November 27, 2003

The Sound and the Fury


Billionaire financier George Soros is used to getting on people's nerves.

When the self-styled currency trader led an attack on the British pound in 1992, leaving the British currency down 12 percent while enriching himself by $1 billion in the space of a few weeks, British Prime Minister John Major must have been cursing his fate. When Soros' activity in the Asian financial markets roiled Malaysia's economy, among others, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad singled Soros out for blame.

But when the 74-year-old Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to London, got up to make a speech earlier this month at a meeting of the Jewish Funders Network in New York, most attendees seemed to be hoping for good news. They were keen to see whether Soros' rare appearance before a Jewish audience was a sign that the mega-philanthropist-who is valued at $7 billion and has given away an estimated $5 billion but has largely stayed out of Jewish philanthropic work-was ready to redirect some of his philanthropy toward Jews.

After the Nov. 5 meeting, however, people were talking more about Soros' remarks on Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's alleged role in causing anti-Semitism than any of the financier's philanthropic plans. One major Jewish leader suggested that it would be a long time before any Jewish group invited Soros to speak again.

The remarks that set off fierce debate among American Jewish leaders, Congressmen, newspaper columnists and editorialists-and elicited reaction from the White House and the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination for president-centered around Soros' response to a question about whether he believed there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.

In remarks first reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news wire service, Soros said, "There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that. It's not specifically anti-Semitism, but it does manifest itself in anti-Semitism as well. I'm critical of those policies."

He added, "If we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish. I can't see how one could confront it directly."

The billionaire financier said he, too, bears some responsibility for the new global anti-Semitism, citing a speech in October by Malaysia's prime minister in which Mahathir said, "Jews rule the world by proxy."

Soros said, "I'm also very concerned about my own role because the new anti-Semitism holds that the Jews rule the world." Having financed projects that have influenced governments and promoted various political causes around the world, Soros noted, "Unintended, I actually feed into it."

The remarks caused a storm of controversy.

"For someone who is so sophisticated and so concerned about good will and good understanding, his comments only strengthen the anti-Semites," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Calling Soros' comments "absolutely obscene," Foxman said Soros buys into the stereotype of Jews often propounded by anti-Semites. "It's a simplistic, counterproductive, biased and bigoted perception of what's out there," he said. "It's blaming the victim for all of Israel's and the Jewish people's ills."

Furthermore, Foxman added, "If he sees that his position of being who he is may contribute to the perception of anti-Semitism, what's his solution to himself - that he give up his money? That he close his mouth?"

Elan Steinberg, senior adviser at the World Jewish Congress, said, "Let's understand things clearly: Anti-Semitism is not caused by Jews; it's caused by anti-Semites." He explained, "One can certainly be critical of Bush policy or Sharon policy, but any deviation from the understanding of the real cause of anti-Semitism is not merely a disservice, but a historic lie."

Others were more circumspect.

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, would not address Soros' specific comments about anti-Semitism, but he said that as far as the impact of Israeli policies on international attitudes, "The proof is in the pudding."

"During the Oslo years, when there was an active peace process, one of the benefits that Israel reaped was the establishment of diplomatic relations with a host of countries that prior to that did not extend diplomatic relations to Israel," Roth said. "You didn't see these explicit signs of anti-Semitism."

After the publication of the JTA story, an unidentified White House official told the New York Sun that Soros' remarks were "completely unsupported by the facts and a ridiculous comment." Congressman Eliot Engel told the newspaper that Soros' comments were "morally reprehensible." And a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said, "Israel should never be called upon to placate anti-Semites," according to the Sun.

Mark Charendoff, the president of the group that invited Soros to speak at the meeting of the Jewish Funders Network, which took place at the prestigious Harvard Club in Manhattan, said he was pleased overall with the event. He said he "would be delighted if Mr. Soros would bring his passion, his brilliance and his resources to a range of different causes that are important to the Jewish community."

And after Soros' remarks were denounced on the front pages of newspapers and in editorials and opinion columns across the United States, some of which advised Jewish groups to steer clear of Soros, Charendoff came to the financier's defense.

In a widely circulated press release that was also printed as a column in the New York Jewish Week, Charendoff wrote, "My concern is with the Jewish community's response, not the guest speaker's remarks."

He asked, "When did we begin to prefer condemnation over debate? When did we become so dull as to only want to talk to those with whom we agree? What has happened to our self-confidence? Do we really have such a low opinion of ourselves and our place in the world that we must constantly be in a state of circling the wagons, of seeking out enemies where they don't exist (instead of focusing our energy on the ones that really do), of beating dissenting views into cowering submission?"

The first one to respond to Soros' dissenting viewpoint, however, was the financier's own friend and fellow philanthropist, Michael Steinhardt, who arranged for Soros to address the Jewish Funders Network group at the New York event.

