As a Holocaust survivor, a successful financier who embraces free market capitalism and a philanthropist who champions liberal democracy, George Soros should be a darling of the Israeli establishment. But Mr. Soros has failed the only litmus test that seems to count for Israel’s current leadership: unconditional support for the government, despite its policies of occupation, discrimination and disregard for civil and human right.
For years Mr. Soros largely avoided Israel-related philanthropy, but he became involved in 2008 when he contributed to J Street, a moderate pro-Israel, pro-peace lobbying group based in Washington, after it was founded. Through his Open Society Foundations, Mr. Soros also contributes to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, which have been subjected to a growing delegitimization campaign by the Israeli government.
But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, raised the stakes in this feud last week when his foreign ministry issued a statement that, in effect, backed a Hungarian government propaganda effort against Mr. Soros and joined its denunciation of him. This contradicted earlier remarks by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, who had expressed dismay at the $21-million billboard campaign by the ruling party of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, that has targeted Mr. Soros for his support of services for refugees and immigrants. The poster campaign, which has also attracted explicitly anti-Semitic graffiti, “evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” said the ambassador, referencing the fate of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.
The foreign ministry spokesman denied that the Israeli ambassador’s comments “meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros” by Mr. Orban’s government. Instead, the spokesman went on to attack the billionaire philanthropist for “continuously undermining Israel’s democratically elected governments,” by his funding of organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
Mr. Orban has personally accused Mr. Soros’s operations of “trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics” — a statement that appears to toy with an anti-Semitic trope about Jewish influence and yet strangely echoes the Israeli foreign ministry’s condemnation of Mr. Soros. It takes some gall on the part of Mr. Netanyahu to choose this moment to kick Mr. Soros while he’s down — not only because Mr. Soros is, once again, a victim of anti-Semitism in the heart of Europe, but also because he is being vilified in Hungary for trying to combat the same racist, anti-minority sentiments that led to the Holocaust.
In a rare response to the Orban campaign, a Soros spokesman, Michael Vachon, said: “As a survivor of the Holocaust who hid from the Nazis in Budapest and later was himself a refugee, Soros knows firsthand what it means to be in mortal peril. He carries the memory of the international community’s rejection of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.” He went on: “It is from the crucible of those experiences that his empathy for refugees from war-torn Syria and elsewhere was born.”
The billboards are also only the latest episode in a monthslong, concerted effort by Mr. Orban’s government to demonize Mr. Soros. In April, Hungary passed legislation that threatens to close the Central European University in Budapest, an American-accredited graduate institution that Mr. Soros founded in 1991 and that was geared toward students from post-Soviet countries and authoritarian states. (In 2009, I received a degree there.)
Because of his reputation as a philanthropic bulwark against repressive regimes for pouring millions of dollars into post-Soviet countries, Mr. Soros is essentially persona non grata in Russia. He is also regarded as an enemy by the Republican Party in the United States for being a benefactor of Democratic candidates and liberal causes. He was featured alongside other prominent Jewish financial figures in the final television ad of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, which was widely considered to contain an anti-Semitic subtext.
Mr. Soros’s humanitarianism and universalism represent an expression of post-Holocaust Jewish identity that is anathema to the hard-line nationalism of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which adheres to the classic Zionist mission that sought to end anti-Semitism and diaspora existence by gathering all Jews in the historic land of Israel. As in this case with Hungary, Mr. Netanyahu is increasingly aligning Israel with illiberal, autocratic states like Russia, Turkey and Egypt. The ultimate cynicism of such alliances is visible in Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to tolerate the anti-Semitism of the global right-wing nationalist camp if it will bolster the Greater Israel movement.
This explains why, for instance, the Israeli government stayed silent when the Trump administration made no mention of Jews or anti-Semitism in its International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement this year. The strategy was also abundantly clear when Mr. Netanyahu told French Jews after the terrorist attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015 that Israel was their home. Mr. Netanyahu sees little value in safeguarding Jewish communities outside Israel, since he would prefer that Jews immigrate to Israel.
For Mr. Netanyahu, ideally there would be no daylight between Jewish identity and Israeli identity. Mr. Soros represents an obstacle to this project because he is such a high-profile figure among the communities of the Jewish diaspora that do not necessarily have a strong identification with Israel — or worse, that are critical of it. In pursuing his strategy, Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly alienated a majority of American Jews on both political and religious grounds.
The Israeli prime minister’s willingness to endorse Mr. Orban’s attacks on Mr. Soros is not only a direct affront to Hungary’s Jewish community, but also a dangerous assist to anti-Semitism on a continent once more roiled with extreme nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment. Although he regards himself as a leader, even a savior, of world Jewry, Mr. Netanyahu is anything but.
Mairav Zonszein, is a journalist and translator based in Israel who blogs at 972mag.com.