There’s Been a George Soros for Every Era of Anti-Semitic Panic
From Russia to Hungary to, now, Donald Trump’s America, a rising authoritarianism plays on an atavistic European hatred. We live in the Soros Age of Anti-Semitism.
It’s been largely forgotten, but when Russian military intelligence created online cutouts in 2016 to manipulate the American electorate, the Democratic Party wasn’t its only target.
The most prominent of those fake digital identities was Guccifer 2.0, which took credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee and then provided the pilfered information to WikiLeaks. The other was called DCLeaks. On Aug. 29, 2016, two months after the DNC hack became public, DCLeaks’ now-banned Twitter account told its followers to check out another of its projects: “Find Soros files on soros.dcleaks.com.”
Visitors to the now-shuttered site could find purported documents from the billionaire philanthropist’s Open Society Foundations, which promote liberal values and democratization. They had file names like “public health program access to medicine” and “youth exchange my city real world.” But before those curious about the leaks got there, the Russians wanted to put George Soros in a particular context.
The homepage displayed a photo illustration of a smug-looking Soros in the midst of four scenes of street chaos whose apparent perpetrators were conspicuously nonwhite. They were taken from the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014, the birthplace—to the consternation of many white Americans whom the Kremlin sought to cultivate—of the contemporary civil rights movement. In both the image and the accompanying text, the Russians portrayed Soros as the puppet master.
“Soros is named as the architect and sponsor of almost every revolution and coup around the world for the last 25 years. Thanks to him and his puppets USA is thought to be a vampire, not a lighthouse of freedom and democracy,” the website proclaimed. The “oligarch” who sired the U.S. vampire, and whose “slaves spill blood of millions and millions people just to make him even more rich” [sic], had a particular background the Russians highlighted in the very first sentence: Soros is “of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry and holds dual citizenship.”
More than two years later, the president of the United States gave a similar portrayal of Soros, though Trump left Soros’s background unsaid. Soros, Trump said on Friday, Oct. 5, had paid for “professionally made identical signs” in the hands of women objecting to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court justiceship. On Tuesday, he followed up by implying that Soros had stiffed these hired “screamers.” In Trump-like fashion, his accusations were a form of mirror-imaging, as Trump himself had paid for people to support his presidential announcement and denied them payment for months, and he appears to have misunderstood a Fox News guest who spoke sarcastically about Soros paying the protesters.
But it was not Trump’s first time making sinister allegations about Soros. He did so in the final advertisement from his campaign, run at the time by the blood-and-soil nationalist Steve Bannon. Its message was reminiscent of the darker periods of European history: the virtuous future of the forgotten, salt-of-the-earth people has been stolen by a predatory elite. As a shot of the Capitol Dome faded into a Wall Street sign, Trump narrated a message to “those who control the levers of power in Washington” right as the camera showed an image of Soros, giving way to a shot of then-Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, who is also Jewish, as Trump continued speaking about “global special interests.” This followed months of the so-called alt-right transforming “globalism” into an anti-Semitic euphemism, and preceded Trump stocking his cabinet with ultra-rich financiers, Jew and gentile alike.
In the 1980s and 1990s, George Soros was hailed as an anti-communist and post-communist hero. His philanthropy helped smooth democratic transitions from the Soviet orbit in central and Eastern Europe. Alongside that track record was a different one: Soros was a ruthless currency speculator who benefited from, among other things, the 1992 British financial disaster and who once blithely dismissed second thoughts over the world-moving power of his investments, saying, “I am engaged in an amoral activity that is not meant to have anything to do with guilt.” In a 60 Minutes interview from 1998—one that Glenn Beck would famously butcher to paint Soros, who as a boy lived through Nazi occupation, as a Nazi collaborator—Jim Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, remarked that Soros was “Donald Trump without the humility.”
The current portraiture of Soros, now ascendant if not dominant online, isn’t interested in that sort of complexity. For the far right, from Russia to central Europe and increasingly, America, Soros is the latest Jewish manipulator whose extreme wealth finances puppet groups and publications to drain the prosperity of the Herrenvolk. This cannot be dismissed as the preoccupation of ignorable fools on the internet, nor as the equivalent of liberal criticism of the Koch Brothers. Instead, the attack on Soros follows classic anti-Semitic templates, grimly recurrent throughout western history, and some of the most powerful geopolitical figures in the world are pushing it. It’s fueled by Soros’s political activism against a revanchist right eager to view the world in zero-sum racial terms that is on the march across Europe, America and beyond.