Immediately after Soros made his remarks on anti-Semitism, Steinhardt beat a path to the lectern at the Jewish Funders event and interrupted Soros.

"George Soros does not think Jews should be hated any more than they deserve to be," Steinhardt said by way of clarification, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

Steinhardt then turned the lectern back over to Soros, who said he had something to add to his remarks on the issue of anti-Semitism. Soros then paused to ask if there were any journalists in the room. When he learned that there were-the event was advertised as open to the press-Soros withheld further comment.

The debate over Soros' remarks goes to the heart of the question of what is and isn't appropriate criticism of Israel and Jews. That fact that the controversial comments in this case were made by a Jew-and a Holocaust survivor, no less-have fueled the debate even further.

Other remarks Soros made at the New York speech and since go to the heart of another debate: When is rhetoric considered legitimate criticism, and when does it cross the line of democratic debate?

In his speech at the Jewish Funders event, Soros also said his No. 1 priority was "bringing about a regime change in the White House."

Soros went further in an interview with the Washington Post a week later, angering both Jews and many Americans generally with his observations.

"America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros was quoted as saying in the interview. A "supremacist ideology" guides the Bush White House, Soros said, reminding him of the rhetoric he heard during his childhood as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary. "When I hear Bush say, 'You're either with us or against us,' it reminds me of the Germans," Soros said, according to the report. "My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me."

In an editorial the next day, the New York Daily News said Soros' comparison "cries out for his apology."

The editorial also said of Soros' speech at the Jewish Funders Network, "He has demeaned the Holocaust and placed moral responsibility for anti-Semitism on its victims rather than its perpetrators. Soros is, of course, not alone in trivializing one of the greatest of humanity's crimes or in blaming the Jews for stirring up passions by standing up for themselves. But he is unique in that he holds a position of great influence on the world stage and is committed to playing a pivotal role in electing the next U.S. President."

Soros has pledged $10 million to unseat President Bush and said he would spend all of his $7 billion fortune if someone could guarantee that the money would have the desired impact.

When George Soros talks, people generally listen. It's not just because Soros is among the world's richest people-he is ranked as the 28th richest man in America, according to Fortune magazine.

It's also because of what Soros does with his billions. One of the world's leading financiers and philanthropists, Soros uses his money for everything from large-scale currency trading to helping elect presidents to providing pro-democracy grants to third-world countries to paying tuition costs for fledgling medical students.

That's largely why the New York-based Forward newspaper, a week after publishing its annual list of the 50 most influential Jews, ran an editorial last week apologizing to Soros for leaving him off the list.

"If we failed to give credit where credit was due, we owe Soros an apology," the editorial said. "We goofed. It turns out that Soros, the billionaire currency trader and philanthropist, sees himself as very much in the tradition of Jewish activism. That being the case, the prodigious scope of his giving-$5 billion during the last few decades, by most accounts-should have landed him at the top of our list."

That apology was curious, given that Soros largely has abstained from extending his philanthropy to Jews.

Despite his Jewish roots, Soros did not give money to Jewish causes until he was in his late 60s, when he made a $1.3 million grant to the Council of Jewish Federations from his Open Society Institute's Emma Lazarus Fund in 1997. Later that year, he made an equal-sized grant to another Jewish organization, the Jewish Fund for Justice, an anti-poverty group.

Nevertheless, Soros said he sees himself "very much in the Jewish tradition of giving" for the philanthropic work he does elsewhere in the world. Quoting French metaphysician Henri Bergson and German philosopher Karl Popper, Soros said, "It's the particular genius of Jews that they are concerned with the universal. That's why Jews have made such great contributions to philosophy, to science, and to humanity in general."

However, after a breakfast meeting with Yossi Beilin on the day of the Jewish Funders Network event, Soros indicated he might direct some of his dollars to the Middle East. He talked excitedly about supporting Israeli Arabs and pledged his support for the so-called Geneva accord. That accord, an unofficial peace plan proposed by Beilin and Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo, has made the rounds in Washington and European capitals and will be signed formally at a ceremony next week in Geneva. The plan envisions two states along pre-1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem, and is vague on the demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel.

If Soros' speech was a signal that he is considering becoming involved in Jewish or Israel-related causes, many Jews would welcome his involvement-political opinions notwithstanding.

But the speech also demonstrated that Soros would need some convincing. Soros explained to the audience at the Jewish event that he has not given much to Jewish or Israel-related causes because Jews take care of their own, so that his financial clout is better directed elsewhere.

Philanthropist Steinhardt told him the field of Jewish giving is not as crowded as Soros thinks.

"Even if we were a crowded field," Steinhardt told Soros, "I'm sure we could make room for you."