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AIPAC accused George Soros of undermining American politics. Is that antisemitic?

Those who attack Soros do so in a climate where Soros conspiracy theories are rampant

“George Soros has a long history of backing anti-Israel groups,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, tweeted on Aug. 24. “Now he’s giving $1 million to help @jstreetdotorg support anti-Israel candidates and attack pro-Israel Democrats. AIPAC works to strengthen pro-Israel mainstream Democrats. J Street & Soros work to undermine them.”

As with many attacks on Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, there was an element of fact-based criticism in the tweet. Soros did give a million dollars to J Street, the Jewish lobbying group that bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” As Haaretz journalist Ben Samuels noted in an article on Aug. 23, Soros’ donation was the largest gift by far that J Street’s Super PAC has received since its establishment in January.

As Samuels also noted, however, AIPAC’s own super PAC has received nearly $30 million in gifts, including six gifts of $1 million or more. This suggests that AIPAC does not have an issue with large gifts, but specifically with large gifts to groups that define “pro-Israel” in a different way than AIPAC does. 

The idea that Soros is undermining democracy — be it by orchestrating undocumented mass migration or by meddling in elections — is pushed by voices as varied and powerful as heads of government, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and popular television talking heads, like Tucker Carlson. And though some, including Jewish people who disagree with him, will turn around and say that attacks on Soros are not antisemitic because he is not religiously observant, or because Israeli politicians are also critical of him, the reality remains that these same conspiracies — that Jews are trying to corrode society — show up in hateful, white supremacist, and, yes, antisemitic manifestos. 

It is all well and good for those who attack Soros to pretend that his name is not an antisemitic dog whistle, but the dogs can still hear it, and the rest of us can, too. 

What constitutes antisemitism — and anti-democratic acts? It depends on who is asking

There is a certain irony in AIPAC’s line of attack. Reporting and analysis on how AIPAC’s own electoral spending and support of Republicans who denied the 2020 presidential election results undermine democracy has been a feature of 2022 primary and midterm election coverage. 

There have already, in this election cycle, also been writers who claim that criticism of AIPAC’s electoral spending is antisemitic. (Neither tropes about Jews and money nor sensitivity around how to discuss AIPAC’s political influence is particularly new: In 2019, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar famously tweeted that American politicians’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins”; she apologized.)

This is to say that AIPAC’s tweet was sent amid ongoing discussion of how to criticize a large pro-Israel organization without veering into antisemitic territory: how to cover the fact that a major American lobbying group is, by its own admission, trying to shape the outcome of and claiming credit for certain elections without playing into the trope that “the Israel lobby” is secretly manipulating American democracy.

Consider, for example, one of the most recent high-profile primary races in which AIPAC was involved. Congressman Andy Levin, who was backed by J Street and who sponsored the Two-State Solution Act, lost to Congresswoman Haley Stevens in Michigan’s 11th District. The extent to which AIPAC was responsible for this has been the subject of some debate, but much of the coverage around the race was about how AIPAC sought to defeat Levin, who, in the end, lost.

“I guess I commit the sin in their eyes of believing the only way to have a secure homeland for my people is to realize [the] human rights of Palestinian people as well,” Levin said of AIPAC back in May. AIPAC, which backed Stevens, spent $10 million across Michigan’s 11th, 12th and 13th congressional districts. Levin lost. Perhaps Levin would argue that it was AIPAC that undermined a pro-Israel candidate. 

That a large and well-established lobbying group continues to try to set the terms of debate on Israel, and what constitutes being “pro-Israel,” is not in and of itself surprising. Further, it is right and appropriate to be careful and considerate in discussing how AIPAC spends money in campaigns and elections, to thread the needle between articulating and assessing the situation while refusing to throw conspiratorial, antisemitic dirt. 

AIPAC deserves this consideration, even from those who disagree vehemently with its political aims. Money in politics, American politicians’ stances on Israel and Palestinian rights, antisemitism, electoral integrity: All of these are weighty, complicated issues, and it’s worth slowing down to try to get them right.

But AIPAC’s political opponents — including those American Jews who are sympathetic to them — as well as those who cannot help but be caught up in the next wave of antisemitic hatred, deserve the same.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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