This week, employees of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros found a bomb in his mailbox. Fortunately, a bomb squad was able to detonate it harmlessly. But the attempt on his life was predictable, because Soros is perhaps the world’s most visible target of fascist anti-Semitism right now.
Some people might find it odd to think of Soros as the main object of hatred for fascists. Israel is, after all, the single largest community of Jewish people on earth, and discussions of anti-Semitism in the U.S. are often bound up in discussions of Israel. For instance, Democratic criticism of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians has led conservatives to accuse the left of anti-Semitism.
But for white supremacists in the U.S. and Europe, and increasingly for mainstream conservatives, it is not Israel that’s the focus of anti-Jewish animus. It’s “globalists,” an international wealthy Jewish cabal that supposedly rigs world markets and advances a sinister Marxist agenda. And the one person who is supposed to symbolize globalism is George Soros.
Soros was born in Hungary in 1930, where he survived the Holocaust. He went on to make a fortune in banking and finance in the U.S., and since the ’80s he has been a major Democratic donor.
Soros’ wealth, his Judaism and his support for the left have made him a prime bogeyman for conspiracy theorists on the right. He is often accused of being a Nazi collaborator himself, although he was 14 years old when World War II ended. Some on the right claim he funded the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, supposedly to make conservative causes look bad. He’s also said to be secretly, illicitly funding virtually every left-wing protest and cause imaginable. President Donald Trump accused “Soros and others” of providing protest signs and paying the sexual assault survivors who talked Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) into supporting an FBI investigation into assault charges against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation process. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) co-signed that argument.
What is most chilling about the attacks on Soros is the way they employ traditional fascist and anti-Semitic tropes. Israel did not exist when Adolf Hitler was in power, so the Nazi propaganda of the day focused on the Jewish diaspora, where all Jews lived at the time. Indeed, Hitler hated Jews specifically because they were a diaspora: Nazis portrayed Jewish people as alien outsiders who belonged nowhere. The infamous Nazi propaganda film ”The Eternal Jew” depicted Jewish people as rats, traveling from port to port, spreading filth and disease.
To Hitler, because Jewish people were supposedly located nowhere, their tendrils extended everywhere. Hitler accused Jews of manipulating political parties, orchestrating global finance and, most importantly, being behind left-wing Marxist movements. The parallels between the Nazis’ conspiracy theories and the ones about Soros are obvious.
The parallels between the Nazis' conspiracy theories and the ones about Soros are obvious.
Jews in the diaspora have long been assured, by Israel and by each other, that if fascism rose again, Israel would be there to counter it. So, as a Jew, I’d like to believe the Israeli government would push back vehemently against the anti-Soros campaign, which is clearly indebted to Nazi propaganda tactics.
Unfortunately, instead of countering the conspiracy theories, Israel has stoked them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spread false stories that Soros is working with Iran against Israel’s interests, and has blamed Soros for left-wing opposition to his regime. Netanyahu, like Trump, leverages stereotypes about nefarious diaspora Jews to try to smear his critics and shore up his own power.
Netanyahu’s approach to Soros is consistent with his general indifference to anti-Semitism directed against the diaspora. The prime minister could barely be bothered to condemn the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville last year, and he has been a keen supporter of Trump, who has persistently employed anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery. Republican political support for Israel is much more important to Netanyahu than the plight of Jewish people in the diaspora.
That’s not especially surprising. Netanyahu is answerable to voters in Israel, not to diaspora Jews. There’s no particular reason why he should care whether anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. But while Netanyahu’s stance is predictable, it is not what Jews in America have predicted. Israel, we’ve long told ourselves, was supposed to fight for us. “Israel continues to be our shield, our refuge, and our strength,” Abraham Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote earlier this year.
For many in the diaspora, the hope of Israel was that if the worst should happen, we wouldn’t be alone. But the worst is, if not imminent, at least on the horizon, and once again the diaspora is on its own. It’s long past time we recognized that the current Israeli government will not lift a finger to oppose fascism or anti-Semitism in the U.S.
That’s not a reason to despair. But it is a reason to start thinking seriously about our own self-interest, even when ― or perhaps especially when ― that interest is different from Israel’s. Politicians like Trump can support Israel’s government, and at the same time spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that encourage hatred of, and violence against, Jewish people living in the diaspora.
For the good of our country, and frankly to protect ourselves, Jewish people in the United States need to stop centering our institutions, our dreams and our identities around Israel. Because Israel isn’t going to oppose the hatred directed at George Soros, which is also the hatred directed at us.
Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.