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Billionaire Liberal George Soros May Be the Diaspora Jew of the Future

Like many other Jews, George Soros is an advocate of liberal values; unlike them, he has no special place for Israel in his heart

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Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against George Soros, in Budapest, Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against George Soros in Budapest. July 12, 2017Credit: Pablo Gorondi/AP

Can anyone make sense of Israel’s flip-flop over the Hungarian government’s campaign against George Soros?

Some of it makes sense, at least in terms of our traditional understanding of politics. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government is a natural enemy of liberalism, so it’s a no-brainer that Soros’ high-profile campaigns for human rights and democracy in Eastern Europe, including more liberal immigration policy, would make him a target for a vilification campaign.

It also makes sense that Yossi Amrani, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, called for an end to the campaign because of billboards featuring a laughing Soros and warning about last laughs was fanning the flames of anti-Semitism in Hungary. Israel, the Jewish state, is supposed to defend Jews around the world and Amrani was just doing his job.

But then things start looking topsy-turvy. Israel’s Foreign Ministry sort of retracted Amrani’s statement, saying yes we don’t like anti-Semitism but we also don’t like Soros  – an American Jews of Hungarian origin – much either. It’s okay to attack Jews, if they’re ones the current Israeli government doesn’t like; if Hungarian Jews are feeling nervous, well, that’s just a small contribution to the Zionist enterprise.

But the strangest phenomenon of all is George Soros. A self-made billionaire hedge-fund manager and Holocaust survivor, he is a consummate liberal. He is a powerful advocate of human rights, democracy and free movement of immigrants. He has even voiced criticism of the global financial system where he made his fortune. He has donated billions to the causes he supports and spoken loudly in their favor, turning him into a bogeyman of the right.

And, what is strange about Soros is equally strange about Jews in general, including the filthiest richest, who are overwhelming liberal-left. There are a lot of exceptions to this – Orthodox Jews, Sheldon Adelson and Israelis, but in America, Europe, Russia and among the Israeli elite, including the wealthy, liberal values pervade.

Milton Himmelfarb summed up the contradiction in a 1973 essay about U.S. Jews when he said, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” In fact, they earn a lot more than Episcopalians, by a margin of $72,000 to $55,000 on average, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center Study. Yet American Jews have never given a Republican candidate more than 30% of their vote since the days of Ronald Reagan and by one estimate they provide 50% of campaign contributions to the Democratic Party (twice the rate of giving to the GOP).

The Soros exception

All the predictions that as Jews grow wealthier and assimilate, they would begin looking out for the best interests and go conservative have been frustrated.  Even the GOP’s efforts to become more pro-Israel than Habayit Hayehudi have failed to win over American Jews.

Lots of theories have been offered up for this strange phenomenon, like the prophets’ calls for social justice, the Jews’ long history as outsiders seeking a way to assimilate or contending with oppression, or that liberalism is something Jews naturally gravitate to, like a bagel breakfast. None of them seem to fully explain the phenomenon. 

Vis-a-vis Israel, however, Soros is atypical because his liberalism doesn’t make any exception for Israel. A lot of Diaspora Jews support human rights and left-of-center organizations in Israel but they do it out of a vision to make Israel a place more aligned with their liberal worldview.

In Soros’ case, though, Israel is just one those nasty places where democratic values are under threat, and has no special connection to him. As he said in a 1995 New Yorker interview, "I don't deny the Jews to a right to a national existence – but I don't want to be part of it." Hacked emails from his Open Society Foundation last year showed the organization aimed at “challenging Israel’s racist and anti-democratic policies” in international forums, in part by questioning Israel’s reputation as a democracy.

The Soros exception helps explains the high-pitched controversy of an egalitarian presence at the Western Wall. Israeli and American leftists were banging their heads in frustration that Diaspora Jews could ignore decades of occupation and Israel’s other human rights violations, only to seethe with rage over rules governing the Kotel and conversion.

But that is exactly how it works. Jews are willing to cut some slack for Israel because we’re brothers and sisters that can forgive each other’s sins more than anyone else’s. It’s not rational or a perfect fit for people who believe in abstract notions of justice and equality, but it’s the way of the world. However, when the Israeli brother denies his Diaspora sister a place at the family shrine, that’s an elementary violation of the code of solidarity.

Israel’s problem is that Soros may be an outlier of his generation, but he is probably more typical of younger Jews, who are less allied to their Jewishness whether religious or ethnic than they are to the secular, liberal values. Netanyahu should be glad he raised the ruckus that he did over the Wall, because the day Diaspora Jews don’t care will be a sad one for Israel. It may be coming soon.

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