This is an ongoing multi-part series. This installment includes two stories, Evolution – Soros’s Jewish Identity & Relationship to Israel, and No, Holocaust Survivor George Soros Was Not a Nazi. Additional installments coming soon.
Additional reporting on this story was done by Anis Modi and Wesley G. Pippert.
Last year in Jerusalem, I participated in a panel about anti-Semitism in the United States at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, a prestigious gathering organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. During the question-and-answer period, a woman took the microphone and demanded: “Why haven’t you talked about how George Soros is a Nazi?” Like the other panelists, I was startled by this question, and disturbed when around half the people in the packed room broke into applause. “We haven’t discussed that because it isn’t true,” I responded. Loud grumbling erupted throughout the room, which held some 200 people. We—the panelists and moderator—stared at one another. We had disagreed about whether the threat of anti-Semitism was more serious from the left or the right, but the accusation that a Hungarian-born Jew who escaped the Holocaust was a Nazi was beyond reason. Whether or not they knew it, the people who applauded were echoing a vicious lie likely invented in the 1990s by known anti-Semite and conspiracy-spinner Lyndon LaRouche, Jr.
That Soros’s name was lobbed into a discussion about anti-Semitism is not surprising. His name is ubiquitous: Politicians all over the world, from Malaysia to Brazil to the United States—particularly on the right—eagerly participate in the popular pastime of Soros bashing. Soros, who is now 88, made his fortune as a hedge fund pioneer and has given more than $30 billion over the years to his Open Society Foundation (OSF) to support liberal causes. As a result, the philanthropist has made powerful enemies, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has shut down Soros-funded pro-democracy groups in Russia, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In 2017, Orbán plastered Soros’s face on billboard and television ads as part of a national campaign—widely considered anti-Semitic—blaming him for Europe’s immigration crisis. In the United States, politicians also demonize Soros. In 2016, then presidential candidate Donald Trump, who had once courted Soros as a tenant for one of his New York City buildings, used his image to evoke fear in his final campaign ad. More recently, as president, Trump alleged without evidence that Soros had paid people to protest at Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and that Soros was somehow behind the migrant caravan then inching toward the U.S.-Mexico border. (Those false allegations may have motivated a Florida man to mail a bomb to Soros’s suburban New York residence shortly before the midterms.) On election day 2016, David Friedman, now Trump’s ambassador to Israel, called Soros one of the “great enemies of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
More shocking, though, is that some of the most vociferous attacks against the Holocaust survivor are coming directly from the State of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his allies have joined the Soros demonization bandwagon and singled him out to blame for many of the current government’s troubles. While Netanyahu himself has never called Soros a Nazi collaborator, he paints a portrait of him as a global conspiratorial figure, a common anti-Semitic canard. In July, after Israel’s ambassador to Hungary sided with the Hungarian Jewish community in condemning Orbán’s Fidesz Party’s anti-Soros campaign as anti-Semitic, Netanyahu officially countermanded the ambassador, insisting the foreign ministry issue a statement saying that Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government” by funding organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.” In September, the prime minister falsely accused Soros of conspiring with Iran against Israel, a claim based on a discredited article in Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, one of Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters.
“We see Soros as a dangerous man who does unfair and indecent things,” Eli Hazan, the director of international relations for Netanyahu’s Likud party, said in December 2017, adding that he had provided the Hungarian government with intelligence about Soros before the launch of Orbán’s controversial anti-Soros campaign. Several months earlier, Netanyahu’s 27-year-old son, Yair, re-posted a cartoon on Facebook that was loaded with anti-Semitic imagery. It depicted three figures: a grotesque hook-nosed Jew, a reptilian creature and a caricature of Soros as a puppeteer pulling the world’s strings. The post, which was later removed, was praised by anti-Semites worldwide and further disseminated by neo-Nazis, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
There are many reasons why Soros is vilified in Israel, and one of them is clearly the liberal focus of his philanthropy. Largely through his charitable organization, the OSF, Soros gives nearly $1 billion a year to organizations worldwide that support democracy and civil society. Only a tiny fraction of this annual largesse goes to Israel: From 2006 to 2016, OSF gave an average of around $3 million a year, an amount that pales in comparison to funds provided by other American mega-donors.
