For the left wing of the American political spectrum, George Soros is one of the great patrons of progressive causes. For those on the right, he is the man who lavished money on insurgent groups like MoveOn.org, and called defeating George W. Bush a “matter of life and death” — in other words, a symbol of all that’s wrong on the political scene.
But for the Jewish community, this billionaire Holocaust survivor is, above all, a riddle.
A tough critic of the pro-Israel lobby and a self-proclaimed non-Zionist, Soros has also led the campaign for democracy in Eastern Europe, a cause shared by many in the Jewish community. He has made business investments in Israel, and provides political donations to Jewish candidates.
He represents a mixed bag for Jewish activists, but as the latest controversy with J Street demonstrates, the Soros brand is still radioactive.
During the discussions leading up to the 2008 launch of the new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, Soros, who attended one of the meetings, expressed his support for the cause, but said that he would not provide funds for launching the new initiative. The reason, according to those involved, was Soros’s own understanding that his involvement could only complicate matters. “He sensed that ideological enemies of J Street would identify J Street as a Soros enterprise and use it to undermine this important cause,” said Michael Vachon, a Soros spokesman.
On J Street’s website, the group stated that Soros was not a donor. But Soros did eventually donate to the newly established lobby. J Street never disclosed the fact that Soros has given substantial sums since 2008, but a September 24 report in the Washington Times revealed that Soros has given $245,000 to the lobby as part of a three-year pledge of $750,000.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, said the group was not trying to hide its ties with Soros and that even in the initial stages of planning the new lobby, he did not think Soros’s involvement would be a liability. But Soros thought otherwise.
“He felt we need to get off the ground without having to deal with the criticism against him from the Jewish community,” said Ben-Ami, who has since apologized for the lack of transparency.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sees three possible reasons for the community’s critical approach toward Soros: his views on Israel, his support for progressive political groups and his refusal to donate to Jewish organizations. “All these things together raise issues and concerns,” Foxman said. “I, however, don’t have any problem with him. It’s his money, and he is entitled to do whatever he wants with it.”
And what Soros likes to do with his money is spend it on promoting causes in which he believes. Now 80 years old, Soros has a fortune estimated at $14 billion, and he donates about $500 million a year to charity. As a child, Soros escaped Nazi-controlled Hungary to England, and later, after he already launched his career as an investment banker, he moved to New York. Soros made his fortune from investments in stocks and from speculating on foreign currency.
Most of Soros’s philanthropic work has been dedicated to the promotion of democracy, especially in former communist countries in Eastern Europe. In recent years he has also increased his contributions to anti-poverty programs worldwide.
In politics, Soros is known for his support for the progressive side of the Democratic Party and for his financial backing of the liberal MoveOn.org. But he also has consistently given political donations to moderate candidates, many of whom are Jewish.
Tax filings show that those on the receiving end of Soros donations include such Jewish politicians as Senators Charles Schumer, Carl Levin and Al Franken, and Reps. Howard Berman, Steve Cohen and Paul Hodes. In 2003, Soros donated to the congressional campaign of the late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve at the time in the U.S. Congress. The two Hungarian-born Americans were, according to a former congressional staffer, close friends and shared a common drive for promoting democracy and human rights.
Several Republican candidates have pounced on the ties between Soros and J Street. And in at least one case, the Republican’s Democratic opponent turned on the dovish lobby, from which she has received contributions, in response.
Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky rejected Republican challenger Joel Pollack’s demand that she “give back the J Street cash” in light of the group’s Soros ties. But in a statement to the Forward, Schakowsky declared herself “extremely disappointed” with the group. “They need to be very clear and open about who their donors are,” she said. Schakowski added: “I don’t always agree with J Street and I don’t always agree with George Soros. However, I do agree on the need for the space in the pro-Israel community for vigorous debate.”
In Pennsylvania, the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey called on Democrat Joe Sestak to cut his ties with “Soros-funded J Street.”
Sestak’s campaign did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
According to J Street, donations for candidates were provided through the group’s sister organization, J StreetPAC, which Soros has not funded.
“I’ve never had the impression that Jewish Democrats think Soros is poison, and I don’t think they will distance themselves from him,” veteran political consultant Doug Bloomfield said. He added, however, that Soros has become a rallying point for critics of the Democratic Party. “The right ran a very successful campaign to demonize him,” he said.
Soros’s writings helped this effort.
He has consistently insisted on avoiding slogans in favor of nuanced positions that were easily exploited by critics, especially when it comes to Israel. In 2003, Soros wrote, when discussing anti-Semitism, that “attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.” Critics saw it as blaming Israel and its supporters for anti-Semitism, although he stated clearly that “neither Israel or its policies should be held responsible” for the spread of anti-Semitism.
In 2009, Soros declared that he is not a Zionist and not a practicing Jew. But he added that he has “a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews, and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”
These statements did little to make Soros welcome within the Jewish establishment. In return, he has steered clear of dealing with Jewish groups and rarely takes on issues relating to Israel.
“He does not see himself as being anti-Israel,” said Vachon, who argued that Soros was subjected to distortion and mischaracterizing. The spokesman added that in terms of philanthropy, Soros “has never focused his philanthropy on Jewish causes.”
According to M.J. Rosenberg of the liberal group Media Matters Action Network, this might be the reason for the Jewish establishment’s suspicions. “He is demonized because he has separated himself and his billions from the Jewish organizations,” Rosenberg said. “Jewish organizations don’t like it when Jews say to them, ‘I don’t come under your umbrella.’”
Soros, in fact, did recently make a major donation to a Jewish group: He provided $1 million to World ORT — the largest Jewish vocational education network. The funds are for an education project working with former child soldiers in Liberia.
Soros has also done some business with Israeli companies, mainly during the high-tech boom of the 1990s. He had invested in Israeli-based Comverse Technology and Indigo. With his recent interest in green technology, some Israeli companies had reportedly hoped he would invest in their products, but these hopes have yet to materialize.
And, perhaps unintentionally, Soros’s money is flowing to a wide variety of American Jewish charities. Thanks to the his company’s matching-fund program, Soros matches on a 3:1 basis any charitable donation made by his employees. And this, according to tax filings, has meant that Soros dollars have been reaching organizations ranging from New York’s UJA-Federation to a Chabad kollel in Brooklyn, and even to Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman