Hungarian government poster portraying financier George Soros and saying "Don't let George Soros have the last laugh" is seen at an underground stop in Budapest, Hungary July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Defending and attacking George Soros’ Jewish laughter


Hungary’s campaign against George Soros – the American Jewish Hungarian radical leftist billionaire – presented Israel with an interesting dilemma. Interesting, but not unprecedented. Soros is trying to alter Hungary’s policies. He is trying to make his country of origin more hospitable to immigrants. He has money, a lot of it, and this money gives him the ability to fund campaigns, pay activists, supports NGO’s. He has an agenda, and his agenda is not the agenda of Hungary’s government. He has the power to fight for his agenda, but the government is not sitting idly by to watch him act. The government is hitting back. It decided to hit back by waging an anti-Soros campaign. An aggressive, personal campaign. Soros is shown laughing, the poster calls Hungarians not to let him be the last to laugh.

Israel has no business with this campaign and with this clash between Soros and Hungary. But for several reasons, some of which were merely lack of proper consideration, it found itself involved in it. That’s because Soros is not just a rich American, but a rich Jewish Hungarian American. And because Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to visit Hungary – a country whose politics is hardly free of anti-Semitism – soon. And because there’s more than a bit of similarity between the way Soros acts against Hungary’s policies and the way he acts against Israel’s policies.

Israel’s ambassador to Hungary decided to protest against the campaign, as Barak Ravid reported: “Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, released an unusually harsh statement calling on Orban and his party to remove posters published across the country against Hungarian-born Jewish-American billionaire George Soros. Figures in the Hungarian Jewish community said the ads are fueling anti-Semitic sentiment.” Amrani was not necessarily mistaken to see the campaign as one with anti-Semitic undertones.

But Netanyahu decided to overturn the protest, and reissued a statement attacking Soros. “In no way was the statement (by the ambassador) meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments,” said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, adding that Soros funded organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.” The Prime Minister is also not necessarily mistaken in thinking that there are very good reasons to censure Soros.

So, in this affair, all sides have a case. There’s a case for those who believe that Israel is obligated to warn against every undertone of anti-Semitism against every Jew. And there’s a case for those who claim that Soros, a canny critic of Israel’s whose actions erode Israel’s security, is the last Jew deserving the protection of the state of Israel.

Here is an interesting question: Does every Jew, no matter his actions, deserve Israel’s protection? Should every expression of hatred be denounced by Israel, no matter the cost to Israel? Try the following two stories as you consider these questions. There are more than two such stories – but these will suffice for now.

Story number one: In July of 1970, another rich Jewish American presented Israel with a dilemma. His name was Meyer Lansky, and he came to Israel and asked to become a citizen under the Law of Return. As a Jew – he argued before Israel’s Supreme Court when the country refused his request – he deserves his place at the safe haven. Indeed, justice Shimon Agranat stated that “the right of Aliya… is of the first order.” Nevertheless, he ruled against Lansky and accepted the state’s position that Lansky is a “danger to the public” – being a gangster. The right of the Jewish public of Israel to live without the fear of crimes comes before the right of a Jewish individual to immigrate to Israel when it fits his needs.

Second story: In 2015, the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Israel has spent most of these years in denial. It has never officially recognized the narrative of horrors told by survivors, historians, diplomats, witnesses. The common comparisons of these horrors to the ones of the Holocaust, the moral obligation not to remain silent, the deteriorating relations with Turkey, the time that has passed – all these have not convinced the government to change its unmovable position. The right of the Jewish public in Israel to live safely in the complicated regional reality of the Middle East comes before Israel’s general obligation to recognize a moral travesty.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to take issue with Israel’s decisions in both of these cases. One can argue for hosting Lansky, one can argue for recognizing the genocide. It is also perfectly reasonable to take issue with Israel’s decision regarding the Soros campaign. Some did, using harsh language. They have a point. As long as their standards for pondering Israel’s actions are reasonable. Not standards that only take into account the person who made the decision (it’s Netanyahu, so it must be wrong), or the person at which this decision was directed (it’s Soros, so it must be right).

What are reasonable standards? A few months ago, I wrote on a similar topic – when the Trump administration was accused of anti-Semitic tendencies. Most of the time, I argued, “Israel attempts to delicately balance its wish to delegitimize anti-Semitism and its need to maintain foreign relations that advance its causes. Sometimes this means using attacks on Jews to attract Jewish immigration to Israel. Sometimes this means turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in exchange for political support.” So reasonable standards would be: Does Israel benefit, and what does it lose, from criticizing Hungary? Where does Israel’s obligation to defend Soros begin and where does it end? It is also advisable not to confuse a campaign that smells badly with a campaign that communicates clear anti-Semitic messages. And not to confuse a helpless Jew in need of saving, and a powerful provocateur that probably expects retribution for his actions.

Soros provoked Hungary. He also provokes Israel. Their campaign could be ours too: Let’s not let Soros be the last one to laugh. One thing is quite possible: that, amid the diplomatic brouhaha, he had a good laugh this week (and to end this saga: Hungary pulls the campaign ahead of Netanyahu’s visit).