So how did a Jewish Holocaust survivor, whose foundations donate $3 million a year to legal Israeli, Palestinian and Arab-Israeli groups, become a target of such intense animosity from the Israeli government—and in some corners of the American Jewish community? This multi-part series will examine the relationship between George Soros and Israel and how it has unfolded against the backdrop of polarizing world events. In this first installment—based on interviews, published biographies and Soros’s own public statements—we look at Soros’s formative years and the evolution of his worldview, including his feelings about the Jewish state.
Evolution: Soros’s Jewish Identity & Relationship to Israel
George Soros has recounted the story many times. In the spring of 1944, just months after his bar mitzvah, the Nazis invaded his native Budapest. Jews were forced from the country’s social and economic life, and he and other Jewish children were prohibited from going to school. The local Jewish council, which had been established by Hitler’s henchman Adolf Eichmann, put him—then 13—and other Jewish teenagers to work as couriers. George, who was assigned to deliver messages to Jewish lawyers, showed one he had been given to his father, Tivadar, who, upon opening it, quickly understood it was a summons that would likely lead to internment. Soros has said that, on his father’s orders, he warned the recipients not to obey them.
Tivadar was a lawyer, and he knew that he, too, would soon receive a similar summons. A resourceful man, he created false identities for himself, his wife, his older son Paul and George, as well as other Jews. George was sent to live with a Ministry of Agriculture official who posed as his godfather. The official’s job included taking inventory of confiscated Jewish property, and he took George along on a three-day work trip to a Jewish estate, according to Michael Kaufman’s 2002 biography, Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire. Soros told Kaufman that he entertained himself by walking around the estate and becoming friendly with the staff, while trying to hide the fact that he was Jewish. Since he was circumcised, “among his practical concerns was to make sure no one saw him pee.”
Thanks to Tivadar’s planning and good fortune, George and his immediate family were able to avoid the fate of the 565,000 Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But these two elements of his Holocaust experience—the delivery of letters and the visit to an estate that had been seized—would become the basis of the false claim that Soros was a Nazi collaborator. (See “No, Holocaust Survivor George Soros Was Not a Nazi: The Origins of this Infamous Canard and How It Spread”).
When the war ended, Hungary came under communist rule. In 1947, at age 17, Soros fled to attend school in England, leaving his parents behind. Having lived under both Nazi and communist totalitarianism, he was attracted to the liberal democratic philosophy of Karl Popper, one of his professors at the London School of Economics. Popper believed that open societies—characterized as non-authoritarian, transparent and open to diverse voices—were the best guarantee against totalitarianism.
Soros graduated with a BA and MA in philosophy, and although his dream was to be a philosopher, he needed a job. After stints as a salesman, he found a position in a bank. There he discovered his knack for finding and exploiting disparities in international markets, which in 1956 led him to move to New York City to work in finance. Thirteen years later, he established the Quantum Fund—an early hedge fund catering to institutional investors and wealthy individuals—and quickly amassed wealth for himself and his investors.
These experiences shaped Soros’s worldview—which he has described as being in the tradition of “Jewish utopianism”—and led him to forge his own philanthropic path in the 1970s, focusing on Popper’s goal of opening up closed societies to promote democracy, particularly in Eastern Europe. Soros has often said that his experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust taught him that minorities—like the Jews in Europe—had to be protected, and the best way to assure this was by building pluralistic societies where minorities enjoyed equal rights. Giving to traditional Jewish causes in the United States or Israel did not interest him. “I went to England in 1947 and then to the United States in 1956. But I never quite became an American. I had left Hungary behind, and my Jewishness did not express itself in a sense of tribal loyalty that would have led me to support Israel,” Soros writes in one of his 14 books, the 1991 Underwriting Democracy. “On the contrary, I took pride in being in the minority, an outsider who was capable of seeing the other point of view. Only the ability to think critically and to rise above a particular point of view could make up for the dangers and indignities that being a Hungarian Jew had inflicted on me.”
