For over a year now, Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, has been waging an increasingly shrill campaign against billionaire George Soros, using classical anti-Semitic imagery to signal to his listeners that the Hungarian-born American businessman is a shadowy foreign Jew exercising sinister influence over their country.
It is an invocation that is deeply ironic on at least two counts: Years ago, it was thanks to a Soros scholarship that a much younger Orbán got to attend Oxford University and — as a self-styled liberal at the time — learn about the world beyond communism and the Soviet bloc.
Orbán, who today praises Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a “successful” political model, was one of the elite selectees of the program, which was designed to nurture future democratic leaders.
The second irony: While Orbán has denounced Soros’s alleged efforts to influence Hungary’s politics, Orbán’s own success owes much to another American Jew’s quiet, behind-the-scenes involvement in Hungarian politics: the legendary Republican campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein.
“I know him well,” Orbán said in a spring 2015 interview, in a rare admission of the extent of his relationship with the American strategist. “He is a great and well-known professional…. He is in contact with me, he last visited me two days ago.”
A famously talented proponent of remorseless attack ads, Finkelstein’s aggressive slash-and-burn campaigns have won victories for politicians ranging from U.S. senators Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Alfonse D’Amato in America, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
In Hungary his role has been crucial to Orbán.
Moreover, Orban’s close relationship with Finkelstein hints at a reality that even some of the prime minister’s greatest critics acknowledge: He is not personally anti-Semitic. Rather, critics regard him as deeply opportunistic, using the language of anti-Semitism for political gain while working together with Jews when politically expedient.
“Politicians in the region are taking cues from each other and adopting strategies that pit a ‘unified’ nation — which is their voter base in this case — against the ‘elites’ that Soros symbolizes so well, a figure that represents power and greed as well as foreignness,” Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher and expert on Central Europe at the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House, told the Forward.
She added: “We cannot disregard how much such rhetoric poisons the discourse and what dangers it brings if hatemongering spirals out of control.”
In some ways, this complex and innovative approach, geared toward provoking and exploiting anti-Semitic sentiment — as distinct from directly espousing anti-Semitism itself — represents a new challenge to Jewish communities not just in Hungary, but also in countries such as Poland, France, with its National Front party, and even the United States under Donald Trump. It is a phenomenon complicated by the fact that many of its populist proponents at the same time emphasize their support for strong relations with Israel as the Jewish state itself turns increasingly nationalistic. Hungary, however, presents itself as a compelling case study of this trend.
“You cannot use anti-Semitism anymore as a mainstream politician,” Karl Pfeifer, a journalist and Holocaust survivor who has been observing Hungarian politics for decades, told the Forward. “So Orbán uses coded anti-Semitism.” The aim of the anti-Soros rhetoric is to signal to the public that “a world Jewish conspiracy” is at work, he said.
In his denunciations of Soros, the image of world Jewry as a shadowy puppeteer is common subtext for Orbán, using symbolism that Hungarians grasp instinctively.
“In Central Europe, there is a background power which can be linked to the name of George Soros,” Orbán told Hungarian state radio darkly in May 2016. Moreover, he added, Soros “is one of the most important supporters of the Democratic Party in the United States.” Consequently, he explained of critical remarks the former president Bill Clinton had made about him: “The mouth belongs to Clinton, but the voice belongs to George Soros.”
Sometimes the attack is more direct and overt. On Hungarian state television, a May 24 program purported to expose Soros’s role in manipulating foreign elections and uncritically invoked Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a source who described Soros as “an evil American and rich Zionist.” The program—on a network whose news the government closely controls—cited Khamenei’s claim that Soros had attempted but failed to influence Iran’s 2009 election.
Another frequent trope is Orbán’s portrayal of Soros as a globalist carnivore honing in on a defenseless Hungary.
“There are large predators swimming in the water,” Orbán said in one instance during his annual State of the Union speech February 14. “This is the transnational empire of George Soros, with its international heavy artillery and huge sums of money.”
Orbán’s seeming use of dog whistles came to a head in the international community in early May, when the European Commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans, pronounced himself “appalled” at the terminology in the Hungarian prime minister’s latest declaration.
Defending legislation that could close down the Budapest-based Central European University, a prestigious school founded by Soros after the fall of communism, Orbán said in an April 26 speech to the European Parliament, “I know that the power, size and weight of Hungary is much smaller than that of the financial speculator, George Soros, who is now attacking Hungary, and who —despite ruining the lives of millions of European people with his financial speculations, and being penalized in Hungary for speculations, and who is an openly admitted enemy of the Euro — is so highly praised that he is received by the E.U.’s top leaders.”
Asked whether the prime minister’s repeated invocation of Soros, the “financial speculator,” was anti-Semitic, Timmermans told the German weekly Die Zeit, “I understood that in exactly the same way as you.”
The nasty verbal spat that has ensued between Orbán and his critics about the Hungarian leader’s demonization of Soros comes against a dramatic domestic backdrop: mass street protests against legislation that in effect would make it impossible for CEU, a school to which many of Hungary and Eastern Europe’s most talented youth have flocked, to continue operating.
