A Republican congressional candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has repeatedly called George Soros an “enemy of the people.” Rudy Giuliani said Soros is “intent on destroying our government for some sick reason of his that goes back to his sick background.”
Soros, who turned 90 last month, has given billions of dollars to an array of progressive causes, becoming a bogeyman for Republicans and conservatives in the United States and across the globe. He’s also become perhaps the leading target of those who have used Soros as a stand-in for the age-old anti-Semitic trope of the rich Jewish financier who pulls the strings of politicians and political movements from behind the scenes.
Conspiracies about Soros have been pushed by public figures like President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Yair Netanyahu, son of the Israeli prime minister.
Here are some basics on Soros, his philanthropy, why some people don’t like him and the sometimes blurry line between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism.
George Soros is a Hungarian-American Jewish financier who survived the Holocaust.
He is best known as a financier who made billions through investments and currency speculation, and as a philanthropist who has tried to spread his vision of a liberal “open society” internationally.
Born in Hungary in 1930 to a Jewish family, Soros was 13 when the Holocaust came to his hometown of Budapest. Soros survived the genocide in hiding and moved to London and then New York, where he embarked on a successful Wall Street career as a hedge fund owner. On Black Wednesday in 1992, he successfully bet against, or shorted, the British pound.
Soros’ work in finance is often cited in anti-Semitic invective against him, while another conspiracy theory falsely posits that he was a collaborator with the Nazis rather than a child survivor.
Soros poured billions into pro-democracy efforts, liberal causes worldwide and left-wing groups in Israel.
In 1979, Soros founded his charity, which has become the Open Society Foundations. He first donated to efforts against apartheid in South Africa. Later he gave to organizations in Hungary and elsewhere in the communist bloc, promoting democracy, free speech and free markets. He founded Central European University in Hungary, a well-regarded school, and offered scholarships to promising students from repressive countries (including Orban, his future nemesis).
More recent, Soros has promoted left-wing causes in the United States. Beginning in the 2004 presidential election, he became a leading funder of Democratic politicians. In the 2016 campaign, he was the 12th-largest political donor to either party in the United States, according to the OpenSecrets database, and the fifth-largest donor to Hillary Clinton. This year, so far, he’s the 23rd-biggest donor to either party in the country.
He’s funded progressive candidates for district attorney across the United States, hoping to advance the cause of reforming the criminal justice system and anti-drug policies after concluding that officials should treat addiction as a sickness rather than a crime.
Soros also has donated to a number of left-wing Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups that oppose Israel’s role in Judea and Samaria and, in some cases, endorse the movement to boycott Israel known as BDS. In addition, beginning in 2008, he donated approximately $750,000 to J Street, the left-wing American Israel lobby.
Conservatives have criticized Soros’ activism for decades — and he’s stirred controversy among American Jews.
Because he is a noteworthy progressive philanthropist, Soros has become a bete noire for conservatives. Just as many liberals will criticize Sheldon Adelson or Charles Koch for their mega-philanthropy to Republicans, conservatives have called out Soros’ contributions to Democrats.
Soros has also drawn pointed criticism from American Jewish leaders for his views on Jewish affairs. Aside from his foundation’s philanthropy to left-wing Israeli groups, Soros rarely donates to Jewish organizations, and he’s departed from the American Jewish consensus on core issues like Israel and anti-Semitism.
In 2007, Soros wrote, “I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew, but I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.” In that same essay he criticized the “pervasive influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,” charging the pro-Israel lobby with being “closely allied with the neocons” and “an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq” — and claiming the group’s behavior lent “some credence” to the anti-Semitic belief in an “all-powerful Zionist conspiracy.”
Four years earlier, he spoke at a meeting of the Jewish Funders Network and said there was “a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the [Ariel] Sharon administration [in Israel] contribute to that.”
The 2003 comments elicited outrage. Abraham Foxman, then the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called them “a simplistic, counterproductive, biased and bigoted perception of what’s out there. It’s blaming the victim for all of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s ills.”
By 2008, when the left-wing Israel lobby J Street received financial backing from Soros, the group did not disclose his involvement due to the controversy sparked by Soros’ prior activism, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in 2010.
“It was his view that the attacks against him from certain parts of the community would undercut support for us,” Ben-Ami told the JTA at the time. “He was concerned that his involvement would be used by others to attack the effort.”
