“Nazi collaborator,” “the world’s biggest drug dealer,” “a traitor to the United States,” “one of the most evil people in the world,” even “Satan’s seed.” To judge by some of the epithets hurled at him over the years, Jewish-American billionaire George Soros may certainly be one of the most hated people in the world.
Large swaths of Europe and America view him as evil incarnate, sure that he’s putting entire countries at risk. They hold him responsible for the financial collapse of a long list of countries including Thailand, Malasia, Indonesia, Japan and Russia.
A few years ago, the government of Hungary, his country of birth, even launched an anti-immigration campaign featuring posters of Soros and the slogan “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” The photo of the billionaire that was plastered all over the country showed a smile you wouldn’t want to bump into in a dark alley.
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A collage of hatred fills the first minutes of the documentary “Soros,” along with similar cartoons and memes such as ones depicting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as puppets controlled by the billionaire, who’s shown in a Nazi uniform and giving the Nazi salute. Or he’s wearing a glove like the Marvel villain Thanos, sowing death and destruction all over the world.
These call to mind a cartoon that doesn’t appear in the film – one that was once shared by Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair depicting Soros as pulling the strings behind people like Ehud Barak, former Barak aide Eldad Yaniv and Meni Naftali, a former caretaker of the prime minister’s residence who claimed abuse by Sara Netanyahu. (Yair threw in an alien for good measure.)
So what is it about Soros – whose fortune was recently estimated by Forbes at $8.6 billion – that stirs such burning, continent-hopping hatred and gets people to concoct so many vicious conspiracy theories about him? In polarized Israel, some might offer a succinct answer: He’s a leftist. But in the documentary “Soros,” available on Yes Docu VOD, director Jesse Dylan seeks explanations that are a little more complex and convincing.
The billions that Soros, 91, still has are just a small part of the fortune he has amassed over the decades through his international investments and foreign-currency trading. Forbes calls Soros the “most generous” philanthropist of all the billionaires who donate to charity: He has given away 64 percent of his original fortune, distributing more than $15 billion to liberal organizations and initiatives largely identified with the left. He does this via the Open Society Foundations – formerly called the Open Society Institute – that he founded to promote peace, education, public health and an independent media.
Jesse Dylan, the eldest son of Bob Dylan and his ex-wife Sara Lownds (yes, Sara from the song of the same name), was born in New York in 1966. He began his career as a director of music videos for stars like Tom Waits and Lenny Kravitz, and went on to direct the comedies “American Wedding” (a sequel to “American Pie”) and “Kicking & Screaming” with Will Ferrell.
'Soros thought he would just spend all the money and be done with it. And then in recent times, they’ve made a decision that they’re going to keep the foundation open'
In “Soros,” the filmmaker’s first full-length documentary, Dylan offers several possible explanations for the intense hatred of the billionaire around the world. Most of these are provided by people who seem to hold views in line with those of Soros.
But one of the more cogent explanations in the film actually comes from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has harshly attacked Soros and his work many times. In the documentary, Carlson says he doesn’t think people understand the scale of Soros’ influence. Never has there been so much money in a system whose goal is to create a new order in society – money that isn’t subject to any political system, Carlson says.
True, when you think of billionaires who donate heaps of money, most don’t invest in causes linked to politics. It’s a lot simpler to help the poor or sick, to invest in medical research or battle global warming.
Soros, however, hopes to change the political reality in various parts of the world. His first major donations were to help students in South Africa during apartheid; he then made large donations to pro-democracy forces when Eastern Europe was still under Soviet rule. (One interviewee in the film says that except for John Paul II, Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev, Soros played the main role in toppling communism.)
Soros has also invested a fortune in implementing the peace agreement in Bosnia, and helped Aung San Suu Kyi come to power in Myanmar. He has also gotten involved in other controversial issues such as abortion, LGBT rights, drugs and immigration – with the name Soros becoming synonymous with liberal values.
Those slings and arrows hurt
It’s hard for us now to understand what it was like to live through the Holocaust. Then the Soviets stayed in postwar Hungary with their own ideas about how we’re all supposed to live. When you consider this, you can understand the deep impression made on the young Soros.
