Editor’s Note: Alex Soros is chair of the Open Society Foundations, the world’s largest private funder working to advance justice, democratic governance and human rights. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last week, the White House announced its National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. This first-of-its-kind initiative could not come at a more opportune time. There were a record number of antisemitic incidents worldwide in 2021, according to an annual survey conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the US-based Anti-Defamation League. Results of the latest survey, released last month, showed that the problem not only persisted, but intensified in the US in 2022.
This is not an abstract issue for me. When the Nazis occupied Hungary, it resulted in the murder of more than half a million Hungarian Jews. My grandfather, seeing what was happening and seeing fellow Jews being rounded up and deported, helped as much of his family and as many as he could to use false papers to conceal their Jewish identity and avoid being liquidated. My father, George Soros, lost family members in the Holocaust. And for him, those experiences — of being “the other,” of being hated for something that he couldn’t control — helped fuel his philanthropic career, and his dedication to help others fight for a life free from fear. The stain of antisemitism helped influence
my own philanthropic work as a founding member of the board of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, the first-ever national Jewish political action committee with an exclusive focus on domestic issues.
My father’s fight for democracy and human rights has made him a target of unspeakable attacks, in the US and around the world. Former President Donald Trump closed his 2016 campaign with an ad featuring my father and several other high-profile American Jewish figures, using well-worn dog-whistle language about “global special interests.” In Hungary, Prime Minister
Viktor Orban launched a poster campaign in 2018 falsely accusing my father of wanting to flood the country with migrants, drawing on imagery from the 1930s.
Recently, Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, took to the platform to liken my father to a comic book villain who “hates humanity.” The comment drew a rebuke from Deborah Lipstadt, a leading Holocaust historian who last year was confirmed to the post of US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, becoming the first person in the post elevated to the rank of ambassador since the position was created under President George W. Bush in 2004. “Irrespective of how one feels about George Soros’s politics or policies,” Lipstadt tweeted, “it is entirely disingenuous to deny that many ad hominem attacks on him rely on classic antisemitic tropes and rhetoric.”
Antisemitism has deadly consequences that go far beyond words. This week, a federal court began hearing evidence in the trial of Robert Bowers, who stands accused of murdering 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. He has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, which include hate crimes resulting in death. The assault, allegedly fueled by hateful conspiracy theories featuring my father, is believed to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history. And just a week before the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting, Cesar Sayoc, whose social media feeds were rife with antisemitic comments, sent pipe bombs to my childhood home, to other Democratic leaders and donors and to CNN. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019.
I applaud the Biden administration’s attention to this critical issue at a time when a growing number of Jews in America are feeling anxious about their security. We are sorely in need of specific, concrete steps the US government can take to respond to the scourge of antisemitism in meaningful measure — acknowledging the many forms the problem takes and addressing the root causes that stoke hatred, violence and unrest. A concerted and coordinated effort across all federal agencies will be a welcome complement to the tireless work of so many civil society groups combating not only antisemitism but racial, ethnic, religious and gender-based hatred in all its ugly forms.
While the problem this new strategy addresses is ancient, the White House also highlights a contemporary wrinkle: the use of charges of antisemitism as a weapon meant to stifle debate. This has emerged as an increasingly common way to try to shut down criticism of the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians.
In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a coalition of 31 nations including the US, adopted the following working definition of antisemitism: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The IHRA urged the international community to adopt the definition, as the US did, and noted that “manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Over time, critics grew increasingly concerned that the definition had been “hijacked” by some pro-Israeli groups to shield the government from accountability for its human rights policies, as a group of 100 scholars wrote in a statement urging the UN not to adopt the IHRA language. They were recently joined by more than 100 civil society groups, who in a letter of their own to the UN wrote that the definition has too often been used to “chill and sometimes suppress non-violent protest, activism and speech critical of Israel and/or Zionism, including in the US and Europe.” Among the signatories were Israeli, Palestinian, US and European organizations.
These concerns intensified as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has adopted increasingly aggressive and hostile policies towards its Arab population, elevating extremists to cabinet rank, authorizing new settlements in the occupied West Bank and proposing dramatic new curbs on the independence of the judiciary — a stance that drew criticism from Israel’s traditional allies and propelled hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.
Polls show many American Jews are increasingly concerned about the direction Israel is heading. But too often, pro-Netanyahu groups and their champions in elective office label these concerns as antisemitic as a way of discrediting critics and silencing debate. As Dylan J. Williams, senior vice president for policy and strategy at J Street, which bills itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group, put it, “focusing on defining what is and isn’t appropriate criticism of Israel, while surging right-wing antisemitism is literally killing American Jews, is missing the most dire threats we face.”
It is essential that the tools used to combat antisemitism cannot be repurposed to target academics, activists, students and advocacy groups that voice support for Palestinian human rights and restrict the free speech and policy disagreements that are at the very heart of an open society.
The White House initiative embraces a broad-based approach to the problem of antisemitism — one that builds bipartisan consensus in the fight against violent extremism, instead of pitting social justice advocates against one another. The release of a new strategy at the presidential level demonstrates a commitment to confronting the threat of White nationalists and violent extremists as a national priority. Through this approach, it is my fervent hope that we can move from responding to tragedies to preventing them from happening.