Founded by Soros in 1991 with the aim of promoting an “open society” in the newly democratic region, the school’s curriculum emphasizes liberal arts, free inquiry and an internationalist outlook. Orbán has deemed its orientation and influence an affront to his drive to refashion Hungary along strongly nationalist lines.
Orbán also portrays the flood of refugees from war-torn Syria and other Middle East countries seeking to enter Europe through Hungary as a threat, and one emanating not pre-eminently from the violence wracking the region — but from Soros.
“Through his organizations in Hungary, and hidden from the public gaze,” the prime minister declared in an April 15 interview, “George Soros is spending endless amounts of money to support illegal immigration.… He maintains a regular network, with its own promoters, its own media, hundreds of people, and its own university…. He is a powerful billionaire of enormous determination who, when it comes to his interests, respects neither God nor man.”
The prime minister’s office did not respond to two requests for comment on Orbán’s rhetoric regarding Soros. But Hungary has a long history of anti-Semitism. And the prime minister’s critics argue that his approach shows an understanding — and cynical use — of traditional anti-Semitic ideas.
In an open letter to Orbán on April 6, the prominent novelist and Holocaust survivor George Konrád accused the prime minister of unleashing a “propaganda machine… with Goebbels-like vigor to demonstrate that Soros the Jew is responsible for all the world’s ills.”
On May 21 Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, told the conservative Hungarian weekly Heti Valasz that criticizing Soros was not anti-Semitism. He did, however, urge restraint. “In the rhetoric of some Hungarian politicians [talking] about Soros,” he said, “the only word missing is ‘Jew.’”
Still, pro-government media in Hungary saw the Israeli envoy’s remarks as an Israeli green light for the anti-Soros campaign as the two countries prepare for a visit from Netanyahu to Hungary in July.
The Open Society Foundations and a spokesman for George Soros declined to comment for this article. But in a March interview with Politico, Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, cited the impact of the new government in Washington. “Authoritarians, branded today as ‘illiberals,’ have long opposed George Soros and the vision of an open society, but they have been emboldened by Trump’s victory to go even further,” he said.
In their early years after the fall of communism, things were different. Orbán and many fellow members of his Fidesz party benefited directly from Soros’s support. Soros, who grew up in Budapest and survived the Holocaust, became involved in helping his native country oppose communist rule in the 1980s, sending photocopiers behind the Iron Curtain before communism’s collapse to facilitate a freer flow of information. He provided scholarships for young Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans to study in the West and bring knowledge back home. His backing also helped launch the so-called Helsinki Committees in the Soviet Union and other Soviet bloc countries that began, at great risk, to monitor human rights in their home countries.
At the time, conservatives and liberals from across the spectrum hailed Soros’s work.
In the difficult years of post-communist transition, Soros’s foundations provided humanitarian assistance in the form of school breakfasts and hospital equipment. Today, his foundations still provide some funding to nongovernmental organizations in Central and Eastern Europe — in particular in the human rights field. CEU, in the heart of Budapest, was designed as an English-language magnet school for Central and Eastern Europe’s best and brightest, and has become world-renowned.
Soros, Konrád observed in his open letter to the prime minister, “devoted a considerable part of his fortune to young students’ needs, allowing the state to direct its resources elsewhere. He established a number of outstanding institutions in Hungary, even though in 1944 this land dealt with him so callously that it nearly cost him his life.”
Yet despite Orbán’s bristling against Soros as a foreign influence, his Fidesz party has been working for nearly a decade with Finkelstein, a New York-born secular Jew who is not afraid of embracing the very stereotype that Orbán deploys against Soros. Asked by Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley early on in their friendship whether he pronounced his last name as “Finkelsteen” or “Finkelstine” (with a long ‘i’), the consultant replied, “If I was a poor Jew, it would be Finkelsteen, but since I am a rich Jew, it’s Finkelstine.”
Finkelstein, moreover, is a gay rich Jew, long married to a male partner. Nevertheless, the self-professed libertarian, who first imbibed his ideology as a Columbia University student directly from libertarian icon Ayn Rand, has been critical to putting in office as prime minister a man with the declared goal of converting Hungary from a liberal democracy into a more authoritarian, government-heavy “illiberal state,” one with restricted rights for gay men and lesbians. In 2014, Orbán praised Russia, Turkey and China as “successful nations…none of which is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies.”
“I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” he said.
Over the decades, Finkelstein, who worked early on for Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign, has rarely let his ideology interfere with his choice of clients, as long as those clients were on the right. Some estimate that at one point in the 1980s, half of Republican U.S. senators were Finkelstein clients. But over the past two decades, Finkelstein’s focus shifted abroad, where he did his most high-profile work for Israel’s Netanyahu.
GEB International, a consultancy under the leadership of Finkelstein and fellow strategist George E. Birnbaum, has taken credit for the election of Ariel Sharon and the success of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party in 2009. Finkelstein also reportedly orchestrated the 2012 alliance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.
