WASHINGTON (AP) Near the end of a marathon impeachment hearing in the House of Representatives last month, former White House national security aide Fiona Hill tied conservative jabs at George Soros to “the longest-running anti-Semitic trope that we have in history.”
Anti-Soros theories amplified by conservatives are “the new ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’,” Hill told lawmakers, referring to an infamous early-20th-century screed that falsely asserts a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. Her comment focused fresh attention on the role of Soros’ Jewish identity in the right’s long-running portrayal of the liberal billionaire as using his wealth to manipulate events for his own benefit.
Indeed, Soros’ status as an enemy of the far right predates the Ukraine drama that has brought President Donald Trump to the brink of impeachment. But the 89-year-old Hungarian-born philanthropist and financier has played a key part in a narrative woven of unfounded corruption claims that President Donald Trump’s allies have used to defend him during the impeachment process.
Soros’ nonprofit, Open Society Foundations, is decrying some of those claims as anti-Semitic — speaking out, as it has more vocally since mid-2017, when Hungary’s far-right government mounted an anti-Soros ad campaign also lambasted as anti-Semitic. In the United States, the foundations’ president last year publicly punctured baseless conservative claims that Soros was funding a Central American migrant caravan.
“It’s about something much bigger and much more dangerous” than criticism of Soros himself, Laura Silber, chief communications officer for the foundations, said in an interview. “It’s a way of dehumanizing, of making it easy to hate an individual, and that individual becomes symbolic of a group.”
During her closed-door deposition to Congress in October, Hill attested that both she and ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch were threatened by “what is frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory” tying them to Soros. Hill told lawmakers that one GOP lobbyist attempted to get her fired by slamming her as “a Soros mole in the White House,” and State Department Ukraine adviser Catherine Croft also testified that another GOP lobbyist pushed for Yovanovitch’s firing, citing an alleged connection to Soros.
As the impeachment investigation dug into Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine, the president’s allies circulated claims, lacking evidence, that a Ukrainian nonprofit partly funded by Soros’ foundation was involved in efforts to undercut Trump and Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claimed on ABC in September that “George Soros’ company was funding” Ukrainian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election — efforts at the heart of a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by some in the GOP to help Trump during the impeachment battle.
The Ukrainian anti-corruption nonprofit in question has received 17% of its funding since its 2012 founding from Soros’ foundation, with the U.S. government, the Dutch government and the European Union also providing financial support.
Baseless Soros-related theories made their way to other networks as well. Giuliani claimed on CNN in September that the Ukrainian nonprofit had created a “false document” to hurt Manafort. Appearing on Fox Business last month, pro-Trump attorney Joe DiGenova claimed that the liberal Soros “wants to run Ukraine” and “controls a very large part” of the State Department’s foreign service.
“So many acts of brutality and violence against us, from all corners, came from some version of this trope, which is that Jews have some sort of secret global conspiracy cabal that exerts control over decision-makers,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. That idea “invariably leads to acts of violence against Jews and should be condemned no matter where it manifests,” he added.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called on those “in positions of authority” to help stop the spread of anti-Semitic rhetoric by “calling it out, clearly and cogently.”
“It’s very fair to criticize Soros and some of his charity work or political contributions,” said Greenblatt, whose group last month joined Soros’ foundations in asking Fox to bar diGenova from the airwaves following his remarks. “I certainly don’t agree with all of it. But you can do it in a way that’s not anti-Semitic.”
Mark Corallo, spokesman for diGenova, responded in a statement: “Criticizing the far leftist politics and oversized influence Mr. Soros and his network have in the Democrat party and in certain agencies of our government is not anti-Semitism.”
“For anyone to suggest otherwise is just another tactic of the left – make accusations of racial or religious bias where none exists in order to slander a conservative,” Corallo continued. DiGenova appeared on Fox Business this week.
One conservative pundit chided for invoking anti-Semitic tropes against Soros, Glenn Beck, last week said that he would stop using puppet-master imagery to depict the philanthropist even as he defended his own criticism as free from bias.
Acknowledging that “some attacks against George Soros may be rooted in anti-Semitism,” Beck told viewers that “legitimate criticisms of George Soros, like the kind I have tried to do, is not related to, nor is it motivated by, any anti-Semitism.”
Neil Strauss, spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Beck was right to avoid puppeteer imagery that is historically linked to anti-Semitism. But Strauss warned against attempts to employ “religion as a shield for criticism” by those of any faith who use “money and influence to put their thumb on the politics of this nation.”
“Mr. Soros is allowed to do that … people can criticize him for it,” Strauss said. “That has nothing to do with his religion.”
Trump is set to sign an order on Wednesday that expands the federal government’s definition of anti-Semitism for the purposes of reining in alleged discrimination on college campuses, a move welcomed by some Jewish American advocates but criticized by others as constraining free speech.
Republican criticism of Soros in the United States is often linked to his financial support for Democratic candidates and causes. Overseas, Soros has steered significant grants in Eastern Europe and beyond to promote democratic values and civil society, with total spending by his foundations topping $15 billion since 1982.
Hill, who served as Trump’s National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia before leaving the administration earlier this year, held an unpaid advisory post on a project at Soros’ foundations that ended in 2006.
Regardless of whether anti-Soros rhetoric is consciously biased, Jewish Americans concerned about desensitization to anti-Semitic stereotypes warn that their spread is problematic. Conservatives criticizing Soros have focused on his support for refugees and migrants, and the gunman who killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year shared anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish support for refugees before his attack. Days before that synagogue shooting, Soros and other high-profile liberals were sent mail bombs by a Florida man whom federal prosecutors said researched his targets in advance.
Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor and expert in anti-Semitism, noted that “you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to enable anti-Semitism.”
“My question is not what’s in a person’s heart — that’s between them and their cardiologist,” Lipstadt said. “My question is, what do they enable? What do they do?”