Other Jewish bogeymen may haunt the fever dreams of the vicious, but the scale and intensity of the attacks on Soros are unrivalled. They reveal what the global nationalist right believes is at stake in this present moment. We may one day look back on this era as the Soros Age of anti-Semitism.
“It’s important to distinguish between intent and effect. Of course a person who shares a conspiracy theory about George Soros may not intend to promulgate anti-Semitism, and of course not every Soros conspiracy theory is anti-Semitic. But the image of the rich, powerful Jew who manipulates social and political movements around the world for his own agenda is an ancient anti-Semitic trope,” said Aryeh Tuchman, the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“Because Soros’s Jewish identity is so well known, we are concerned that conspiracy theories about George Soros may have the effect of reinforcing this trope and spreading it throughout the broader population,” Tuchman added. “This is especially true when other anti-Semitic tropes are woven in, such as claims that Soros controls the media or the banks, or when he is described using terms that harken back to medieval claims that Jews are evil, demonic, or agents of the Antichrist.”
There will always be this sort of tentacular George Soros figure. There have been many before. One was said to have profited off the bloodshed at Waterloo.
Thirty years after the pivotal battle capping the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a pamphlet circulated across Europe claiming that Nathan Rothschild, a London banker and scion of the Jewish mega-financier family, sped from the battlefield to parlay his insider knowledge of the French defeat into a windfall on the London stock exchange. “This family,” charged an author writing under the nom de plume “Satan,” “is our evil genius.”
It was the fake news of its era. Nathan Rothschild was never at Waterloo. He died five years before the pamphlet’s publication in 1841, leaving him unable to rebut it. But the lie, after a series of adjustments to explain away its baseline factual mistakes, would reach escape velocity. One subsequent version, according to Brian Cathcart of Kingston University London, claimed Rothschild “deliberately provoked a collapse in stock market confidence by encouraging rumors that Wellington had been defeated.”
The form of conspiracy theories follows their function. Here was a Jewish family whose fortune was said to derive from exploiting European carnage. As Jews, they were considered a foreign presence on the continent, one that had taken advantage of their adopted countries’ naive openness to establish a shadowy power that could determine the fate of nations. Accordingly, European publics would not have to look to their distant autocratic governments for their political disenfranchisement, nor would they have to look to a confusing system of capitalist finance to explain obscene discrepancies in wealth. In place of a systemic critique was a Jewish face. More recently, you can find Rothschild references in the QAnon conspiracy theory, alongside, of course, Soros.
A recurrent theme of 19th-century anti-Semitism is that it finds substantial currency at moments when old regimes appear exhausted and fear about revolutionary dislocation intensifies. A tutor to Russia’s final two tsars demonstrated the utility of using Jews as an omnibus explanation for the anxieties of his age. Jews in Russia endured repression of their civil and economic rights—but they only appeared powerless.
“Yids,” wrote Konstantin Pobyedonostsev in August 1879, have “invaded everything, but the spirit of the times works in their favor. They are at the root of the Social Democratic movement and tsaricide. They control the press and the stock market. They reduce the masses to financial slavery. They formulate the principles of contemporary science, which tends to disassociate itself from Christianity. And in spite of that, every time their name is mentioned, a chorus of voices is raised in favor of the Jews, supposedly in the name of civilization and tolerance, that is to say, indifference to faith. And nobody dares say that here the Jews control everything.” Like many before and since, Pobyedonostsev did not pause to reconcile his claimed Jewish interest in exploitative capitalism with his claimed Jewish interest in the socialism designed to destroy it, but a man like George Soros offers Pobyedonostsev’s descendants a way to square the circle.
After Rothschild, there was Max Warburg. Warburg, another Jewish banker, was a member of the Hamburg parliament and said to have an open line to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Once Pobyednostsev’s fears came true in 1917, a forgery about Warburg appeared in Petrograd claiming that he and a “Rhenish-Westphalian syndicate” were financing the Bolsheviks, through the Jewish Trotsky.
