Manichean spirit of the “resistance,” with its “no enemies on the left” mentality of the pre-World War II-era Popular Front, seized the minds of our intellectual class. But that was before the sanctification of George Soros—a man who, like the rest of us, has done both good and ill, but whose name we must now only utter in reverence, lest we be suspected of harboring wicked thoughts.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.