Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accused Jewish billionaire George Soros of funding a widespread campaign against the government’s plan to deport African migrants and asylum-seekers.
Netanyahu made the comment about the progressive Hungarian-born businessman during a meeting of ministers from his ruling Likud party, in response to Science Minister Ofir Akunis who had said the local aid organizations are funded by foreign governments and foundations.
“George Soros is also funding the protests,” Netanyahu said, according to leaks from the meeting carried by Channel 10 and Haaretz. He reportedly added that former US president Barack Obama “deported two million infiltrators and they didn’t say anything.”
Soros, who in recent years has backed groups critical of Israeli government policy, has become a bugbear for the pro-Israel right.
Anti-Semites also regularly attack Soros, a Holocaust survivor, whom they see as part of a Jewish conspiracy to manipulate foreign markets and governments.
Netanyahu’s comments echoed a public campaign that was started last year against Soros by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who accused the 87-year-old of orchestrating migration into Europe since the refugee crisis began in 2015 and has branded him “a public enemy.”
Soros’s face featured on billboards nationwide during a so-called “national consultation” campaign attacking his alleged pro-immigration “Soros Plan.”
Soros has accused Orban of using “distortions and outright lies” in his campaigns against him. The Hungarian government has “sought to create an outside enemy to distract citizens” from issues like corruption, he said last year.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry panned the campaign and demanded that the Hungarian government halt it — which it did — but clarified that it was targeting the perceived anti-Semitism rather than criticism of the man himself.
Opposition MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) slammed Netanyahu over his comments, accusing him of riding the coattails of the Hungarian campaign against Soros.
“The prime minister’s decision to divert the heat to George Soros should concern all of us,” Zandberg said. “Over the past year, Hungary has seen an anti-Semitic campaign that was called out by the Foreign Ministry and has sparked fear in all Hungarian Jews. Netanyahu’s decision to inflame matters surrounding the anti-Semitic campaign and to connect himself with it is a direct continuation of the Likud’s dangerous ties with extreme right-wing parties in Europe.”
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority on Sunday began serving deportation notices to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers, telling them that they would be sent to an unnamed African country that enjoys a relatively “stable government.”
Under the plan, any of the 40,000 or so who voluntarily leave Israel by the end of March will receive $3,500 and a plane ticket to the unnamed country.
On April 1, the immigration authority plans to begin imprisoning or forcibly expelling those who have not yet left.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, has weighed in. While rejecting any comparisons between the plight of the migrants and the victims of the Holocaust, it said the issue nonetheless is a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion and mercy.”
Still, the backlash has struck a raw nerve, with the government accusing some critics of cynically invoking comparisons to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.
“This campaign is baseless and absurd,” Netanyahu said last week. “Genuine refugees and their families will remain in Israel. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.