Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A month ago, I wrote a piece for this website with the title: “The smears against George Soros are dangerous.” I knew then, from spending time in Eastern Europe, that the international far-right’s attack on Soros had become an excuse for Hungary’s government to imprison migrants and shut universities. What I didn’t know was that within a month, the conspiracy theories about one of America’s most prominent Jewish philanthropists spread by that far-right network – including members of the US President’s entourage – would lead to bombing attempts and mass murder on US soil.
To many Americans, it might be confusing to see far-right extremists, like Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. and Robert Bowers, be accused of attacking Jewish people in the name of protesting nonwhite immigration. Sayoc, who is charged with last week’s mail bomb campaign, reportedly accused Soros of funding a high-profile caravan of immigrants currently traveling from Honduras (and echoed several high-profile GOP leaders in doing so.)
Bowers, arrested at the scene of Saturday’s synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, is reported to have posted messages complaining about Jewish organizations aiding refugees. “Open you Eyes!” [sic] read one post. “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”
To Eastern Europeans, none of this is surprising at all. If you spent any time in Hungary during April’s general election, you’d have seen poster images of Soros with opposition politicians, brandishing Photoshopped bolt cutters as he bursts through the fences reinforced on Hungary’s borders to keep out migrants.
In Hungary, where my grandparents came from, fear of Muslim invasion runs deep; centuries of resistance on the borders of the Ottoman Empire have engendered a residual mythos of Hungary as a nation destined to hold the frontier between European Christendom and Islam. But the idea of Hungary’s most famous Jewish emigrant as a fifth columnist enabling this invasion? That taps into wider international prejudices about the Jewish people as barely white sleeper agents in white civilization.
Multiple Ph.D. theses have been written on the subject of whether Jewish people are “white.” Here’s perhaps one simplified answer to a much more complicated question: In white, Christian countries, Jews are a minority – but unlike non-Caucasian minorities, many Ashkenazi Jews aren’t as easily singled out simply by skin color. Those Jews can pass – my family did, in Europe, for generations.
So white supremacists eager to police racial purity have to look for other traits to define their racist boundaries. (Remember all that Nazi obsession with head sizes?) In the nastier corners of the internet, it’s only a short stop from that to the idea of the Jew as someone who’s still on the same “team” as Hispanics, black people or Middle Eastern people, practicing an added deceit by passing in white society. Or as Bowers put it: “It’s the filthy evil jews Bringing the Filthy evil Muslims into the Country!!” Doesn’t matter how white your skin is, if you’re not Aryan, you’re filthy, in the eyes of the extremists.
Hungary, where the theory of an alliance between Jews and nonwhite migrants has been given freest rein by a supremacist government, has pinned these anxieties most obviously onto the figure of George Soros. As I’ve written before, Soros has invested significant wealth in supporting democratic institutions in Hungary and other western countries but his support for migration has been grossly exaggerated.
In a pre-election speech, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban railed against nonwhite migration (“Africa wants to kick our door down”) in the same breath as attacking “Uncle George” for being behind Europe’s changing demographics. (He also identified Hungary’s enemy as an unnamed group, which “does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” It was widely assumed to be an anti-Semitic description of the Jewish people.) But as Spencer Ackerman points out at the Daily Beast, there’s been a Jewish bogeyman for every age of white prejudice, and it’s always been someone accused of trading in his white countryman’s suffering for personal profit.
There may be particular reasons for criticizing Soros’ individual choices – as there are with any public figure – which don’t make the critic anti-Semitic. (As Eric Levitz has written this week, many who defend Soros would also criticize the ways Sheldon Adelson also uses his wealth to impact the democratic process.) But in the case of Soros, we can’t ignore the ways the particular charges against him echo centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes that long predate his arrival on the scene.
This stuff is everyday parlance in Hungarian politics. Flick through the hard-right propaganda website Breitbart and you’ll find pages of GOP attacks on Soros as an insidious proponent of further nonwhite migration. Breitbart refers to Soros’ Open Society Foundations as “The Death Star” and pushes claims such as: “globally, Soros is involved in efforts to promote migration from the Muslim world into Europe across open borders.”
Just this Monday, after the Pittsburgh shootings, the website was amplifying a claim by the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Florida, Ron DeSantis. According to DeSantis, a victory by his opponent Andrew Gillum would lead Florida to “become a petri dish for people like George Soros and Tom Steyer.” (Steyer, another liberal philanthropist, is the son of a Jewish father who acted as a prosecutor against Nazis at the Nuremburg trials.) Breitbart helpfully illustrated this claim with a double portrait of Soros and Gillum, who is black.
So, allegedly, Jewish billionaires foster a breeding ground for bacteria, starting with a black governor. This stuff isn’t subtle and it’s not new either.
The attack at the Tree of Life synagogue was not the only deadly incident linked to a white supremacist this week. Just as Bowers reportedly entered a Jewish synagogue to open fire on innocents on Saturday, Gregory A. Bush was arrested in Kentucky on Wednesday after failing to gain entry to a historically black church carrying a weapon. Before he could be arrested, police say he’d sought out two black passersby to kill instead of the churchgoers, allegedly after telling a frightened white bystander that “whites don’t shoot white.” The shootings are now being investigated as a hate crime.
(Breitbart loved that one, too.)
Most disturbingly, we see the same personnel popping up in Donald Trump’s White House, purveying conspiracy theories at outlets like Breitbart, and building links with populist governments in Europe who make anti-Soros prejudices official government policy. Steve Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist and Breitbart’s executive chairman, recently visited Hungary to hail Orban as “the original Trump.” The international far-right has a network every bit as strong as the web it attributes to George Soros.
It’s not enough for President Donald Trump to condemn the individual actions of racist killers. He needs to repudiate the conspiracy theories that fuel their bloodlust. He needs to denounce Bannon, and he needs to end his warm ties with a racist Hungarian government. The European Union is already considering sanctions in response to Orban’s racist cultural crusade. If Trump continues to embrace him as a brother in an international network of far-right thinkers, the international community will need to hold the US President to account, too.