Some of the world’s worst leaders from Hungary, to Russia to Iran have joined forces in echoing anti-Semitic tropes bashing American-Jewish financier, George Soros. In their assault, they’ve been aided by some imprecise reporting by the NY Times correspondent in Iran. In early May, before the recent presidential election won by Hassan Rouhani, Thomas Erdbrink reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had attacked George Soros by name as a “rich Zionist” purportedly known for toppling regimes through his support for democratic movements in places like Georgia and Iran itself (in the 2009 election). Thomas Erdbrink reported:
In accounts of the speech reported by the Tasnim News Agency and other Iranian news outlets, including Ayatollah Khamenei’s own website, he also accused George Soros, the multibillionaire Hungarian-American investor, of having tried to influence the elections of 2009…
…“An evil American and rich Zionist said that he managed to turn everything upside down in Georgia with $10 million,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, referring to Mr. Soros and his alleged role in the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia.
“In 2009, he was foolish enough to try to affect the Islamic republic, but he slammed against a strong wall of national will and determination,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “It is the same today.”
— Bahman Kalbasi (@BahmanKalbasi) May 30, 2017
Before I get to the obvious lies and distortions of the Iranian leader’s comments, it’s important to clarify the journalistic sloppiness in this passage. When I visited the Tasnim site to which Erdbrink linked there was no reference at all to Soros in its coverage of the speech. Then I attempted to find the original Farsi speech. When I asked him for a link to it, Erdbrink gave me a link to the Ayatollah’s site but not the speech itself. But since I don’t speak Farsi, that didn’t help much.
When I tweeted requesting a link to the speech itself, BBC Persia’s Bahman Kalbasi offered a screenshot of the passage in question and affirmed Erdbrink’s account of it. But I still wanted a more precise analysis. I asked Prof. Muhammad Sahimi, a native Farsi speaker, to review it and he noted that Khamenei never mentioned Soros by name in the speech. However, the Supreme Leader did offer enough hints that it was clear to a well-informed listener he was referring to Soros.
But given the Times history of falsifying statements by Iranian leaders, (I wrote this post on the subject as well) you’d think Erdbrink would be more careful in offering accounts of this speech. Especially given how his account was abused shortly thereafter (more on this below). There is a distinct difference between attacking Soros by name and by inference. Both would be offensive. But one is clearly different, and more severe than the other.
Khamenei’s Attack on Soros
Khamenei, like all demagogues, needs bogeymen to provoke fear in his subjects and unify them against imagined enemies. Hitler did this and used Jews as Germany’s national demons. So it’s no surprise that Khamenei pursued a similar approach. Though in his description of Soros as a “rich Zionist” Khamenei doesn’t refer explicitly to the billionaire’s Jewish identity, the implicit connection is clear. Dictators around the world, taking their lead from Israeli leaders themselves, refuse to distinguish between Zionists and Jews. It’s no surprise Khamenei does the same.
Khamenei displays a host of other ignorant views in this passage as well. To call Soros a “Zionist” mischaracterizes his views. While he once gave $750,000 to J Street just after its founding, he’s given very little to explicitly Zionist groups or causes. The Democratic National Committee e-mail leaks revealed that Soros’ has actually given far more largely to Israeli Palestinian causes like Adalah ($2-million), I’lam ($1-million), Mada al-Carmel, Kayan-Feminist Organization, Mossawa Center, Molad, The Galilee Society, Al-Tufula Center, Ma’an, Injaz, Sidreh, Lakiya, Baladna, Arab Association for Human Rights, National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel and PILI Foundation. A significant portion of the funds were donated via the New Israel Fund. While it does support Israel as a Zionist state, it is reviled by the Israeli nationalist-right for its support of Palestinian causes.
Other media sources report that Soros’s Open Society also funds Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO which documents IDF abuses and potential war crimes against Palestinians living under Occupation. In fact, the pro-Israel media has reviled Soros for his long record of giving to such causes. They in effect, call him a “rich pro-Palestinian” traitor to his race.
So at the very least, Khamenei is guilty of not understanding the nuance of Israeli-Palestinian politics and the role Soros plays as a funder in that context. Likewise, characterizing Soros as an ‘evil American’ is ridiculous. Soros supports the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He is one of its major funders. The financier supported Barack Obama and the folks who negotiated and supported the P5+1 nuclear deal. Though the deal was far from perfect, it did permit the easing of sanctions and the return of Iran to the international oil market.
In fact, those in the GOP who seek regime change in Iran revile Soros. So unless Khamenei doesn’t even trust those American politicians seeking a reset in relations with Iran, he should see Soros as a lifeline, rather than an enemy. It could be however, that Khamenei is such a hardliner that he rejects even this attempt to reconcile with Iran.
The Iranian rejectionist claims that Soros financially supported reformists in the disputed 2009 election is absurd. Moderates like Moussavi and Kouroubi, in their campaign against Ahmadinejad, understood that outside funding would destroy their credibility. There was never any credible evidence that George Soros or any outside entity offered financial support to what was then called the Green Revolution. But as I wrote above, these false smear tactics are exceedingly convenient tools for dictators the world over.
So it’s no surprise that another autocrat read Erdbrink’s account and saw a way to reap political capital. Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s reigning intolerant nationalists saw Soros’ name and immediately began salivating like Pavlov’s dog.
