Josh Kantrow is not a fan of George Soros, the Jewish billionaire financier
Kantrow, 55, a Jewish lawyer and longtime Republican in Chicago, doesn’t like Soros’ long and expansive record of philanthropy toward progressive causes, including Democratic politicians. He doesn’t like Soros’ criticism of Israel and his funding of left-wing organizations there.
Kantrow recently defended John Kass, a Chicago Tribune columnist who was demoted after blaming “an overwhelming sense of lawlessness” on local prosecutors who received donations from Soros. The columnist wrote that Soros “remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar.”
In a letter to the Tribune, Kantrow identified as “a proud American Jew and a Zionist” and said Kass “was right about George Soros.”
But Kantrow still feels he needs to be careful when he criticizes Soros, who is a Holocaust survivor. Kantrow, who began speaking out on politics in 2016 and now is an occasional political commentator on TV and radio, is OK with opposing Soros’ activities. But he recognizes there’s a whole other type of Soros criticism — false and anti-Semitic — that he wants no part of.
“I talk about him very carefully,” Kantrow said. “To make clear, whether I’m on a radio show, TV program or I’m writing about him, that I’m disagreeing with him on policy, and to specifically state if I can provide examples as to why I disagree with him on policy. It shouldn’t have anything to do with his religion. And I wish everyone would do it like that and stop it with, like, ‘He’s the most evil man in the world because he believes this.’”
Kantrow is grappling with a question that his fellow Jewish conservatives have faced for years: What do you do when a leading progressive megadonor is also the most prominent avatar of contemporary anti-Semitism?
Conspiracy theories about Soros have long existed, but they gathered steam during Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. Soros’ charity network, the Open Society Foundations, donates to groups that helped waves of migrants who sought to enter Europe, and anti-Semites have accused Soros of attempting to replace Europe’s white inhabitants with Muslim refugees. He has been a target of Hungary’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, who ran a billboard campaign against Soros that was denounced as anti-Semitic.
(The political consultants who recommended that Orban focus his criticism on Soros were American Jewish campaign strategists Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum. Finkelstein died in 2017. Birnbaum did not respond to a request for comment.)
More recently, Soros has become a favorite target of far-right activists in the United States, who claim without evidence that he pays left-wing protesters or seeks to bring down the government. In 2018, a right-wing extremist sent a pipe bomb to Soros’ house. Days later, a man who had demonized him on social media entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jews.
In the past couple of years, Soros has been denounced on Twitter and elsewhere by President Donald Trump and many of his allies, including Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Recently, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congressional nominee in a solidly red Georgia district who has repeatedly called Soros the “enemy of the people” and shared other anti-Semitic content online, was present at the White House when Trump accepted the official nomination to run for reelection.
It’s not just people in power who are calling attention to Soros: This spring, there were half a million negative tweets about him in one day, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which says the Soros theories “can serve as a gateway to the antisemitic subculture that blames Jews” for unrest in the U.S. Many of the tweets, according to the ADL, blamed Soros for fomenting violence in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
This all creates a dilemma for Jews who oppose Soros’ actual activism but feel uneasy about the anti-Semitism against him. How can you criticize his billions of dollars in international philanthropy, for example, without the criticism fueling those who accuse him of masterminding a global conspiracy to destroy the American government? If you believe Soros is fundamentally opposed to what you believe are Jewish interests, such as support for Israel, what do you do when he’s the victim of Jew-hatred?
“Anti-Semitism works by inversion. It works by lying. It works by conflating,” said Ruth Wisse, an emeritus professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard University and conservative writer. “And it’s so difficult to pull some of the threads apart. This is one of the most difficult situations one can be in: when you have a Jewish anti-Jew who is attacked by anti-Semites.”
Jewish people who wield influence, like Soros, shouldn’t be immune from criticism by virtue of their Jewishness, said Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan professor who studies new media and political communication. But Soros’ status as a target of anti-Semitism, he said, means that Soros critics should know their comments will likely be used by those who hate Jews, especially in a climate where conspiracy theories spread quickly on social media.
This is true as well, Pasek said, when those on the left criticize Jewish neoconservatives who support Israeli policy.
“It cannot be the case that all criticism of something Jewish is necessarily anti-Semitic,” Pasek said. But, he added, “The decision that you want to make it about Soros, even if for you it isn’t about his Jewishness, will almost undoubtedly feed into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
Some Jews on the right feel no compunction about Soros bashing, regardless of the anti-Semitism directed at him. Some insist that the conspiracy theories about Soros are not anti-Semitic or are a minor issue when compared to the damage they believe his philanthropy causes.
Yair Netanyahu, the son of the Israeli prime minister who’s known for spreading falsehoods and conspiracy theories on social media, posted a meme on Facebook in 2017 showing Soros dangling the globe on a string in front of a reptilian creature. The meme also included a classic anti-Semitic caricature with a hooked nose.
Netanyahu deleted the meme following a broad backlash, but has since publicly criticized Soros multiple times. Last year, he accused Soros of “destroying Israel from the inside,” and tweeted that “Soros is the number 1 anti Israeli and anti Jewish world actor.”
There are, likewise, Jews who make a point of defending critics of Soros from charges of anti-Semitism. The Coalition for Jewish Values, a right-wing Orthodox rabbinic group, has released statements defending both Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now Trump’s personal attorney, and McCarthy, the House Republican leader, from such charges.
In October 2018, McCarthy had tweeted, then deleted, that “we cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” referencing three Democratic donors who are Jewish or of Jewish descent. He denied the tweet was anti-Semitic. In a statement, his office said the tweet was deleted because of “the political climate today that has led to specific threats,” presumably referring to the pipe bomb attack on Soros, which had occurred one day before the tweet was posted.
Last December, Giuliani said that he was “more of a Jew than Soros is” and falsely accused Soros of employing FBI agents and controlling a U.S. ambassador. The rabbinic group’s president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, called Giuliani’s statements “entirely reasonable.”
Emily Tamkin, author of “The Influence of Soros,” a recent book about Soros’ philanthropy and the conspiracy theories targeting him, said attitudes like Lerner’s go a long way toward explaining how Jews can find themselves attacking the same man who has faced a torrent of anti-Semitism in recent years.
“I think it comes down to your understanding of Jewishness and what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “Soros has funded groups that work to promote Palestinian rights. If you think that being Jewish is first and foremost being concerned with Israel and with an Israel that gets to do what it wants, then Soros is against your understanding of Jewishness.”
The Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group, recently put out a news release with a headline that called Soros a “Radical Anti-Zionist.” Its president, Morton Klein, has also criticized Soros for how he has described his actions as a hidden child during the Holocaust and compared Soros to the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeting, “Condemning anti Israel extremist George Soros is not antisemitic just like condemning racist David Duke is not anti White.”
Klein isn’t worried about providing fodder for anti-Semites because he does not believe Soros is a target of anti-Semitism. He repeatedly said that he has no problem with a cartoon showing Soros as an octopus controlling the world, for example, because he said Soros “has his tentacles all over the place and has enormous influence.” Klein acknowledged that such an image could echo an anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews, money and power, but said that in Soros’ case it is warranted.