Through GEB International, Finkelstein has been providing consulting services to Fidesz since 2008, helping shape the party’s strategy in both local and national elections, including its control of a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Finkelstein’s successes — in the United States, Israel and Central Europe — can be attributed in large part to his approach to political communication.
“He likes campaigns that have signature issues, where the candidate would be known for one issue or a series of related issues,” Shirley said.
This approach has been evident in Orbán’s campaigns, which often focus on one simple message repeated over and over again — as has been the case with the prime minister’s repeated attacks on Soros.
But Orbán’s ties to Finkelstein go beyond electoral strategy. In 2015, Hungarian media revealed that Finkelstein is a partner with Árpád Habony, a Hungarian oligarch close to Orbán, in a joint venture that is registered in the United Kingdom.
In early 2017, news emerged that Finkelstein is battling cancer. It’s unclear whether his health has affected his involvement in Hungarian politics. GEB International did not respond to requests from the Forward for comment on this story.
Orbán’s relationship with Hungary’s Jewish community, estimated at roughly 120,000 people in a country of 10 million, is complex. According to a recent survey, about 37% of Hungarians hold anti-Semitic views, telling pollsters that they “agree” or “completely agree” that “there’s too much Jewish influence in Hungary.” This was an increase from previous years: In 2013, only 27% gave positive replies to this question.
Growing up outside Budapest, Orbán likely had little exposure to Jews, who reside primarily in Budapest, before he moved to the capital to attend university. When he initially began his political career as a young, liberal anti-Communist in the late 1980s, however, he befriended Jewish Hungarian intellectuals and dissidents. Unusual for a Hungarian not of Jewish origin, Orbán’s eldest daughter, born in 1989, was given the Hebrew name Ráhel.
But very few Hungarian Jews supported Orbán’s nascent political party, and as Orbán began moving more and more to the right and adopting a nationalist stance, he alienated much of the Jewish community.
“During the  World Jewish Congress in Budapest… Orbán spoke about ‘us’ the Hungarians and the ‘Jews,’” Pfeifer recalled. In the United States, he pointed out, it would be unimaginable for a sitting president to refer to “Americans” and “Jews” as separate groups.
For many Hungarian Jews, Orbán crossed a red line in 2014, when his government constructed a memorial to the “victims of German occupation” that many, including the U.S. State Department, saw as rejecting Hungary’s own complicity in the Holocaust. The Jewish community has since set up a permanent informal memorial to the victims of the Holocaust as a protest against what it sees as the government’s distortion of history.
But Orbán’s rhetoric on Soros over the past months has raised new concerns about government-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Konrád told Orbán in his open letter, “The real turning point for me was that, in the interest of the arbitrary extension of your power, you dipped into the hypocritical repository of political anti-Semitism and pulled out its shrill slogans with both hands.”
Not everyone shares this view.
“Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s policies aren’t anti-Semitic at all,” the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, known as MAZSIHISZ, said in a statement to the Forward. “His government supports the large Jewish organizations in achieving their goals, the Jewish community is not a victim of any kind of official discrimination, and there’s no real chance that it will change in the foreseeable future.”
Similarly, Slomó Köves, executive rabbi of EMIH Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, an affiliate of Chabad, told Hungarian state media May 12 that he “does not know of an internationally accepted norm” by which anti-Soros rhetoric is considered anti-Semitism.
Both Köves’s Chabad operation in Hungary and MAZSIHISZ receive significant funding from the government. Köves did not respond to emailed questions from the Forward.
Köves’s remarks proved highly controversial within the Hungarian Jewish community, where many, if not most, rank-and-file members believe the government is stoking hate against the community.
“One can think that anti-migration rhetoric and anti-Soros rhetoric is not racism and anti-Semitism, but what the government’s hateful politics are unleashing is racism and anti-Semitism,” Adam Schönberger, leader of the independent Hungarian Jewish youth organization MAROM, wrote in a public note to Köves.
In early May, as the government and government-controlled media railed against Soros daily, a far-right group appeared at Aurora,, a Jewish community center MAROM operates that is popular with young people in Budapest. The young men filmed themselves putting up anti-Soros fliers on the Aurora building and spray-painting Hungarian nationalist and anti-Soros slogans on the sidewalk.
The government disclaims any suggestion that Orbán’s campaign has fueled such activities. Hungary “has done more than anyone in Europe to combat anti-Semitism,” Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said in a May 5 televised press conference. “We have introduced a policy of zero tolerance with regard to anti-Semitism.”
But Gáspár M. Tamás, a Hungarian philosopher and communist-era dissident, told the Forward: “This was the price for [Orbán’s] entry into the traditional right… anti-Semitic innuendoes and veiled allusions are just tricks. What he hates is liberalism and the left, and — yes — the Jewish intellectuals within it, whom he privately respects but politically despises.”
The question for many observers outside Hungary is just how many other Western countries today may present populist leaders with similar latent public sentiments to exploit.
Lili Bayer reports for the Forward from Budapest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s editor for special projects in New York. Contact him at email@example.com