George Soros was born a Hungarian Jew before the Holocaust. His father saved his life by sending him to live with a non-Jewish friend. This relationship enabled Soros to survive the war. After Communism fell in eastern Europe, Soros hoped to pay back him native country and also lay the groundwork for a nascent civil society movement in former Communist states like Russia and Hungary. Thus he founded the Open Society movement. He also launched the Open University in Hungary. He even funded scholarships for young scholars to study at western universities where, it was hoped, they would study about democracy and instill those values in their home countries. A young Viktor Orban received such a fellowship to study at Oxford University.
Hungary has a long history of anti-Semitism which included a fascist World War II government which willingly rid itself of its Jewish population by shipping 400,000 to Auschwitz in the closing months of the War. Now Orban is reviving the dark shadows of this far-right past by posing Soros as an enemy of the Hungarian nation. He’s blamed him personally for the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing to Europe from the chaos of Africa and the Middle East. He’s sought to close the Open University under fraudulent pretexts, just as Bibi Netanyahu has sought to smear Israeli human rights NGOs using similar xenophobic sentiments.
The irony of a far-right nationalist embracing an anti-Semitic meme by an Iranian theocrat was apparently lost on Orban, who’s more of an opportunist than a disciplined thinker. Both Orban and Khamenei share a fondness for dog-whistle racist politics, which revive anti-Semitic tropes while eschewing some of the ugliest Goebbels-Streicher stereotypes. You might even call it ‘anti-Semitism lite,’ if it weren’t so dangerous given Europe’s past history. They both portray Soros as a vulture capitalist sucking the life-blood out of the world financial system. This too is a well-worn anti-Semitic stereotype that survives to this day in some media and alt-right circles.
Trump’s Dog Whistle Politics
Donald Trump, of course, is a master of a similar form of dog-whistle racism directed at immigrants and Muslims. In addition, he’s hired an outright Hungarian neo-Nazi, Sebastian Gorka, as an “anti-terror” advisor, though his Hungarian doctorate and credentials are fraudulent or non-existent. The one credential he has which is legitimate is his pin certifying his membership in the Hungarian neo-Nazi “Vitezi Rend” movement. Gorka’s wife too has landed a similar position in the Trump administration.
The savagery of Trump’s politics toward minorities is evident in attacks throughout the country against Muslims, Blacks, Sikhs, Hispanics and even Jews. Many of those who kill in the name of alt-Right politics either explicitly endorse Trump or implicitly feel their hate empowered by his rise to power. The latest of these are the victims of Jeremy Christian, the neo-Nazi who murdered two Portland men seeking to defend two young girls (one of whom was Black and the other a hijab-wearing Muslim) from his assault. Trump maintained radio silence about this heinous slaughter for days, despite a massive drubbing he suffered on social media for refusing to speak up. He finally did make a statement, but only after hundreds of thousands of comments slamming his indifference.
But almost no one in this country is calling this attack what it was–a white supremacist terror attack. It appears that only Muslims can be terrorists. White people may be crazy, even alt-right. But they’re not terrorists.
Another practitioner of xenophobia is Vladimir Putin, who pioneered the xenophobic art of smearing foreign aid groups, including Open Society. He passed legislation which repressed these groups. They were often charged with sham financial offenses which led to closing their offices (a tactic he uses against his individual political opponents as well). So, in a sense, Orban and Khamenei are learning xenophobia at the feet of the master in their smears of Soros.
Israeli Racist Dog-Whistle Politics
Israel too has its great share of such dog-whistle racism. Like fish, it stinks from the head. Meaning that leading cabinet ministers like Ayelet Shaked, Avigdor Lieberman and Miri Regev advocate genocide against Palestinians in public speeches. They’ve also attacked African refugees as a “cancer” on Israeli society and incited violent riots against them in Tel Aviv neighborhoods. But there are far more Palestinians than Africans in Israel, so the latter has receded as an effective cudgel with which whip up racist frenzy. There are also a plethora of Israeli Jewish racist NGOs like Lehava and many others which espouse ethnic cleansing and mass violence against Palestinians.
The irony, of course, is that Jews were the ultimate victims of Nazism. They bore the brunt of a similar breed of annihilist hate. The primary difference is that genocide was at the heart of the Nazi platform, while Iran and Hungary’s leaders appear to be using it as a tactic rather than strategy. They pursue temporary political advantage rather than a Final Solution.
The Palestinian NGO, 7amaleh (the Palestinian Center for Digital Media Advancement) published the shocking results of a survey which found that 60,000 Israeli Jews were posting 700,000 separate social media posts containing racist, violent material. Unlike Palestinians, who were hunted down and arrested by Israeli authorities for often far less incendiary postings, no Israeli has ever been prosecuted for posting such hate. Instead, Israel pressures Google and Facebook to approve censorship of Palestinian content on the unsubstantiated excuse that it provokes terror attacks against Jews. Israel has even developed algorithms helping its social media censors to detect posts that supposedly advocate incitement or violence. While these tools have been used to arrest Palestinians, there is no proof they’ve actually prevented terror attacks. In effect, they’re a form of pre-emptive censorship which criminalizes speech.
Unfortunately, there are no Palestinian NGOs exerting a similar level of pressure to censor Israeli Jewish content. Nor are there any major NGOs on either side upholding the rights of free speech in the digital realm.