As journalist Robert Slater writes in his 1996 book, Soros: The Unauthorized Biography, the adult Soros “never denied or cloaked his Judaism; he simply put it aside.” Soros’s longtime friend and business associate Byron Wien—who coauthored a 1995 book with Soros about the investor’s life and philosophy, Soros on Soros—says Soros never rejected being Jewish but didn’t want it to define him. “When he was growing up it was the central fact of his identity,” he says. “The fact that he was Jewish meant that he had to run away. He had to escape, to hide.” Wien continues: “When he came to the United States, being Jewish did categorize you, and George wanted to be free of all categories. He wanted to be accepted for who he was, for his intellect and his accomplishments.”
Soros’s father was a secular Jew, and his mother, Erzebet, although Jewish, was attracted to mystical Christianity and converted to Catholicism after her husband’s death. (Soros has referred to her as a “typical Jewish anti-Semite.”) In the face of rampant anti-Semitism, Soros chose on his own to attend Hebrew school in Budapest and have a bar mitzvah. But he has said that his experience with Budapest’s Jewish council, as well as a later incident in London, turned him off from communal Jewish life. In London, he climbed four flights of stairs with a broken leg to apply for funds from the Jewish Board of Guardians to help with his college tuition and living expenses, but his application was rejected. However, when he appealed the decision, the board president personally sent him money for as long as he needed it.
After establishing his own hedge fund—and achieving financial success far beyond his dreams—Soros underwent psychoanalysis and developed a renewed interest in Judaism. In 1983, at age 53, he divorced his non-Jewish wife, Annaliese, with whom he had three children, and began dating a Jewish woman, Susan Weber, who would later become his second wife. Around this time, Soros increasingly expressed curiosity about Judaism, says Daniel Doron, an Israeli who met Soros in 1986. A visiting fellow at Columbia University and the University of Chicago at the time, Doron had established the Israel Center for Social & Economic Progress (ICSEP), an independent pro-market public policy think tank, in 1984. Doron says he had read some of Soros’s books and observed that, in some ways, Soros’s way of thinking was “reminiscent of the way Talmudic sages thought.” Over lunch in New York City, they discussed political ideas and Judaism, and Doron says they became close friends. “George began to understand,” he adds, “that whether or not you liked or agreed with it, Judaism was a serious civilization that had serious values and ways of thinking that contributed to humanity.” Doron remembers giving Soros the Introduction to the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz with instructions to read the chapter on the logic of the Talmud. But Soros wasn’t totally transformed. “He didn’t start laying tefillin every morning or contributing to Chabad,” says Doron.
Alex Soros, 33, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Berkeley and is the second youngest of Soros’s five children, says that surviving the Holocaust was the formative experience of his father’s life. “For a time, he felt that public knowledge of his Jewishness was a matter of life and death, and he was therefore not public about his Jewishness,” he says. “However, as life went on, my father didn’t hide his Jewishness any longer, and by the time I was born, he publicly identified as a Jew, specifically as an American Jew.” Alex celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1998 at the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan and says his father’s support and knowledge of Judaism helped guide him to this milestone.
Soros has written in many of his books about what it means to him to be a Jew. In Soros on Soros, he explains his belief in “Jewish genius,” which he says is evident from Jewish achievements in science, economic life and the arts. “These were the results of Jews’ efforts to transcend their minority status, and to achieve something universal,” he writes. “Jews have learned to consider every question from many different viewpoints, even the most contradictory ones. Being in the minority, they are practically forced into critical thinking. If there is anything of this Jewish genius in me, it is simply the ability to think critically. To that extent Jewishness is an essential element of my personality, and, as I said, I am very proud of that.”