A Russian journalist, Eugene Semyonov, provided the forgery to an American diplomat, Edgar Sisson. It had currency for the Creel Committee, an official U.S. government propaganda organ promoting participation in World War I, since it portrayed the Russian Revolution as a German plot financed by Jews. In September 1918, the committee published it under the title The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy. Leon Poliakov writes in the fourth volume of his History of Anti-Semitism that it was the first time that an anti-Semitic forgery was published by a government that was neither tsarist nor otherwise committed to anti-Semitism as a matter of policy. (Warburg himself, 20 years later, would immigrate to New York to flee the Nazis.)
According to Poliakov, the years between the world wars were a boom time for anti-Semitic forgeries in the United States. There was the fake George Washington missive, warning that the Jews, not the British Army, were the principal danger. And there was a fake Ben Franklin prophecy, forecasting Jewish world domination by 1950 or so. Detectives hired by the anti-Semitic industrialist Henry Ford traveled to Mongolia, of all places, in pursuit of an authentic Hebrew copy of the invented Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Another went “looking for the secret channel through which [Supreme Court Justice and Jew] Louis Brandeis gave his orders to the White House.”
Foreshadowing the present day, the upswing of American anti-Semitism came at the intersection of an immigration panic, an ascendant nativist movement, and fears about foreign-borne internal subversion. As the Bolshevik Revolution spread, so did a cottage industry of paranoiacs connecting it to mainstream American Jewry, just as a later generation of Islamophobes would do to American Islam after 9/11. In 1919, a Methodist minister recently driven from Russia, the Rev. George A. Simons, testified to a Senate subcommittee about the Jewishness of Bolshevism.
Simons, speaking through barely concealed euphemism, told the Senate that he had encountered “hundreds of agitators” in the former St. Petersburg who had come from “the East Side of New York,” meaning the Jewish slum. The typical sentiment of Russians to describe the post-revolutionary arrangement, Simons related, was that “it is not a Russian government, it is a Hebrew government.” But, Simons assured the Senate, he was no bigot: “I am not in sympathy with anti-Semitism. I never was and never will be. I hate pogroms of any type. But I am firmly convinced that this business is Jewish.”
Vladimir Putin and the global nationalist right have particular motivations to vilify Soros, though deploying anti-Semitism to do it is entirely their choice.
Soros was deeply involved in post-Soviet economic efforts in Russia in the 1990s, corresponding with the nadir of Russian power that Vladimir Putin considers a national humiliation demanding redress. And though he’s denied doing any such thing, Russians have long speculated that Soros profited off a Russian economic downturn in 1998, a year during which he boasted of being Russia’s largest single investor. (His Quantum Fund claims to have lost $2 billion from the episode.) Prophetically, Soros warned Charlie Rose in 1995 of revanchist eastern-European authoritarianism born of an alliance between nationalist politicians and business interests: “Russia is very much up for grabs. It’s very much a struggle which way it’s going to go.”
Soros’s solution to all of this is liberalism. He took his inspiration from the anti-totalitarian philosopher Karl Popper, best known for The Open Society and Its Enemies, and used Popper’s work to develop a critique of the rapacious capitalism Soros himself practiced as a threat to that open society—conveniently, after he had made his billions. Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which operate in over 140 countries, provide assistance and financing to civil-society institutions that promote transparency, the rule of law, higher education, refugee aid, the rights of marginalized peoples, and democratic accountability.
Accordingly, recipients of Soros’s philanthropy include groups such as NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU that in their various ways oppose the agendas of the American right. In 2003, Soros pledged what would for anyone other than him count as a fortune in a failed attempt to prevent George W. Bush’s re-election, fanning the flames of his enemies’ ire. Then, in October 2017, the elderly Soros transferred a gargantuan $18 billion to the foundation, making it the U.S.’ second largest philanthropic organization.
But it’s one thing to be a wealthy donor, even an unfathomably wealthy one: American politics, to its cross-ideological abasement, relies upon them, and scrutiny of them is vital for the very open societies Soros promotes. It’s quite another for such an unfathomably wealthy donor to stand as a singular, nefarious explanation for all manner of global political phenomena. A recent ADL study about anti-Semitism on Twitter took particular note of the frequency and virulence of invocations of Soros for “undermin[ing] western civilization, or following a long-standing pattern of Jewish behavior.” The ADL even found far-right warnings that Soros had engineered the lethal white-supremacist march on Charlottesville as a false-flag operation.