Lately, a lot of criticism of Soros has sounded anti-Semitic.
In recent years, criticism of Soros has increasingly veered into anti-Semitism, suggesting that Soros runs shadowy, conspiratorial efforts to control people or accusing him, without evidence, of being the hidden force behind progressive causes. The accusations evoke an age-old belief that Jews are masterminding an international conspiracy to secretly rule the world through money.
In 2010, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck aired a series of segments on Fox News accusing Soros of being a “puppet master.” President Donald Trump has also engaged in this kind of messaging, suggesting without evidence, for example, that Soros was paying for protests against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“The oldest stereotype of anti-Semitism is about Jews and money,” Foxman said. “It goes all the way back to Jesus being sold out for 30 pieces of silver. It’s there, it’s deep, it’s broad, it’s universal. What has happened in recent years is that Soros has been made the poster boy of this stereotype of the international Jew. He’s become an icon.”
Sometimes those accusations come along with memes showing Soros’ purported control that evoke anti-Semitic stereotypes. One, used by Beck, shows Soros with the handle of a marionette. Another shows Soros controlling people with octopus tentacles.
Another conspiracy theory falsely claims that Soros was a Nazi collaborator. In reality he was in hiding under a fake name with a Hungarian bureaucrat, and was once taken along with him on a survey of Jewish property under the Nazi occupation. He was a child at the time and is a survivor of the Holocaust, not a perpetrator.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when the criticism is legitimate or bigoted.
The distinction between legitimate critique of Soros’ activism and anti-Semitic invective is not always clear. Republican officials have sparked backlash from liberal groups by calling out Soros and other Jewish donors for financing Democratic campaigns.
The officials, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, do not have histories of anti-Semitism and did not identify the donors as Jews. The donors in question are in fact among the leading funders of Democratic campaigns. But critics said the statements nonetheless evoked the anti-Semitic trope of rich Jews using their money to control politicians.
In October 2018, McCarthy tweeted, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” Michael Bloomberg is also Jewish, and Tom Steyer is of Jewish descent. The tweet also displayed a grainy, black-and-white photo of Soros. Steyer and Bloomberg were the top two Democratic donors in the 2018 cycle, while Soros was the fifth largest, according to the OpenSecrets campaign finance database.
McCarthy deleted the tweet days later because it had come days before a pipe bomb was mailed to the Soros home. The California lawmaker defended the tweet by saying it “had nothing to do about faith” and “All I was pointing out was money that Republicans and Democrats were spending to defeat one another.”
Last month, Collins ran into a similar issue when she accused the Senate’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, of being “motivated by power,” and called out two donors to her opponent’s campaign, Donald Sussman and George Soros. Sussman, Soros and Schumer are all Jewish.
“If you’re going to say that Soros contributed to a certain cause, be it Palestinian rights or be it criminal justice reform, that is not anti-Semitic, that is something that’s happening,” said Emily Tamkin, author of “The Influence of Soros,” a recent book on Soros’ philanthropy and the conspiracy theories surrounding him.
But when Soros is accused of things like hijacking American democracy, Tamkin said, it crosses the line into anti-Semitism.
“You are stripping agency from the people who are actually doing work in those spaces and making them sound like they’re Soros stooges, which is insulting to them and also anti-Semitic because it’s like [Soros] is a puppeteer,” she said.
A Soros-inflected conspiracy about immigration has led to violence.
The far-right obsession with Soros appears to have accelerated with Orban, the right-wing nationalist Hungarian leader who has made Soros a target of his campaigns. Orban has blamed Soros for spurring refugees to enter the country and taken action against his projects. In 2018, Orban’s government forced Central European University out of Hungary through a protracted court battle.
In 2017, Orban erected a series of billboards throughout Hungary emblazoned with Soros’ grinning face that read, “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.” The billboards were frequently defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, and the Hungarian Jewish community decried them.
For some on the far right in the United States, Soros has become the personification of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement, which accuses Jews of bringing immigrants into white countries in order to weaken and replace white people.
In late 2018, it was a man obsessed with hurting the perceived enemies of Trump who mailed the pipe bomb to Soros’ home. Days later, a gunman entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jews, blaming them for bringing immigrants into the United States. He had also demonized Soros on social media.