Nevertheless, Soros’s re-embrace of his Jewishness didn’t lead him to make Israel one of his priorities. Throughout the 1980s, he was consumed by the task of establishing individual open society initiatives in totalitarian countries to help transform them into tolerant, vibrant societies with governments accountable to their citizens. His strategies included funding fellowships abroad, supporting research and, famously, supplying Xerox machines to all kinds of groups—anything to make it harder for despots to exercise control over information.
Soros was largely unknown outside the financial world until September 16, 1992, the day his Quantum Fund made more than $1 billion by short-selling the British pound. The timing of this windfall, which made headlines and brought him worldwide attention (much of it negative), is important: It came just after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the opening of the closed societies of Eastern Europe. Soros then ratcheted up his funding, bankrolling the birth of democracy in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.
In her 1995 New Yorker profile, “The World According to George Soros,” reporter Connie Bruck writes that Soros had chosen, by and large, to exclude Israel and Jewish causes from his massive philanthropy. He did, however, fund projects there that fell within his interests. For example, when Daniel Doron first asked for money for his Israeli think tank, Soros turned him down. But when Doron asked him to support educating 60,000 young Soviet immigrants in Israel about the Western economy, Soros readily agreed. For three years, from 1992 until 1995, Doron says, Soros generously funded the ICSEP project.
Around this time, Soros became intrigued by Israel’s increasingly liberalized economy. Shortly after his well-publicized British pound windfall, Soros invited an Israeli entrepreneur, Benny Landa, to dinner at his New York apartment. In 1977, Landa had founded Indigo, an Israeli company on the cutting edge of high-quality printing technology. Landa was under the impression that Soros, along with two business associates, wanted to discuss investing in Indigo. “But he didn’t spend any time talking about business,” says Landa. “Instead, we spent the whole evening talking about philosophy and nationalism and being Jewish.” Landa recalls Soros saying, “Perhaps being a success in business finally gave me enough confidence to acknowledge my Jewishness.” The two also discussed Zionism. Landa expressed his Zionist beliefs, and Soros told Landa that he had experienced “too much of the Nazis” to think highly of any kind of nationalism. “It only causes evil and destruction and chauvinism and war,” he said. “I am against nationalism of any kind. If it were possible to have the constructive facets of nationalism without its negative characteristics and the resulting political and social damage that it causes, then you would be right. But it isn’t possible.” Some time during the four-hour conversation, Landa asked if the fact that Indigo was located in Israel mattered to Soros. Soros said no. But some months later, in January 1993, Soros became a major investor in Indigo and told Landa, “You know, I’m glad this company is in Israel.” Landa was surprised but pleased. “It was as though there was an inner satisfaction he got from investing in an
Soros has said that he had also stayed away from Israel because of its treatment of the Arabs. But in the fall of 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords. Soros saw this progress toward a settlement as a good sign, and in January 1994 he made his first visit to Israel. Most Israelis had never heard of Soros at the time, but the Israeli government was well aware of the billionaire investor and was eager to host him. “It was important to them that Soros come away from his visit with a positive impression of Israel, for a good word from him in the international financial community could bolster Israel’s attractiveness to outside investors,” writes Slater. As a result, Soros met with many of the country’s key officials, from Rabin to Jacob Frenkel, the governor of the Bank of Israel, with whom Soros had worked in the past. Slater adds: “Rabin told Soros that Israel was trying to step up efforts to privatize some of its state-sponsored firms and welcomed the investor to take part.” Soros visited two companies he had already invested in: Geotek, a mobile radio and wireless communications company, and Landa’s Indigo.
Landa says that after Soros toured Indigo’s Rehovot headquarters, Landa hosted a dinner on his behalf at the Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya. About 100 guests drawn from Israel’s intellectual, business and political elite were present. Soros gave a speech in which he condemned nationalism—including Jewish nationalism—which took the audience by surprise. “Some people walked out and some people heckled,” says Landa. “It was tough to take. But I admire George Soros. I don’t think he’s anti-Israel at all. He might not agree with certain Israeli policies, but many Israelis don’t agree with those policies either, and that doesn’t make them anti-Israel. If he were an Israeli, he’d be in good company with about half the population.”