The billions that Soros, 91, still has are just a small part of the fortune he has amassed over the decades through his international investments and foreign-currency trading
Many of the people interviewed in the documentary say that Soros’ Jewishness helps fuel the fear and loathing that many people feel about him in countries where he donates.
“I don’t know whether people put it together quite as antisemitism, although, you know, being Jewish, you get a bad rap around the world, right?” Dylan told Haaretz in a Zoom interview.
“And I think that you need something to fight against, you need an enemy, if you’re an autocrat ... you need something to fight against. And it just happens to be that he’s an easy target, he’s Jewish, he’s wealthy, he’s secretive, he doesn’t do a lot of press. He’s an easy target. And I think that those kinds of arrows are painful when you’re just trying to help people, that’s a painful thing.”
Soros isn’t keen to be interviewed or publicize what he’s doing; he usually prefers to work quietly behind the scenes – understandable when you’re a hate magnet. But Dylan managed to convince him to talk on camera about his personal history and what motivates him, his urge to change the world and his methods for coping with a relentless tide of animosity.
Dylan says he met Soros when he was making films for the Open Society Institute and got to interview the billionaire several times then.
“When I first met him in Hungary, and then, as I sort of got to know him, what he was talking about was very different than the public perception of him. And so, gradually, I just thought, maybe we should make a movie of it to try and get across what he’s been trying to do,” Dylan says.
“And so then I asked him permission to do it. And then it took a few years to get permission, but eventually he let me do it.”
Why was it so hard for him to decide? And what finally convinced him to go ahead with it?
“I’m just speculating, there’s so much negative. He’s the boogeyman in the press. So I think he wanted to have something that maybe was a little more fair to his point of view out there.”
Powerful people often want to control a movie being made about themselves. Did Soros impose any conditions on you?
I was wondering why he was so hated. Because it’s like, all he’s really saying is, ‘Let the smaller group in society express their views’Jesse Dylan
“There were no conditions. Just, you know, finding availability to talk about things. Then he didn’t see the movie until before he went to the festival .... So I think it was kind of just, once he decided, I think he just let go of it.”
Why did you want to make this film? What was it about Soros that you wanted to understand?
“You know, not so much about him, but maybe more about how he thought about the world. I’ve done a lot of work for foundations around the world, and … most of the people, from the philanthropic point of view, they knew what they wanted to do, they thought they had a better idea than everybody else. And so they would just do it – and were very focused on sort of binary results, like it was either a good thing or a bad thing, according to them.
“What I found fascinating about George was that he didn’t have any of that. He just wanted it to get better. And he didn’t necessarily know what ‘better’ even meant. So what he would do is sit with people in a local area. And then they would say, over time, ‘Well, this is what we think makes it better.’ Then he would support those people. And I thought that was very unusual. I mean, I hadn’t met anybody like that before.
“So that’s what attracted me to trying to work with him more, and ... I was wondering why he was so hated. Because it’s like, all he’s really saying is, ‘Let the smaller group in society express their views.’ He’s not even saying he necessarily agrees with the views, he was just saying, ‘You have to be able to say it.’ And I thought that that was very interesting.
Fantasies about saving the world
Soros was born in 1930 to a secular Jewish family in Budapest. In 1944, under the Nazi occupation, he was forced to carry out tasks for the local Judenrat, a council of Jewish notables who served as an intermediary with the Nazis, until his father could obtain documents showing the family to be Christian. After the war, he remained in Hungary, now under Soviet occupation, until he emigrated to England at 17, where he earned two degrees in philosophy and was deeply influenced by the philosopher Karl Popper and his book “The Open Society and its Enemies.”
In the film, Soros explains that after he read Popper’s book, he noticed the similarities between the Nazi and Soviet regimes; both believed they possessed the ultimate truth that had to be forced on the people. Popper proposed an alternative that won over the young Hungarian immigrant: an open society recognizing that no one has sole custody of the truth; others’ views must be respected and people must learn to live together.
When he was 26, Soros moved to New York, where he worked in investment firms and made his fortune in foreign-currency trading and later in international investments. He became famous as “the man who broke the Bank of England” – during the 1992 British currency crisis, he sold billions of pounds in anticipation of a devaluation. When that happened, he pocketed a billion-dollar profit.
