Over the course of modern history, ultra-nationalistic and racist politicians have used images of Jews, particularly those who have been financially successful, as a convenient way to enlist political support. Generalized talk about the Jews was not sufficiently effective, and the anti-Semites have always needed targets with a name and a face to stir up the masses.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, “the Rothschilds” served as the leading image of the greedy cosmopolitan Jew. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the symbol is George Soros, and, astoundingly, the Jewish state is now joining the campaign.
Very few Israelis are familiar with Soros, his ideas or life story. But many are able to repeat the lies that are being spread about him, stories hatched among anti-Semitic circles in the United States and Europe and recycled in the press and social media in Israel, and even by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair, each in his own special style.
Soros’ real story is inspiring and altogether different, and Israel could actually have taught about him in school. It’s not a story free of mistakes or controversial actions (in part when it comes to his financial activities), but he is an example of a man who throughout his life has tried to absorb the lessons of the Holocaust and make the world a better place.
Soros was a child when the Nazis occupied his hometown Budapest. His father obtained false papers for family members that helped them (and others) survive. The young Soros was sent to work at an office that dealt with confiscating Jews’ property (spawning the false claim about his “collaboration”).
After the war he moved to London, and from there to the United States, where he became one of the most successful investors in history. He began his philanthropic activity in the late 1970s, and unlike many other wealthy people around the world, he wasn’t interested in contributing to consensus causes, but instead was inclined to choose causes with a political dimension that appeared complicated or hopeless. Soros contributed to the fight against apartheid, and (years before the idea of same-sex marriage became part of the consensus) to the LGBT community. He also supported opponents of communist regimes and the Roma.
As a Jew and Holocaust survivor, a considerable portion of his contributions have gone to persecuted minorities. His total investment in the foundation that he established is $30 billion and has been going to projects in about 100 countries, including those in the Arab world, and they support the values of freedom of expression, human rights and democracy.
This philanthropic activity is what turned Soros into the sworn enemy of nationalists and populists around the world. Leaders of Hungary, Turkey, Russia (and now the United States) have differences of opinion on many issues, but all of them abhor democracy and the rule of law and the nonprofit organizations and parties that are trying to defend these values, so they abhor Soros too.
Russia outlawed Soros’ foundation in 2015, and in Hungary the government ran a personal campaign against him. “Don’t let Soros smile last,” posters in Budapest proclaimed prior to elections. And at night, unknown individuals daubed graffiti referring to “stinking Jew” and “vampire.”
During that same period, the State of Israel chose to stand behind the Hungarian government, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry even denounced Soros himself. Many thought this was out of a desire to garner political support for Israel in the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.
Recent comments by Netanyahu, however, in which he accused Soros – without any evidence – of funding protests in Israel in support of East African asylum seekers facing possible deportation, raising the concern that Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban simply share a common worldview. Too many Israeli men and women from all walks of society and various parts of the political and religious spectrum oppose the expulsion of asylum seekers, so what is left for Netanyahu to do? Turn to anti-Semitism as a last resort.
Jews standing with the persecuted whoever they may be should be a reason for national pride, not panic and conspiracy theories. The Israeli media should cover Soros’ activities in a straightforward, fair manner even in the face of political differences with him. In a year when Israel is celebrating its 70th anniversary, it is high time to turn a cold shoulder to dictators and anti-Semites.
The writer is executive director of the New Israel Fund.