Jewish billionaire George Soros on Sunday dismissed claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is funding a widespread campaign against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants and asylum-seekers.
“Contrary to the false claim by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, George Soros is not funding any protests against Israel’s plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers,” a Soros spokesperson told Israeli media.
“However, Mr. Soros adamantly believes that, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and international law, it is wrong to forcibly send asylum seekers back to countries where they might be persecuted or killed.”
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.”
Netanyahu later on Sunday said the New Israel Fund NGO was funding protests against the deportation of African migrants from the country. Soros has in the past awarded grants to the New Israel Fund.
“This won’t help you. Today we began an operation to remove illegal infiltrators from Israel, just as other modern countries do, chiefly the United States,” Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post. “Just as we blocked the infiltration to Israel with the fence I put up on the border with Sinai, I will keep my promise to remove infiltrators to our country.”
Netanyahu linked to an article from the right-wing Mida news site, which quoted a New Israel Fund letter saying it would provide a special donation for the campaign against expelling the asylum seekers from the country.
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 has 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 was 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 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.”
Agencies contributed to this report.