“Financial markets always move forward, and the same is true of history,” Soros says in the film. He says that when he began his philanthropic activity, he had childish fantasies of saving the world, messianic fantasies in a sense, and that he succeeded more than others in realizing those fantasies.
People associate Soros with the left and liberal values. Would the hatred of him be the same if he supported values associated with the right?
“The issue with very, very wealthy people on the right or the left is whether their vote is more than our votes .... But at the end of the day, I’m not sure that any of us are comfortable with anybody having one more vote than us. And that’s ultimately the challenge everywhere, whether it’s Israel or America: We want all of our votes to count exactly the same.
“So, you know, there’s a tension ... for philanthropy. In general, most of it fails ... only a very small amount actually succeeds, because these are very difficult things to do .... Bill Gates, you know, was interested in eradicating malaria .... But that’s a different thing than, ‘Well, we just want to make it better so that all people can express themselves in the town square.’ And, being Jewish, obviously, I think that’s very important, because there was a period of time where we weren’t able to express ourselves in the town square.”
Soros is an object of hatred in many parts of the world, but the interviewees in your documentary mostly support him. Many of them are people who worked for or currently work for organizations he supports and speak positively of him. Why did you choose to feature them?
“I worked with a lot of those people, and ... those kinds of people are concerned with how to make the world a better place. Now, I think that most efforts fail, I think George would say most of his own efforts have failed; look at the movie .... So I want to be part of the world becoming a better place in some way ... I wanted to try and get that ideology across, like, how do people think about change?
“And if a lot of people think about it, how do we actually, do it? So I felt like that was where I wanted to focus. Now, you know, Tucker Carlson was nice enough to be in the movie. And he represents the other side: very intelligent guys talking about it from a different, totally different point of view.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is barely mentioned in the film. While it’s true that Soros doesn’t invest large sums in Israel, it’s a little surprising considering his Judaism, the fact that the Holocaust was such a formative experience for him, and the interest he showed in South Africa during apartheid.
“I don’t know his feelings on that; we didn’t go to Israel together. He’s Eastern European, so I think that he spends a lot of time in the Eastern European countries .... He’s not focused on anything military, his focus would just be on, like, getting newspapers to people and ... humanitarian aid.”
Two years ago, it was reported that Benjamin Netanyahu introduced the campaign managers Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum to far-right Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, and that they were the ones who came up with the campaign denigrating the Jewish billionaire.
“I don’t understand why we would target that, why we would help Victor Orban at all, but that’s just me speaking. It’s not George. Hungary’s taking a hard turn to the right, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be good for anybody in Hungary. I think the reason that those things can happen is because people forget how difficult it was to open those borders. So it’s very easy to close them. But it may be very many years before we’re able to open them back up again.”
Soros is 91. Did you ask him what will happen after he dies?
“I did talk to him a little bit about that. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject. I think that when I started working with him years ago, he thought that he would just spend all the money and be done with it. And then in recent times, I think they’ve made a decision that they’re going to keep the foundation open, and so you put a bunch more money in there, to be able to do that.
“It’s very difficult for an institution to go on beyond the founder, because he’s able to do sort of unusual things. And once rigid thinking comes in, it becomes a little bit different. But I think it’s important for there to be a place like that around that helps us.”
There’s an upsetting moment in the film where you see Soros’ mother telling how, when the war was over and the Soviets ruled Hungary, two Soviet soldiers raped her in the street. Why was it important for you to include this in the film?
“I think that all of that hatred affected him, and it’s very hard now for any of us to understand what living through the Holocaust really meant .... And then you’re talking about Soviets, you’re talking about a few years later ....
“And I think that seeing that, and seeing the violence and the hatred that was around then deeply affected him, so much so that when he sees these other groups that are marginalized, his first instinct is to go in there and say, ‘Well, how can I help express your views so that that might not happen again?’”
You have access to another man who is famous, mysterious and Jewish – your father. Did you ever think of making a movie about him?
Well, I think Martin Scorsese did a pretty good job of that. I don’t need to do that one; I don’t think I could do that. Actually, it would be very difficult .... My role is as a son, you know, to a great father, not as a biographer trying to tell the story. And you know, he’s so in control of his own story, I think it’s best left to him.