On Saturday July 9th people in Hungary woke up to big billboards with the face of philanthropist George Soros covered by a message “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh.” The billboards were accompanied by a widespread media campaign against George Soros. The campaign is full of statements directly taken from right-wing, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, ringing familiar bells of Europe’s past. Far from being a one-time incident the campaign is a sign of a general resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.
The campaign against Soros is not a new thing in the anti-Semitic space. In fact, Soros has long been a favorite target of the anti-Semitic far-right, with conspiracy theories blaming him for a variety of things ranging from organizing the Ukrainian Maiden to propagating sexual perversions and everything in between featuring frequently in conspiracy theory sites. Moreover, Soros has been targeted multiple times by Russian propaganda and pro-Kremlin outlets according to the EU Stratcom Task Force. In that sense, the appearance of billboards in Hungary claiming that Soros has a plan to import millions of refugees in Europe was nothing new. What is appalling is the fact that this campaign is organized by the Hungarian government, a member-state of the EU.
This is also not the first time Orban’s government directly targets Soros. In April 2017, Orban’s government passed a law targeting Soros’ Central European University with a goal to close it. This law was later challenged by the European Commission who threatened to take Hungary to the European Court of Justice. Moreover, Orban has blamed Soros for wanting to “import refugees” multiple times in the past, like this one in 2015. However, no previous effort has been as widespread and systematic nor as explicitly anti-Semitic as the billboard campaign against Soros.
Although many point to the political realities of this move and the fact that Soros funds civil society organizations which pose an obstacle on Orban’s road to authoritarianism, it is hard not to notice the anti-Semitic character of the campaign. The fact that the government of a European country adopted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory placed within the wider context of persisting anti-Semitism in Europe makes it clear that Orban’s campaign is playing on such attitudes and willingly exacerbating them.
The spike of anti-Semitism the last years has been evident across Europe and the US. In Europe, 46% of Jewish people responding to an EU survey said they worry about being verbally assaulted in public and 33% worry about being physically assaulted. Moreover, anti-Semitic assaults increased in many EU countries while online anti-Semitism has reached skyrocketing numbers according to the European Network Against Racism. This comes with continuous news reports of a spike in anti-Semitic violence in both the UK and the US following the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. Finally, according to the Anti-Defamation League 24% of Western Europeans and 34% of Eastern Europeans (including non-EU countries) harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.
To be sure, anti-Semitism is nothing new in Europe and some progress has been made in certain countries, especially when political leaders took clear stances explicitly condemning anti-Semitic incidents which seems to decrease such actions. However, the fact that we are seeing a government-sponsored campaign spreading anti-Semitic views and conspiracy theories is extremely alarming. It might well be true that Orban’s campaign is motivated by political considerations but it is nevertheless extremely consequential for the thousands of Jewish people living in Hungary and the EU in general. Such endorsement and mainstreaming of anti-Semitism by governments goes a long way in emboldening anti-Semites to keep their views or, even worse, to act on them. It also rings unpleasantly familiar bells of a European past which we are trying to move away from. Therefore, European leaders should take a united stance and condemn such actions which endanger Jewish people and are contrary to our values.