This article was originally published July 14, 2017 amid a controversy surrounding Netanyahu's visit to Hungary and has been updated after Netanyahu's son, Yair, posted an anti-Semitic meme to Facebook criticizing George Soros.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán surely believed the run-up to their July 18 meeting in Budapest would be smooth sailing when they first announced it.
After all, they have a lot in common and much to bond over. Both leaders position themselves in the center right, but over the years have had to lurch rightward to consolidate their hold on power, in the face of challenges from more extreme political parties.
Their get-together, planned last December, was expected to be a refreshing change from lectures by Western counterparts over their policies – in Israel’s case, over the Palestinians and settlements; in Hungary’s, its harsh immigration policy and its troubling xenophobic tone, and harsh crackdown on political dissent.
Now, like an unwelcome guest, George Soros has ruined their party planning.
Instead of a harmonious lead-up to the first visit of a sitting Israeli prime minister to Hungary since the end of communism in 1989, Netanyahu’s upcoming trip has been marred by controversy. The fuss centers on Orbán’s new and intense political campaign vilifying the Jewish billionaire – one that Hungarian Jews say has stirred up anti-Semitism in Hungary to such an extent that they implored Israeli leaders to speak out against it.
Netanyahu may see himself as the leader of the Jewish people, but there are some Jews he is decidedly unenthusiastic about representing. And Soros probably tops that list.
Soros was the 19th richest person in the world last year according to Forbes, reportedly worth more than $25 billion. He was born György Schwartz, to an upper-middle class Jewish family in Budapest in 1930. In 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary, the Soroses – who changed their name to avoid detection as Jews – escaped the mass deportation and murder of over half a million of their brethren by obtaining false papers that allowed them to pose as Christians. After the war ended, Soros left Hungary for England and the United States, where he became one of the world’s most successful strategic investors.
He is also a deep-pocketed philanthropist, aiming his donations – and substantial political campaign contributions – in a progressive political direction. His Open Society Foundations has the mandate of advancing “justice, education, public health, business development and independent media,” and he has given away billions to pro-democracy organizations, dissident groups in repressive regimes, supported education through scholarships and support for university, anti-poverty causes and decriminalization of marijuana in the United States.
Soros has been lionized by the left and vilified by the right worldwide; one side of the political map viewing his work as progress toward a more free and just world, the other – particularly on its extreme fringes – viewing him as running a devious, even satanic, effort to create a new world order.
He is a favorite bogeyman of the political right, not only in Europe but also the United States. He featured in the closing ad of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, his face appearing amid accusations that “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” According to the ad, which was criticized for striking an anti-Semitic tone, Trump was the only thing standing between this greedy cabal and innocent American citizens.
But Trump’s political messaging was a single shot compared to the barrage Orbán has launched against Soros in recent weeks. One can’t walk down a street in the Hungarian capital without encountering his face. Billboard after billboard features a picture of Soros laughing, captioned, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” underneath a headline reading “99 percent reject illegal immigration.”
Concerned by reports from Hungarian Jews that the posters were sparking an uptick in anti-Semitism, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, issued an extraordinarily sharp statement last weekend. In it, he called on Orbán and his Fidesz party to remove posters hung throughout the country that criticized Soros, saying it was fueling anti-Semitism.
“The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” the statement said. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”
The statement was too much for Netanyahu. On his orders, the statement was “clarified,” to emphasize that while the condemnation of anti-Semitism remained, “in no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
Ultimately, Orbán’s desire for a successful Netanyahu visit resulted in the announcement Wednesday that he would end the poster campaign. By the time the Israeli prime minister arrives, he promised, Soros’ face would be off the streets of Hungary.
Rhetoric becomes action
Orbán has found Soros a useful foil in a political effort to keep his supporters from drifting further right to the overtly anti-Semitic Jobbik party, portraying the Jewish billionaire as an evil and dangerous security threat who, if unchecked, would flood Hungary and the rest of Europe with non-Europeans and non-Christians.
In recent months, Orbán has turned his rhetoric into action, aggressively attacking the nonprofit and civil society institutions that Soros supports. In April, his government passed a law aimed at undermining Central European University, which was founded by Soros in Budapest, in 1991, and where some 1,400 students from around the world study. But Orbán views it as a hotbed of dissent, and his law could force the institution to close or move. The law drew condemnation from the United States and the European Union.
Then, last month, Orbán’s government passed another law restricting nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding. The law requires groups receiving more than $26,000 in overseas funding to register as “foreign-supported” and disclose their foreign donors.
This legislation resembles a 2012 law passed in Russia that requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” and is also aimed at Soros. (Two Soros groups – the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation – were already declared “undesirable” and banned from Russia by President Vladimir Putin’s government in 2015 for being a state security “threat.”)
One of the reasons it goes against Netanyahu’s grain to criticize Orbán for attacking Soros is that he can certainly understand the Hungarian’s desire to strike out at Soros-backed NGOs that undermine him politically.
In 2013, a right-wing watchdog group, NGO Monitor, issued a monograph called “Bad Investment,” which aimed at detailing “how Soros-funded groups increase tensions in a troubled region.” It listed what it called “problematic” Israeli groups, including Gisha, Breaking the Silence and legal rights group Adala.
In August 2016, a leak of hacked documents from the Open Society Foundations included emails discussing a strategy of “challenging Israel’s racist and antidemocratic policies” in international forums.
Soros has been a supporter of J Street since the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization was founded as an effort to counteract AIPAC’s influence, lobbying the White House and Capitol Hill to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
He also supports Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – groups that regularly chastise and criticize Israeli policies.
Most of the groups supported by Soros have been the targets of Netanyahu’s NGO law, passed a year ago, which mandates special reporting requirements for organizations that get most of their funding from foreign governments.
Israel and Hungary’s NGO laws may both target groups that Soros supports, but they differ in a key regard. The Israeli law specifically cracks down on donations from foreign governments – not individual foreigners or their foundations.
But in the midst of the controversy over Hungary, one member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Miki Zohar, said he plans to introduce an Israeli “Soros law,” in which “any person donating to organizations acting against Israel will not be allowed to donate to any organization or nonprofit association in Israel.”
Such a law would close a loophole for the Israeli right. It could try to stop donors like Soros without harming the millions that flow into right-wing NGOs and charities in Israel from individual foreign supporters – billionaire casino mogul and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, for example.
In addition to Netanyahu’s desire to placate Orbán on the eve of their meeting, and his loathing for the Israeli groups that Open Society supports, Adelson is a key reason why the Israeli premier is positioning himself as part of the Soros-hating club.
Netanyahu’s patron styles himself as a counterweight to Soros – particularly when it comes to the American political arena, where his tens of millions of dollars flow to Republicans who battle it out with Soros-supported candidates, most bitterly and dramatically in 2016.
At a time when Adelson is rumored to be drifting away from his previously rock-solid support for Netanyahu and casting his eye rightward to Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister has a strong interest in showing that he is Adelson’s ally – and, therefore, Soros’ enemy.
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