Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

OK, readers, it’s pop quiz time. My question: What do the following political players have in common; Franklin Graham, George Soros and the Koch brothers?

Did I hear you mumble “nothing,” other than gender and the aforementioned political-player designations?

Not a bad guess. But not the answer I’m looking for at the moment.

The commonality I have in mind is that they all serve as public boogeyman — names to be tossed around to convey a suitcase of despised qualities that need not be unpacked for their opponents skilled in the art of in-group rhetoric.

Those on the left tend to think of Graham and the Kochs as despicable actors poisoning the political well with hypocritical religious justifications (Graham) or by employing their vast wealth to back libertarian, hyper pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas (the Kochs).

Those on the right tend to view Soros as an atheist billionaire, internationalist busy-body set on destroying what they view as rightful national norms for the sake of unrealistic democratic (note that’s with a small “d”) fantasies. In America, many conservatives see him as a fierce enemy of the religious liberty side of the First Amendment.

If you paid close attention to the soul-numbing Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight you may know that, unlike Graham and the Kochs, Soros’ name popped up at the tail end of that scorched-earth display of political bloodletting — which is why I bring him up now. (President Donald Trump, as he has before, tossed around Soros' name on Twitter; Sen. Chuck Grassley disparaged Soros in response to a reporter's question.)

But first.

My point here is not to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of Soros or the others mentioned above. Frankly, I have strong disagreements with them all. Besides, love them or hate them, I’m guessing your minds are already pretty well made up about what level of heaven or hell they’re headed for come judgement day. So what chance at changing minds do I really have anyway?

Also, they're all entitled, under current American law, to throw their weight around in accordance with their viewpoints — again, whether you or I like it or not.

Rather — and writing as GetReligion’s self-affirmed minority religious voice — it's to remind all how so-called dog-whistle references can sound to minority group members, and how often they're used, with or without malice aforethought.

Not clear who Soros is? Didn't hear his name dropped in the Judge Brett Kavanaugh debacle and unfamiliar with the backlash that caused among, mostly, liberal-leaning Jews?

Then read the following to get up to speed. Start here and then finish up here, with The Times of Israel.

By speaking as they did of Soros, Trump and Grassley played into a dangerous anti-Semitic stereotype — the cosmopolitan, ultra-rich Jew out to destroy non-Jewish society for his own craven, financial gain. It’s a meme that long out-dates the term itself, and has been used to stir frustrated, angry populations against Jews across the centuries and around the world.

What makes Soros a special case is that for years now he’s, as much as anyone today, been a global symbol of the distrusted Jew of anti-Semitic lore.

From his native Hungary to Malaysia, to Washington and Bosnia-Herzegovina, his name is continually invoked in what critics call dog-whistle fashion, a fig leaf for rulers hoping to divert from their own overt anti-Semitism or as an outside force they can blame for their own shortcomings.

Just last week, Soros was also inserted in the nasty political battle in Republika Srpska, the autonomous, mostly (Orthodox Christian) Serbian, portion of religiously and ethnically brittle Bosnia-Herzegovina. It comes as no surprise to me that it was the pro-Kremlin candidate that blamed Soros for supporting his opponents. At week’s end, this candidate emerged the winner.

The Atlantic ran a good analysis piece the other day summing up the Soros imbroglio. Here’s a taste of it.

Anti-Soros paranoia, of the kind casually bandied about Friday by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley—who said he tended to believe that Soros had paid the sexual-assault survivors who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator—has long been a bellwether for authoritarian-flavored nationalism abroad. What’s relatively new is that Americans are getting in on the game.

As a Hungarian-born Jew and naturalized U.S. citizen who made billions betting against national currencies, Soros was an easy target in the 1990s for corrupt pols from Bratislava to Kuala Lumpur. “We do not want to say that this is a plot by the Jews,” then–Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously said after Soros helped devalue the ringgit, "but in reality it is a Jew who triggered the currency plunge, and coincidentally Soros is a Jew.” Did he mention that Soros is Jewish?

(Soros, who has an almost perverse yen for self-criticism, would a decade later warn of the “danger of excessive capital movement” while sitting literally at Mahathir’s side. He has also said that he’s “very concerned about my own role because the new anti-Semitism holds that the Jews rule the world … As an unintended consequence of my actions, I also contribute to that image.”)

Over at The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen, a politically liberal Jew, said this about Trump inserting Soros into the Kavanaugh fray:

 If it was anyone else, this would seem to be base anti-Semitism. Soros is both rich and Jewish, and is officially and incessantly reviled in his native Hungary by the right-wing, authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The campaign there against Soros, who survived the Holocaust through guile and luck, could be called vaguely anti-Semitic, but there is nothing vague about it. Soros is the representation of the rich Jew, an anti-Semitic stereotype which, in Hungary at least, endures.

One might think Trump is appealing to a similar mob. But the president is clearly no anti-Semite. Two of his lawyers over the years — Roy Cohn and Michael Cohen — were Jewish, as have been many of his other associates. His daughter converted to Judaism and his grandchildren have been raised in that faith.

So what you have is not anti-Semitism by intent, but it is anti-Semitism nonetheless. The president, I guarantee you, knows nothing about Hungary’s history, nor that Adolf Eichmann managed to round up the country’s Jewish population and have about 437,000 of them murdered at Auschwitz. Trump probably knows little about Soros, either …

In case you found the left-leaning Atlantic piece not to your liking, here's a right-leaning piece on Soros you may find more appealing. It's a column by a politically conservative American Jew, Jonathan S. Tobin, writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, generally quite liberal, though not in this instance.

So is Soros an anti-Semitic dog whistle or not. Or is he just a favorite conservative straw dog, an easy target and handy scapegoat?

My take is that he’s invoked for both reasons and that it depends upon the speaker and context.

Which is why it's important to be sensitive about what comes out of your mouth. If you're unsure but have an inkling that what you're saying or writing may be offensive to others, at least pause to think it through.

One last thing.

Perhaps the ultimate irony surrounding Soros is that he has no religious or political connection to mainstream Jewish life, which he finds far too tribal and illiberal.

Because of that he’s routinely castigated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his opposition to rightwing Zionism, as well as by many politically rightwing American Jews for his leftwing activism on moral and social issues.

Go figure.

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