George Soros, a leading philanthropist and one of the world’s best-known hedge-fund managers, has stepped into what is arguably the biggest political dispute in Britain since World War Two, putting his money behind a last ditch attempt to prevent the country leaving the European Union and provoking a backlash some argue is anti-Semitic.
His support for an anti-Brexit group has generated pointed critiques in two British newspapers which support Brexit. The language used about the New York-based U.S. citizen who grew up in a non-observant Jewish family in Hungary has led to accusations of coded anti-Semitism – harking back to Shakespearian tropes of wily Jewish puppet masters.
Soros responded to the The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail by increasing his funding to the group to £500,000 (nearly $700,000) from £400,000. “I am happy to take the fight to those who have tried to use a smear campaign, not arguments, to prop up their failing case,” Soros said in an interview with the The Guardian.
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Soros is a frequent public commentator on the importance of civil society and the risks to the democratic foundations of the West and emerging states of Eastern Europe. He has long used his pro-democracy organization, the Open Society Foundations (OSF), to promote civil society around the world, but particularly in Eastern Europe.
Last week it became public that Soros had donated to Best For Britain, a political campaign to halt Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union which is due in 2019 after a narrow “leave” vote in a referendum in 2016. Best For Britain was founded by Gina Miller, who initiated a successful court case against the British government over its authority to implement Brexit without additional approval from parliament. She now wants a second referendum.
Soros’s support for a new vote on Brexit – which was already public knowledge — was portrayed as a secretive move by a rich foreigner. Conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph is at the center of a storm for a story published on Thursday that said Soros was backing a “secret plot to thwart Brexit”. The story was written partly by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Theresa May who herself faced allegations of using “Stalinist” language when she told a party conference: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
In a statement carried by BuzzFeed News, the Telegraph defended itself: “The Telegraph has a proud history of fighting anti-Semitism. Any suggestion that our story about George Soros was in any way anti-Semitic is offensive and unfounded.” BuzzFeed reported that the story provoked such concern among staff at the newspaper that editor Chris Evans had called an all-hands staff meeting to defend the report.
Human Rights Watch media director for Europe, Andrew Stroehlein, has called the Telegraph coverage of the Soros donation “dog-whistle anti-Semitism”. Stephen Bush, politics correspondent for the left wing New Statesman criticized the Telegraph for repeating “a series of anti-Semitic conspiracies about” Soros.
Washington Post columnist anti-Semitism in British politics, including an investigation inside the left-wing Labour Party. With its coverage of Soros, the Telegraph was “conjuring up the age-old specter of a secretive Jew manipulating politics behind the scenes,” Applebaum wrote.
Facts about George Soros
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Listed the 187th richest billionaire by Bloomberg, Soros made his money investing in financial markets. He funds pro-democracy organizations and groups supporting civil society mostly through his philanthropic group Open Society Foundations (OSF). Open Society, to which Soros has given more than $32 billion of his personal fortune, according to the organization’s website, became the third-largest charitable foundation in the world in 2017, after a donation of $18 billion from Soros (Financial Times, may be behind a paywall).
OSF works in more than 100 countries with the mission to promote transparency and accountability in governments, encourage debate and media plurality, and advance justice, education and public health. The OSF also donates to other charities through grants (FT), including Planned Parenthood and Human Rights Watch.
The 87-year-old was born into a non-observant Jewish family in Budapest in the then Kingdom of Hungary. Soros’ father, Tivadar, changed the family name in 1936 from Schwartz to Soros to try to avoid discrimination in an increasingly anti-Semitic Hungary as the country moved towards fascism, according to the afterword of Tivadar Soros’ book about how the family survived The Holocaust.
Soros fled Nazi-occupied Hungary and emigrated to England aged 17. He graduated from the London School of Economics with a Bachelor of Science in philosophy in 1951, and a Master of Science in philosophy in 1954. He went in to finance. He moved to New York in 1956 where he worked as a trader specializing in European stocks. He founded investment management firm Soros Fund Management in 1969.
Soros has repeatedly been singled out by Hungary’s right-wing government for his liberal and humanitarian efforts, in particular for his support for open immigration. A billboard campaign funded by the Hungarian government against migration and foreign influence last year used an image of Soros and the caption, ““Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh.”. Jewish groups and other critics said the campaign instigated anti-Semitism.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s spokesman defended the campaign as having nothing to do with anti-Semitism but a counter-argument to Soros’s support for more open immigration policies. Orban, leader of the nationalist, populist party Fidesz, was himself a beneficiary (foreignpolicy.org) of a Soros grant to study at Oxford in 1989. In government he has driven an anti-immigration agenda and attacked liberal ideas.
After the fall of communism, Soros founded the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest and has provided it with one of Europe’s largest higher education endowment of $880 million. Soros became a prominent figure in the fallout from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe with his foundations, which Soros said “supported every cultural initiative that was not an expression of the established dogma” of the ruling and former communists. CEU has 1380 students from 100 countries and 300 faculty members from more than 30 countries.
Soros is often referred to as “the man who broke the Bank of England” during the 1992 currency crisis known as Black Wednesday. His hedge fund took a £10 billion short position (a bet on a fall in value) on the British currency. He made a profit of $1 billion during the crisis, but he didn’t actually “break” the central bank. The pound sterling tumbled, causing the UK to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a system put in place to reduce exchange rates and promote monetary stability in Europe. The UK treasury lost an estimated £3.3 billion (The Guardian).
Norman Lamont, the British chancellor of the exchequer at the time, claimed that “golden Wednesday” was a better term for the ejection from the ERM, given the new economic policy that was made possible after the exit, which reignited economic growth in the UK.
Soros has made no secret of his personal commitment to political support for the Democratic Party in the United States which is separate from the civil society and independent media work of the Open Society Foundations. He helped raise $24 million for then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in the first half of 2015 (Forbes). This was after spending $27 million (Politico) of his own money into groups dedicated to President George W. Bush’s removal (The Guardian).
Forbes cites Soros as “one of the pillars of the Democratic party”.