Soros recalls the trip in his 2007 book, The Age of Fallibility. “I have not been closely involved in Israeli affairs, but once I visited Israel at the invitation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just as the peace talks were at their zenith,” he writes, adding that Rabin was talking with Yasser Arafat on a cell phone during their meeting and that the mood was euphoric. “I asked Rabin whether there was any chance of including Hamas in the agreement.” Soros says he then told Rabin about his successful experience mediating between the Polish government and the Solidarity movement. “There can be no settlement except with the organization that represents the people,” Soros writes. “I could see that my argument made an impression on [Rabin]. With this experience as background, I cannot help believing that an agreement reached with Hamas would be more enduring than one concluded with a Palestinian authority that does not enjoy the trust of the people. The agreement reached with Arafat did not last.”
Soros goes on to add that he realizes that this point stretches the imagination. “The chances of reaching an agreement with Hamas are practically nil. Hamas is not Solidarity: It is a militant Islamist organization and Israel is not in a mood to take chances. Yet I cannot help thinking that with skillful diplomacy there could be an opening to drive a wedge between the homegrown leaders of Hamas who won the election and have an obligation to the people of Palestine to improve their living conditions, and the expatriate leadership based in Syria and beholden to Iran.”
Doron accompanied Soros on parts of that trip to Israel. He remembers going with Soros to a dinner hosted by Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, which was attended by Hungarian expatriates such as Israeli politician Tommy Lapid and writer Ephraim Kishon. “They all had a great time speaking in Hungarian,” says Doron, who doesn’t believe that Soros is anti-Israel but now characterizes his old friend as “an Obama-style person.” (“They have the same weltanschauung about who is good and not good. In this weltanschauung, Israel is in the bad camp.”) “Lapid and Kishon tried to stuff some Zionism into him,” says Doron, but they didn’t succeed.
Some Israelis expressed disappointment that Soros didn’t announce he would invest a billion dollars in Israel, but they generally were left with the impression that he was an upright, serious financier, says Slater. He writes that Soros came away from his trip hopeful about Israel: In an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live on January 11, 1994, Soros countered former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s skepticism that Israel and Syria would make peace soon, noting that he had just been there. “I was really impressed, because there’s been a real change of heart. And I think there’s a real commitment to it. I think there will be peace.”
This optimism was short-lived. On November 4, 1995, just two months after the signing of a second round of Oslo Accords in Washington, DC, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, Jewish religious extremist Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin at a rally in Tel Aviv. Hopes for peace faded after Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, was defeated by Netanyahu. With progress toward peace stalled, Soros—like many other American Jews—grew increasingly disenchanted with the policies of the Israeli government, which has remained in the hands of Netanyahu’s Likud party for most of the last two decades.
Alex Soros, who also accompanied his father on the 1994 trip to Israel, recalls something his father told him after his bar mitzvah: that if he were passionate about Judaism, he should make aliyah and move to Israel. “He even mentioned that I could pursue a career as an Israeli politician,” he says. “My father always had a view as a Jew that he couldn’t really be critical of Israel because if he wanted to change the country he should make aliyah and move there to work for change legitimately. Perhaps that sentiment had something to do with him encouraging me to do so.” Alex Soros did not move to Israel, though he has visited many times.
Then came the contentious 2000 U.S. presidential election, followed by 9/11 and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Soros, who had largely stayed out of American politics until then, recast himself as a fierce and partisan critic of President George W. Bush and his administration’s conservative policies. After Republicans gained control of the Senate and House in 2002, Soros set aside his reservations about big money in electoral politics and decided to donate millions to Democratic Party candidates in the run-up to the 2004 elections. “I don’t oppose other views, even right-wing ones,” he told New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, “because I think in an open society a variety of points of view should be heard. But by giving this money, I was trying to level the playing field. The Republicans have so much more money, the debate had become lopsided.”
While John Kerry campaigned for president, Soros undertook his own ambitious speaking tour of town hall meetings and auditoriums throughout the country, arguing that the American government was jeopardizing the values of openness and democracy in the search for “invisible enemies.” He also gave interviews filled with provocative comments. He told Mayer, for example, that the statements of Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, reminded him of Nazi Germany: “It was the kind of talk that Goebbels used to use to line the Germans up. I remember, I was 13 or 14.” In his 2006 book, The Age of Fallibility, Soros compared the Bush administration’s tactics to those of the Nazis. Even many liberals felt that was too much, especially from a large donor to the Democratic Party. A short time later, he explained to Deborah Solomon in a New York Times Magazine interview that while the United States was not a police state, he saw our open society as endangered. This combination of vocal political criticism and his infusion of money into American politics during this period would bring Soros to the attention of Republican strategists.
Soros had little patience for other aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, particularly in regard to Israel. In April 2007 he published a piece, “On Israel, America and AIPAC” (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), in the New York Review of Books. In it he criticized Bush for supporting Israel in its refusal to recognize the Hamas government, which, he noted, had been democratically elected in 2006, and for withholding millions of dollars in taxes it had collected on its behalf. He argued that the resulting economic hardship had undermined the new government’s ability to function and strengthened the position of Islamist and other extremists, while weakening those who wanted to negotiate with Israel. “This precludes any progress toward a peace settlement at a time when progress on the Palestinian problem could help avert a conflagration in the greater Middle East,” he wrote.
More upsetting for many was that Soros used the New York Review of Books piece to publicly call out AIPAC’s unwillingness to speak up against Israeli policies. “While the other architects of the Bush administration’s failed policies have been relentlessly exposed, AIPAC continues to be surrounded by a wall of silence,” he wrote. “I am not insensitive to this argument. It has held me back from criticizing Israeli policies in the past. I am not a Zionist, nor am I a practicing Jew, but I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel. I did not want to provide fodder to the enemies of Israel. I rationalized my position by saying that if I wanted to voice critical views, I ought to move to Israel. But since there were many Israelis who held such views, my voice was not needed, and I had many other battles to fight.”
It wasn’t the first time Soros had waded directly into American Jewish politics. Four years before the New York Review of Books article, Soros accepted an invitation from his friend Michael Steinhardt—a fellow hedge fund pioneer and philanthropist—to speak at a Jewish Funders Network (JFN) conference in New York City. Steinhardt and others hoped that Soros might be persuaded to allocate more of his resources toward American Jewish causes. Instead, his speech led to a storm of controversy. “There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe,” Soros told the crowd. “The policies of the Bush administration and the [Ariel] Sharon administration contribute to that. It’s not specifically anti-Semitism, but it does manifest itself in anti-Semitism as well. I’m critical of those policies.” He added: “If we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish.”
These remarks did not go over well. Then-Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman called them “obscene,” arguing Soros was blaming “the victim for all of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s ills.” In a follow-up op-ed, JFN executive director Mark Charendoff defended Soros’s right to state his views, asking: “When did we begin to prefer condemnation over debate?” In the same talk, Soros acknowledged that as someone who had financed various causes around the world, he himself had become part of the narrative of anti-Semitism. “Unintended, I actually feed into it,” he said.
He was right, although he could not have known at the time how right he was. A rising tide of nationalism, which would feed anti-Semitism, was about to roll over Eastern and Central Europe: Putin, who ascended to the Russian presidency in 2000, would quickly clash with the democracy and civil society organizations that Soros’s foundations supported. He would launch the first major anti-Soros campaign around 2003 and ban the Open Society Foundation altogether in 2015. Hungary, led by Orbán—who had attended Oxford as a Soros Scholar in 1989—followed Putin’s lead.
Soon, Soros vilification would spread to the Jewish state, as well.
The next installment will examine the campaign against Soros in Israel started and what it means.