After the teenage survivors of the Parkland high school massacre began their demonstrations for gun control, some let the mask slip. One now-suspended “alt-right” account tweeted that it was “@georgesoros at work.” Softer versions of that sentiment are ubiquitous online. One more humorous version came after someone posted a picture of a bald Britney Spears attacking a car during her 2007 meltdown to joke that it was Parkland’s Emma Gonzalez —prompting an apparently elderly woman to tweet that “these children of Satan… are funded by Soros.” At an “alt-right” gathering in New York convened by Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, drunken panelists referred to Soros as the “head of the snake.”
Larger players in the “alt-right” firmament, echoing their 19th- and 20th-century antecedents, find the malevolent handiwork of Soros everywhere. WikiLeaks, on Twitter, sought to discredit 2016-era reporting in the Panama Papers concerning Vladimir Putin by portraying it as Soros-funded.
Bannon’s former home for distorted news, Breitbart, ran a cottage industry connecting far-right targets to Soros, no matter how innocuous the connection. In a typical piece, H.R. McMaster’s consultancy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies —a minor thing, considering it overlapped with McMaster’s Army career—became “Soros-funded” through a IISS affiliation with the nuclear-nonproliferation Ploughshares Fund. Google and Facebook were hit with similar Breitbart smears-by-association through their sins of using credible organizations like the Poynter Institution, which take Open Society money, to reduce the onslaught of fake news. InfoWars similarly highlights Soros money taken by its critics to paint itself as unfairly persecuted.
In keeping with the broader trajectory of the extreme right, the paranoid conception of Soros has moved closer to the corridors of power. In December, the GOP nominee for Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore, castigated Soros in terms redolent with anti-Semitism. Soros’s agenda was “sexual” in nature, said a man accused of child predation, and it’s “not our American culture.” Soros, Moore told a radio host, “comes from another world that I don’t identify with. … No matter how much money he’s got, he’s still going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept his salvation are going.”
That same month, Erik Prince, brother of Trump’s education secretary and mercenary CEO, encouraged a GQ reporter to investigate the Clintons’ sartorial choices of purple shirts and ties. “Purple Revolution lore,” the wealthy Prince told GQ. “I think it’s a Soros thing.” (There is no such thing as the Purple Revolution.) A Prince associate and former CIA official, the Intercept reported last year, told would-be donors that McMaster used a burner phone to route the fruits of deep-state surveillance on Bannon and the Trump family to “a facility in Cyprus owned by George Soros.”
More recently, after the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Senator Chuck Grassley stopped just short of validating the accusation that Soros had paid for those protesting Kavanaugh. “I believe it fits in his attack mode that he has, and how he uses his billions and billions of resources,” said the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. Even Rudy Giuliani on Saturday retweeted someone who called Soros the “anti-Christ.” The “evil genius” that “Satan” concocted in 1841 had found its 2018 incarnation.
Nowhere has the attack on Soros been more geopolitically potent, or as clarifying, as in his native Hungary.
The Hungarian strongman prime minister Viktor Orban, for months ahead of his April reelection, united anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to portray Soros as the string-puller behind a transformational Islamic invasion of Syrian migrants. Whereas some Soros opponents mumble through their anti-Semitism, Orban roars it. Soros is out to deal “a final blow to Christian culture,” Orban charged in November. “It’s Soros’s plan for America, too. PM Orban’s view is deeply well informed & reasoned,” the racist Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King said in December while quote-tweeting an account that used the Soros photo illustration from the DCLeaks page.
In a March pre-election speech, Orban put Soros and immigration in existential terms for Hungary. He pledged to expel Soros as the Hungarians did previous remote tyrannies from the Ottomans to the Hapsburgs to the Soviets. And he applied anti-Semitic tropes not seen from a European leader since Hitler.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” Orban said, per a New York Times translation. “Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Even a previously sympathetic writer, National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, said the speech read like “a checklist drawn from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting that Orban himself received a Soros-funded scholarship to Oxford. But it was not the only irony in this ugly episode. To its discredit, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu wilfully averted its eyes from Orban’s anti-Semitism. Billboards in Hungary last year promoted Orban’s anti-immigrant agenda by using a photo of a smiling Soros to warn Hungarians against letting him get “the last laugh.” Yossi Amrani, the Israeli ambassador, posted on Facebook that the campaign sowed “sad memories”—an apparent allusion to Hungary’s complicity in genocidal anti-Semitism—and “hatred and fear.”
