With weeks to go before the midterms, both political parties are pulling out all the stops to win. Which in most cases means doing their best to make the voters hate the other side and whoever is funding them.
This is business as usual for 21st-century American politics, but the latest twist has been the claim that attacks on liberal mega-donor George Soros aren’t normal political warfare, but insidious anti-Semitism.
Soros is something of an expletive on the political right. He’s seen as the most sinister of liberal moneybags that have funded efforts to push for gun control laws, loosen immigration enforcement, oppose U.S. foreign policy initiatives, criticize Israel, oppose the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh and, above all, elect Democrats.
There are places where criticisms of Soros are more than political combat. In Eastern Europe, local autocrats like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party have always ferociously resisted Soros’s Open Society Foundation’s promotion of democracy and free speech. There he is openly depicted as a stereotypical rich Jew meddling in Hungary and threatening its security.
In other places, Soros’s work as a currency trader also engenders enmity. In Malaysia nobody has forgotten his role in a 1990s currency collapse, and in that Muslim society, anger has been mixed with anti-Semitic invective.
The depiction of Jews as shadowy figures who use their wealth to buy influence and manipulate non-Jews has been a staple of anti-Semitic invective for many centuries.
That’s why those who single out rich Jews for opprobrium need to be careful not to cross over from legitimate criticism of an individual’s actions to symbolism or messages that are redolent of the standard memes of the anti-Semite’s playbook.
But while attacks on Soros may mean one thing in Eastern Europe, it would be a mistake to treat what is said in the United States as having the same meaning.
Yet that is exactly what’s happening. Attacks on Soros by American conservatives are treated as evidence of an anti-Semitic surge among Republicans. Ads calling out candidates for taking Soros’s money are seen as no different from Orbán’s attacks. Even more speciously, those who noted Soros’s support for groups protesting Kavanaugh — including President Donald Trump and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley — were accused of dog whistling to anti-Semites.
But the problem is that while some of those who attack Soros have been anti-Semites, it is absurd to assume that is the only possible motivation for anyone to criticize him, especially in the United States, where he is viewed very differently than in Hungary.
In the United States, Soros isn’t the boogeyman of Hungarian politics or, as he is in Israel, as a supporter of the Palestinians. He’s just one more billionaire shelling out dough to Democrats. While some extremists — on both the right and the left — may see only Jews when names like Steyer, Bloomberg or Soros — are raised, a largely philo-Semitic and overwhelmingly pro-Israel American right sees rich liberals.
If Republicans bash Soros, it’s not because he’s Jewish. It’s because he has been spending freely to defeat them. While their criticism of Soros has sometimes been inappropriate (such as those who recycled charges about his behavior during the Holocaust when he was a boy in Hungary), their attacks are no different from the way Democrats have demonized the billionaire Koch Brothers — non-Jewish libertarians who spent freely on behalf of Republicans.
Just as some extremists associate Soros with a nefarious global Jewish conspiracy, left-wing screeds against the Kochs that claim they are carrying out an equally awful plot to defraud American democracy plays upon the same themes, minus the Jewish angle.
Claims that all Soros-bashing is implicitly anti-Semitic are also hypocritical. Casino billionaire and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson is often accused of buying support for Israel with his massive donations to Republicans, but those who make such charges stick to the absurd argument that anyone who talks about Soros is a Jew-hater.
It may be hypocritical for American conservatives, who rightly view political spending as constitutionally protected free speech, to see something sinister about Soros’s efforts. But their animus is no more illegitimate than the left’s bashing of GOP donors.
In an American context, criticism of Soros isn’t anti-Semitic. Nor is there any reason to believe that Trump or Grassley are anti-Semites.
Like most attacks on donors, painting Soros as a puppeteer rather than just another political big giver is a way to delegitimize the causes and candidates he supports rather than to address the issues he cares about.
But calling his critics anti-Semites is neither accurate nor fair. In other times and places, criticism of wealthy Jewish individuals was part of an anti-Semitic narrative. But in 21st-century America, Soros is fair game.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.