The question of what does and does not constitute antisemitism is seemingly perennial, and despite attempts to codify a definition, it is a question that shows no signs of going away.
The latest dust-up over the issue involved the second-richest man in the world. Last week, Twitter owner Elon Musk found himself in hot water after slamming his fellow controversial billionaire George Soros.
On May 16, Musk tweeted, “Soros reminds me of Magneto,” a reference to the primary villain from the comic book X-Men and its film adaptations.
As a left-wing philanthropist, Soros is often criticized, but Musk’s tweet set off alarm bells because while Magneto is a super-powered “mutant,” he is also a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
Tech entrepreneur Brian Krassenstein pointed this out to Musk, tweeting, “Fun fact: Magneto’s experiences during the Holocaust as a survivor shaped his perspective as well as his depth and empathy. Soro [sic], also a Holocaust survivor, get’s [sic] attacked nonstop for his good intentions.”
Musk replied, “You assume they are good intentions. They are not. He wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.”
ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt promptly waded in, tweeting, “Soros often is held up by the far-right, using antisemitic tropes, as the source of the world’s problems.”
Greenblatt asserted that Musk’s tweet was “dangerous” and would “embolden extremists who already contrive anti-Jewish conspiracies and have tried to attack Soros and Jewish communities as a result.”
In response to the uproar, Musk doubled down, saying his tweet was “really unfair to Magneto.” He advised the ADL to “drop the ‘L.’ ”
This fracas, while relatively minor, raised a more general issue because of the figure of Soros himself.
Soros and his Open Society Foundations are, unquestionably, among the most powerful forces on the Western left. They fund a multitude of organizations and movements dedicated to advancing progressive politics and policies.
As such, Soros and his philanthropy do affect many aspects of political and social life in the West, and should therefore be legitimate targets of criticism. Indeed, there are similar figures on the right, and those who leap to Soros’s defense have no problem with attacking his counterparts on the other side of the aisle.
There is also the issue of Soros’s personal and professional behavior, a great deal of which has been unbecoming. His financial machinations once forced Britain to devalue the pound. His influence over the U.S. legal system through massive campaign funds for various judicial offices can be legitimately considered malign by opponents. His general interference in the politics of various countries — including, perhaps especially, Israel — is seen by many as undermining civil society. This is all legitimate cause for criticism.
For Jews, moreover, there is a certain irony to the charge of antisemitism, given that Soros’s philanthropy has completely ignored Jewish issues and he has expressed open hostility towards Israel. Indeed, he once went so far as to blame Ariel Sharon, Israeli policies and the “pro-Israel lobby” for the current rise in antisemitism. To blame Jews for antisemitism is thoroughly monstrous and antisemitic in and of itself.
Nonetheless, the issue is more complicated than it appears, because it remains an inescapable fact that Soros is a Jew. As such, he is inherently different from non-Jews of similar influence and stature. When people point to him as an evil supervillain who “hates humanity” and wants to destroy civilization — all ancient slanders of the Jews — this has inevitable resonances that it does not in other cases, and there is no sense in denying it.
Indeed, while Musk did not do so, it is not unusual to hear people on the far right accuse Soros of more or less controlling the world, a libel with obvious antisemitic connotations. Greenblatt is right to point out that this is, at the very least, dangerous.
This raises another question: Is all criticism of Soros antisemitic?
The easy answer is to say: No, one can criticize Soros but avoid antisemitism in doing so. But this is not enough. While criticism of Soros’s wealth, influence and undeniable power may not be subjectively antisemitic in all cases, it is difficult to see how it is not objectively antisemitic in most cases.
One can love or hate Soros and his work, but whether we like it or not, attacks on him — even quite accurate attacks — are bound to be seized upon by antisemites, who will see such attacks as confirmation of their fantasies of Jewish conspiracy and omnipotence.
A similar phenomenon is at work regarding criticism of Israel. It is all fine and good to say that of course you can criticize Israel as you would any other nation, but Israel is not like any other nation. It is a Jewish state, and this comes with millennia-old civilizational baggage that is inescapable. An attack on Israel cannot but have, on some level, antisemitic connotations.
In a free society, these unpleasant realities present us with an insoluble dilemma. We cannot simply shut down all criticism of Soros. Criticism and the right to criticize are essential to liberal democracy, and to censor and cancel are inherent threats to the same. The slippery slope is obvious and ominous. And yet, the unpleasant realities remain.
The answer, it seems to me, is to adopt a certain moral imperative: Work toward less antisemitism. That is, engage in justified criticism, but always keep the possible collateral damage in mind. Understand that antisemitic resonances are, on some issues, inevitable and seek to minimize them.
If we adopt this imperative, we must admit that Musk conspicuously failed to honor it. He did not consider the sinister echoes of his statement. When they were pointed out to him, he did not take them seriously. Whatever one thinks of George Soros, we should be willing to acknowledge that this, at least, is unacceptable.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv.