By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, has all the makings of a character in a Hasidic fable.
Here is a man distrusted by many of his fellow Jews, and despised by quite a few of them. A man who sees no moral contradiction in funding the forces for an “open society” in Eastern Europe, while giving at the same time to left-wing lobby groups advocating for a diminished relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the single sovereign open society in the Middle East. A man who values only the “universal” in Judaism and cares little for the “particular.” Soros himself said in a gushing 2003 profile in The Forward that universalism is “the major reason why Jews have made such great contributions. I consider that to be the Jewish genius.”
Yet here is a man who has been, and remains, the target of a vicious strain of anti-Semitism in his native Hungary.
The dilemma this presents goes something like this. One the one hand, there shouldn’t even be a dilemma in the first place; as a matter of principle, Soros should be defended from anti-Semitism, particularly when for many Hungarians the name “Soros” has become a synonym for “global Jewish financier.” Hungary’s Jewish community, among others, is firmly in this camp.
On the other hand, there are those who do not believe Soros is worth more than a perfunctory protest, that Israel’s bilateral relationship with Hungary is what matters and that much of what is being presented as “anti-Semitism” doesn’t really fit the description. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just visited his counterpart Viktor Orban in Budapest, falls into this camp as do, I suspect, many American Jews on the political right who regard violent Islamism as a far more consuming threat than the backward-looking, identitarian nationalism that has spread through much of Europe.
To my mind, this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. To begin with, there is no reason to be soft on Orban. While careful not to sound anti-Semitic himself, he keeps around him many influencers who are, like the journalist Zsolt Bayer, and he positively revels in the nationalist militarism of Hungary’s recent past. For Orban, the wartime dictator Miklos Horthy was a figure of noble tragedy, upon whom anti-Semitic policies were imposed from the outside.
Such rewriting of history is unremarkable in the nationalist environs of Eastern Europe—the Poles, the Lithuanians and the Serbs, among others, all do the same. It is why we should be suspicious of what Orban says. But it also explains why—despite Hungary’s emergence as an independent state free of Soviet domination—Orban feels a greater sense of fraternity with brutish dictators like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia, than he does with Germany’s Angela Merkel or France’s unfashionably cosmopolitan Emmanuel Macron.
Nevertheless, a realist might say that while the rewriting of history spits upon the dead, it doesn’t kill the living. Netanyahu clearly calculated that a billboard showing the grinning visage of Soros, alongside the exhortation not to “let him have the last laugh,” wasn’t enough of an offense to prevent cooperation with Hungary on those matters upon which he and Orban are in agreement—like closing Europe to further streams of mainly Muslim refugees from the blood-drenched conflicts in the nearby Middle East.
I do not believe the Soros issue was worth the price of a major disagreement between Israel and Hungary. But I’m also aware that there is a tendency in pro-Israel circles to sometimes think in binary opposites: If Orban isn’t among the European enemies of Israel, then he can only be a friend of the Jews.
The reality is that Orban isn’t much of a friend. When the U.S. launched airstrikes against Assad regime targets in Syria, the pro-Orban (and therefore pro-Russian) press in Hungary moaned about its disappointment with President Donald Trump. One pro-Orban commentator opined that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a fiction like Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which was hardly the Israeli conclusion. As Israel faces up to the growing threat posed by Iran on its own borders, who would put Orban in the frontline of Israel’s European defenders?
As for Soros, the next time something like this happens, I would ask his detractors—among whom I count myself—if Soros is being targeted as a man or as a symbol. Even if there is a trace of the former, it’s the overwhelming presence of the latter that should keep us healthily skeptical.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.