Yet the Israeli foreign ministry undercut its own diplomat. It insisted it had no intent 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.” That followed on Israel opting to accept official assurances against anti-Semitism after Orban called Miklós Horthy—Hitler’s Hungarian ally whose expulsions of Hungarian Jewry led to the slaughter of half a million people in the Holocaust—an “exceptional statesman.”
An Israeli journalist, Mairav Zonszein, contextualized the toleration of anti-Semitism within Netanyahu’s broader alignment with right-wing nationalist governments “if it will bolster the Greater Israel movement.” This appears to be an allusion to Soros’s funding of Israeli groups such as B’tselem and Breaking The Silence, which challenge the brutal Israeli treatment of Palestinians, an internal criticism that Netanyahu and his allies cannot abide. Netanyahu, who postures as the protector of diaspora Jewry when it suits him, had tacitly collaborated with an anti-Semite to turn a Hungarian-born Jew into a metaphorically stateless person.
This spring, Orban’s government criminalized the assistance of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants through what it called the “Stop Soros” laws. Ahead of its passage, the Open Society Foundations announced that it would cease operations in Budapest and transfer its local staff to Germany. In July, Netanyahu hosted Orban in Jerusalem and declared him a “true friend of Israel.”
Calculations like Netanyahu’s underscore the ascendancy and the purpose of the global far right. From Russia to America and beyond, the open society is on its back foot against an assault not seen since the 1930s. The assaulters are far from finished. Whereas the previous generation of European nationalists wanted to marginalize the European Union, the current one seeks to take it over. Orban and his Italian ally, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, are crusading on an anti-immigration platform ahead of spring’s European Parliamentary elections. They’re joined, on the outside, by Steve Bannon, who dreams of a pan-European nationalist bloc and styles himself, as he told The Daily Beast’s Nico Hines, a counterweight to the version of George Soros so thoroughly cultivated for the reactionary European, Russian and American imagination.
Soros would not talk for this article. But the Open Society Foundations’ communications director, Laura Silber, called the attacks on him “a tribute,” as his philanthropy “strikes at the interests of autocrats, oligarchs and corrupt politicians” and supports human dignity.
“The voices that are loudest in speaking out against George Soros are those that are authoritarian, seeking to galvanize their bases and consolidate power, ignoring or silencing the most vulnerable,” Silber told The Daily Beast. “They’re doing it by circulating recurrent tropes. The billboards that the Hungarian government put up were eerily similar to World War II propaganda, and it’s telling that they were defaced with swastikas and hateful epithets.”
The U.S. has been better to and for Jews than any other diaspora nation in history. It’s for that reason that many American Jews, particularly those whose white skin affords them access to the highest levels of the American Dream, often diminish the dangers posed by a mass movement comfortable, wittingly or not, with creating a Jewish scapegoat for its political frustrations. There is also a powerful Jewish collective instinct to avoid calling attention to empowered anti-Semitism for fear of provoking it to violence.
Nearly a century ago, as anti-Semitic propaganda backed by powerful white Americans like Henry Ford proliferated, an American Jewish lawyer and civil-rights leader urged his fellow Jews to confront it. “Events have shown that the policy of silence was a mistake. Not only do Ford’s articles appear every week with undiminished virulence, but worse, the Protocols is distributed in every club, placed in every newspaper,” wrote Louis Marshall in 1921. “It has been received by every member of Congress and put in the hands of thousands of personalities. It is the topic of conversation in every living room and in every social sphere.”
Eighteen years later, 20,000 Nazi supporters filled Madison Square Garden to preach their vision of an American Reich. It would not be long, across the Atlantic, before much worse unfolded.
“I’m concerned that the prevalence of conspiracy theories about Soros which paint him as a larger than life, powerful figure has the effect of shrinking that public space where anti-Semitism is not acceptable,” said the ADL’s Tuchman. “If you have fully embraced the notion that there is a powerful Jewish figure manipulating social and political movements around the world to promote his agenda, you’re inching toward the edges of that space where anti-Semitism is acceptable. Soros is a liminal figure in that way.”