WASHINGTON — By now, it has become a familiar pattern: After an event that polarizes the country, US President Donald Trump knows who to pin the blame on.
When liberal and conservative America was split over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court conformation fight last month — and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that he sexually assaulted her in high school — the president spread a theory that was sure to inflame that divide.
He said the left-wing billionaire George Soros was paying the masses of demonstrators who had descended on Capitol Hill, and who were pushing senators to reject Kavanaugh’s bid for the high court.
“The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it!” Trump tweeted. “Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!”
Then this week, the president promulgated an unfounded conspiracy theory that the very same Democratic megadonor was funding a caravan of Central American migrants. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Trump told reporters.
Those two instances — and the reactions to them — reflected the bizarre role George Soros is playing in the American public’s imagination. So, too, did revelations that an explosive device was sent to his house and that Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, was driven by the myth that Soros was behind the migrant caravan heading north in Mexico.
“This latest round of conspiracy theories about Soros, fueled by tweets by high profile public officials, are hardly new,” Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told The Times of Israel.
He added that, in a May report analyzing anti-Semitic speech on Twitter, the ADL noted that Soros was prominently mentioned in a large chunk of anti-Semitic tweets, often with claims that he directly uses his largesse to fund false flag events.
One noteworthy allegation said that Soros was responsible for August 2017’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other tweets, Tuchman said, “referred to his Jewish heritage in pejorative terms and claimed that he’s trying to undermine all of Western civilization.”
As many noted after Trump falsely said that Soros was funding the Kavanaugh protests and the migrant caravans, the president was taking a page right out of the anti-Semites’ playbook.
Yet many of Soros’s fiercest critics are themselves Jewish. The Republican Jewish Coalition often castigates Soros for giving money to left-wing advocacy groups like J Street — and for his foundation giving to other groups they characterize as anti-Israel, like Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem.
The more people seem to increasingly retreat into their tribal loyalties, George Soros has brought two divergent tribes together. He has become the go-to bogeyman of both the Jewish right and anti-Semites.
Who is George Soros?
Born in Budapest in 1930, Soros was 13 years old when the Nazis invaded Hungary. He managed to survive to Holocaust, and his family purchased documents that said they were Christians. By 1947, he had immigrated to England to become a student at the London School of Economics.
From there, he started his work in finance through a London bank, Singer and Friedlander, where he was a broker. Over the next several years, he jumped around firms before he founded Soros Fund Management.
His investment management firm was wildly successful. Since 1973, it has generated more than $40 billion. Soros, who lives in Westchester County, New York, is now estimated to be worth roughly $8 billion, making him one of the richest people in the world.
With his wealth, Soros has become active in liberal causes. He first became politically engaged, according to The Washington Post, after the 2004 election, when George W. Bush won a second term against then senator John Kerry.
Beyond being one of the main funders of Democratic candidates in the United States, he also dips his money into left-wing advocacy groups.
Through his organization, Open Society Foundations, an international grant-making network, he has been a primary donor of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and Democracy Alliance. He also gave large sums of money to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, including $1 million to a Super PAC supporting the former during the 2012 campaign.
Since he entered the political fold, Soros has been the subject of conspiracy theories and intense criticism. In 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street protests broke out in the United States, he was falsely accused of funding the movement against growing economic inequality in America.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said that Soros has the unique blend of ingredients to have become the subject of anti-Semitic tropes.
“I think you would need an entire graduate degree in the history of the Jews and their relationship with other nations to pluck out all of the various boxes that he ticks off just by being who he is: He’s a man with liberal, even socialist, politics; he’s fabulously wealthy; he’s reclusive; he’s European by origin, which puts him on the outside of the Hungarian culture he was in because he’s Jewish; and it puts him on the outside of the ‘true Americans’ in this country,” Moline told The Times of Israel. “He has it all.”
There is no secret to why Soros is hated by so many, he added. “He elects to support political causes that rile people with whom he disagrees,” said Moline. “I don’t think there’s some magic formula here. It’s just, he’s an easy target.”
But that’s not the only reason, Moline suggested. Soros has become an instrument used by bigots to instill fear in the hearts of their populist followings. He is playing a role that other Jews have invariably played throughout the course of history. In some ways, he is just the latest iteration.
“The Rothschild family has been subjected to this since they established themselves as merchants in Europe,” Moline said. “I think if you looked at a lot of the rhetoric that was aimed at them by Europe’s non-Jewish elite, you would see that they were being blamed for many of the same things in the political context that Soros is being blamed for now.”
So why him?
On some level, it is a simple equation: those on the left don’t like big donors for the right, while those on the right don’t like big donors for the left.
“He’s this guy who funds left-wing causes and funds Democrats. For the most part, criticisms have been mostly for [him] doing that,” said Jonathan Tobin. “Republicans don’t like him because he funds Democrats. It’s really no different from the way Democrats don’t like Republican fundraisers.”
Tobin, a conservative columnist who frequently writes for the National Review and is editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, argued that Soros is to the right what GOP mega donors are to the left.
“When I look at some of the ways that conservative Republicans talk about Soros, it’s kind of the mirror image of the way Democrats have been talking about the Koch brothers for years,” Tobin said. “Or Sheldon Adelson.”
But while the Kochs and megadonor Adelson are the subjects of intense criticisms from the left, they are not often targeted with unfounded theories that they are fomenting instability or controlling major governmental or financial institutions
“A person who promotes a Soros conspiracy theory may not intend to promulgate anti-Semitism, but Soros’s Jewish identity is so well-known that in many cases it is hard not to infer that meaning,” said the ADL’s Tuchman.
“These tropes have become all too common in statements by individuals, including well-known national and local politicians, who have cast Soros as the behind-the-scenes funder of protests, and the ringleader of opposition to the Trump administration’s agenda,” he added.
“Even if no anti-Semitic insinuation is intended, casting a Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates national events for malign purposes has the effect of mainstreaming an anti-Semitic trope and giving support, however unwitting, to bona fide anti-Semites and extremists who disseminate these ideas knowingly and with malice.”
Tobin, for his part, said that there was a threshold for when denouncing Soros can veer from healthy to toxic. “If you’re not calling him out as a Jew, and you’re just criticizing him because you perceive him as being behind the protestors related to the Kavanaugh confirmation or because he’s funding Democratic candidates, that’s fair game,” he said. “That’s the dividing line.”
When it comes to Soros’s place within the Jewish community, Moline noted another, but different dynamic that Soros shares with Adelson.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship that the Jews have had with the wealthy in their own community,” he said. “When they’re generous for the right causes, they’re lauded, and when they’re generous for the wrong causes, they’re condemned. Sheldon Adelson is the same way. The people who praise him for Birthright often condemn him for his involvement with the Republican Party.”
But Soros fills such a unique set of check boxes, he has become the bogeyman for more than one corner of the American public. That those corners are often in conflict is evidence, Moline suggested, that the controversies surrounding Soros are often not so much about Soros himself.
“I think that most people who criticize George Soros don’t know very much about him,” Moline said. “Whether it is non-Jews criticizing him as a Jew or whether it is Jews criticizing him as a liberal, it says more about the person doing the criticism than it does about the person they’re criticizing.”