Who is George Soros, and why has he been called a comic-book super-villain?

Who is George Soros, and why has he been called a comic-book super-villain?

“Hates humanity,” declared Elon Musk.

”Connoisseur of chaos,” shouted an ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Who is the subject of this inflated rhetoric? George Soros.

So who is George Soros? He was born into a secular Jewish family in Hungary in 1930. In the deeply antisemitic Hungarian environment during the interwar years. George’s father, Tivadar, changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros. The family survived the Nazi invasion of Hungary and avoided the deportation of the Jews to death camps by posing as Christian. They escaped to the United Kingdom in 1947, and George Soros earned a master of science degree in philosophy from the London School of Economics. With that degree in hand, he became a financier. In 1956 he moved to New York City and in 1961 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.

A successful stock trader, Soros quickly developed a capital pool of his own that he used to make personal investments. Adapting philosophic concepts, he developed a theory of markets that he has used throughout his career. He observed that markets, driven by internal dynamics, tend to overshoot and misprice. He based much of his investments on that realization. Within two decades Soros already was recognized as a wealthy investor and the founder of the Quantum Fund. Soon events would play out that would substantially expand the Soros fortune and define his finance legacy.

First, some background. As World War II drew to a close, the framework for a new international trading regime with fixed exchange rates was established at Bretton Woods. That system collapsed in the early 1970s. What evolved next were exchange rates between national currencies that would vary daily in currency markets. Postwar Western Europe, however, was seeking to integrate its economies, and exchange rate variability was an obstacle. To facilitate stability, Europe established the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The United Kingdom joined in 1990, but at exchange rate levels for the British pound that were too strong to be sustainable.  At those exchange rates, the UK would import too much and export too little, a trade imbalance that inevitably led to pressure for pound revaluation.

One of Soros’ traders, Stanley Druckenmiller, recognized the likelihood of growing imbalances and brought it to Soros’ attention. Soros encouraged his trader to make a much bigger bet. The Quantum Fund borrowed British pounds and sold them to invest in assets denominated in other currencies, on the expectation that in the future, the British pound exchange rate would weaken, and that profit, maybe great profit, could be made when the pounds needed for repayment could be bought at lower rates. The speculation proved to be correct; in spite of extensive Bank of England purchases to protect the pound, the UK was forced to devalue in a spectacular market crash in November 1992. The UK lost more than $3 billion trying to prop up the pound; George Soros made about $1 billion and became the face of speculative success in the affair.

By this time, Soros had long been politically active in the use of his fortune. One of Soros’ mentors was the noted 20th century philosopher Karl Popper. Motivated by Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” and its defense of liberal democracy, in 1979 Soros began philanthropic activities with a liberal democratic agenda. Early efforts included work in South Africa, funding scholarships for Black students in a racially closed society. The ferment in the Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain, seeking to end the grip of the Soviet Union and communism, drew Soros’ attention, and he gave financial support to the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, and Andrei Sakharov’s efforts within the Soviet Union.

Soros’s commitments in support of liberal democracy grew with his financial ability to do something about it. He began an institutional framework to support open society work internationally. The first of these initiatives was born in 1984 with the establishment of a foundation for scientific, educational, and cultural purposes in Hungary. This became the model for Open Society foundations in other eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The national foundations ultimately were tied together through the Open Society Foundations headquarters in New York.

The Open Society Foundations express political objectives in very general terms, which also encompass scientific, educational, and cultural areas. In 2017, it was reported that Soros had transferred $18 billion to the charity. Soros, however, also has made substantial partisan donations in the U.S., supporting Democratic Party candidates and progressive political causes.

Given Soros’ activism, it is not surprising that he has become the focus of pointed attacks. The disturbing thing about the attacks is that they are repeatedly couched in antisemitic terms. When Victor Orban took power in Hungary and pursued a program of political control over the courts and the press, Soros and his Open Society Foundation became targets. The long-standing Open Society affiliate in Budapest was forced to close. In Orban’s recent political election campaign, both Soros and Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, were explicit targets. They often were bound together in a reference to the “international left,” insinuating a Jewish international conspiracy. Orban’s political posters, showing a smiling Soros, were accompanied by the words “don’t let him have the last laugh,” an echo of Nazi propaganda posters of “the laughing Jew.”

Soros’ speculative success against the British pound in 1992 has become the source of references by his political critics, alluding to old themes of Jewish manipulation and control of international finance. It is common for U.S. right-wing commentators to speak of Soros as a puppet master, playing on antisemitic themes of hidden Jewish political power. No one can doubt the outsized influence of large political donors to the Republican party but, for example, nobody calls Citadel’s Ken Griffin, who is a consistent major Republican donor, a puppet master. The attacks on Soros typically are filled with inflated rhetoric: Soros is a public enemy. Although Soros is a U.S. citizen, it is not uncommon for him to be referred to as a foreigner, alluding to themes of the Jew as a rootless cosmopolitan.

There is no end to the slurs and insinuations that are thrown at George Soros. In Elon Musk’s recent attack, he linked Soros to Magneto, a comic book supervillain with a Jewish and Holocaust heritage. If Musk’s interests were purely about politics, why bring in Soros’ Jewish ethnicity, and do so with reference to a fictional villain?

You would expect that the repeated assaults on Soros that insinuate dark conspiracies and broad evils would elicit censure from Jewish organizations devoted to combating antisemitism. In some cases, they have. Recently, however, the Israeli minister charged with fighting antisemitism denied that the attacks against Soros were antisemitic and effectively greenlighted them. Amichai Chikli, a member of the right-wing Likud party and now Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, denied that Musk’s Magneto statement was antisemitic, saying: “As Israel’s minister who is entrusted with combating anti-Semitism, I would like to clarify that the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens see Elon Musk as an amazing entrepreneur and a role model.”

Of course, this is a minister in a government dedicated to following the Orban playbook, which now is seeking to take political control of Israel’s judicial system. Apparently, this Israeli government is willing to accept certain kinds of Diaspora antisemitism if it seems in concert with its political agenda.

This is dangerous on two points. The first is obvious. Implicit is the idea that right-wing antisemitism can be limited and controlled. It can’t. The history of the last century should leave us no illusions. Antisemitism is a cancer that grows in the dark corners and under rocks until it finds any kind of support. It can then grow and spread beyond any real ability to contain it.

The second point is more subtle. George Soros is not a Zionist. That does not mean that Soros is not sensitive to the benefits that Israel’s existence has brought to the general Jewish condition. He is aware of them. Nor should anyone be confused by Soros’ criticisms of various Israeli government policies, many of which are the criticisms hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets across Israel make. Soros is not a Zionist because he doesn’t agree with the Zionist analysis that defines the Jewish Diaspora as necessarily tenuous. He thinks that antisemitism and other challenges to Jews living as a dispersed minority are conditional. To Soros, what can make life safe for Jews in the Diaspora are the same societal conditions that define an open society: rule of law, free and fair elections, independent courts, freedom of religion, free speech and a free press, civil rights honored without discrimination. That makes the struggle for open society not only of general importance but of specific Jewish importance.

You doesn’t have to be a non-Zionist to see the enemies of an open society, the enemies of liberal democracy, also threaten the viability of Diaspora Jewish life. In some cases, this is an implicit threat. In all too many cases, the threat is explicit.

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