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12 August 2020

The man vs the myth: George Soros at 90

Conspiracy theories around the billionaire philanthropist do most harm to those more vulnerable than him.  

By Emily Tamkin

On 12 August 2020, George Soros turned 90. In some ways, the interwar world into which the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist was born looked very different from the world today. In others, all too little has changed.

Soros grew up in Hungary, which had found itself on the losing side of the First World War. Reeling from the Treaty of Trianon and the loss of territory that came with it, many Hungarians looked for a group to blame. They settled on Hungarian Jews. That Hungarian Jews were largely assimilated didn’t matter; the country’s leadership still passed anti-Jewish laws and quotas.

George Soros consequently didn’t become a Soros until he was six. Before then, the family name had been Schwartz, but his father, Tivadar, decided it was safer if he and his wife and children had a less obviously Jewish-sounding last name. They decided on Soros, which means “to soar” in Esperanto, a language devised in the 19th century to overcome nationalisms and foster universal understanding. Somewhat ironically, the name that his father chose to protect the family is now synonymous with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 

Soros has lived an incredible life: pretending to be a Christian during the Nazi occupation of Hungary; studying at the London School of Economics under Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Enemies; going into finance and becoming arguably history’s most famous currency speculator; emerging as a major political donor; and giving billions away to his Open Society Foundations, which works to foster a world in which more people are empowered and enfranchised to participate in society. But now, at age 90, so many of that life’s truths – good and bad – are buried beneath intrigue and baseless speculation.

[See also: How Viktor Orbán turned the treaty of Trianon into a dangerous political weapon]

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In the late 1970s, Soros decided that if he was going to be making vast sums of money, he wanted it to be for something, and that something was the concept of an open society. He began in South Africa, giving scholarships to black students living under apartheid, and then went to his native Hungary, where his signature move was paying for photocopiers, thus loosening the socialist state’s control over the dissemination of information. His foundation also sent a young man by the name of Viktor Orbán to Oxford on a scholarship.

In the 1990s the conspiracy theories began. In 1992 Istvan Csurká a founding member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), a “centre-right” political party, called Soros a puppet of Jerusalem. The then prime minister of Slovakia and aspiring authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar smeared Soros in 1995 by awarding a journalism prize to a magazine that regularly showed Soros in a yarmulke, a skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men (depicting a man in a yarmulke is not, in itself, anti-Semitic, but Soros does not typically wear one). When Mečiar was later ousted by a mass voter mobilisation in 1998, those involved in the efforts described to me how state-backed media implied that Soros was behind it. In 2003-04, when Soros became a major US political donor in an effort to defeat George W Bush, he was slammed by right-wing pundits.

It was after the 2015 migrant and refugee crisis in Europe, however, that the theories really picked up. In the wake of the global economic crash, politicians were casting about for an opponent they could take on without boosting the actual political opposition. Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary and working with the Republican political operative Arthur Finkelstein, whom he met through the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, led the charge.

Orbán passed a series of “Stop Soros” laws that made it illegal to help asylum seekers. In a 2017 speech, he alleged that Soros was behind the recent wave of migration to Europe that threatened to create a “mixed population”.

The next year, in 2018, President Donald Trump also picked up on the theme, claiming on Twitter that Soros was behind protests against Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump had nominated to be on the Supreme Court and who was accused of having sexually assaulted someone in high school. That same year, Trump told reporters that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Soros’s funding was behind the migrant caravan of Central Americans arriving at the US-Mexico border.

Somewhere along the way, Soros’s actual work and actions have become less well-known than the conspiracy theories about work he has never done and actions he has never taken. None of which is to say that Soros is above criticism or questioning. Some criticise the hypocrisy of campaigning against big money in politics and then becoming a major political donor, as Soros did in 2003-04. There are also those who note that Soros, with all his money and influence, can end up empowering certain people in a foreign country more than others, and that those people can go on to become political opportunists.

But criticism is separate from conspiracy, which serves to malign Soros and also, and more importantly, push to the sidelines those who would be more active participants in civic discourse and change.

[See also: Who will stand up for rule of law in Hungary?]

And that, ultimately, is what is at stake. George Soros, a 90-year-old billionaire, is not the person who loses out most from conspiracy theories about George Soros. That isn’t to say he and Open Society aren’t also under pressure: Soros was, after all, sent a pipe bomb by a Trump superfan in 2018, and Open Society has been forced out of Russia and Turkey, and decided to move its office from Hungary. Yet the person at greatest threat isn’t Soros, with his $8.3bn net worth.

Instead, when NGOs that have received funding from Open Society are disparaged for being Soros stooges, it is communities such as the Roma – Europe’s largest ethnic minority group, and heavily discriminated against – which are hurt. As an anti-corruption activist in Hungary told me in 2017, a NGO’s greatest asset is its credibility. If the state can undermine that by saying that the NGO is not really working for the Roma people, but to erode Hungarian national interests, it becomes harder for the NGO to do its work and help people who need it.

Similarly, when conservative pundits claim that protests against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against black Americans are sponsored by Soros, they risk delegitimising the very real anger felt. When the conservative journalist Benny Johnson tweeted, “In case you were wondering who is in charge”, alongside a photo of Soros’s son Alexander with Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, he was not only playing on an old trope of a Jewish cabal controlling the world, but undermining the first black woman and Asian-American person in American history to be on a major party’s ticket.

Orbán and Trump’s suggestions that migrants and asylum seekers are coming into their countries because of Soros’s funding not only puts Jewish people at risk – though one only need to look at the 2018 shooting of the Tree of Life synagogue, carried out by a man who was enraged at Jews helping immigrants, to know that this is the case – but also denigrates the very real reasons migrants and asylum-seekers have to flee one country and enter another.

Tivadar Soros changed his family’s name to protect his family, but a name alone can’t keep you safe. In the next 90 years, we can work to create a world in which we use conspiracy theories to delegitimise, other-ise and stigmatise – or we can fight against such attacks and misdirections.

What that world looks like, now and in 90 years time, is not up to Soros. It’s up to us.

Emily Tamkin is the author of “The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society”