Michael Steinberger’s ambitious New York Times profile of George Soros highlights the inner tension at the core of his philanthropic pursuits on behalf of liberal democracy set against his career as an international financier and hedge fund manager. That tension is now threatening to destroy both his life’s work and reputation. Steinberger portrays Soros as a tragic hero, but it also makes him the living embodiment of a contemporary retelling of a rabbinic interpretation of Tisha B’Av.
Steinberger describes how Soros, after first surviving the Holocaust and then fleeing the communist takeover of Hungary, was inspired by the “Open Society” philosophy of Karl Popper and sought to implement its vision. Over the course of decades, Soros poured hundreds of millions of dollars into his native Hungary and across Europe to promote civil society and liberal democracy. Soros was especially influential during the transitions that followed the consolidation of the European Union and collapse of the Soviet Union.
But Steinberger also notes how, again and again, Soros seems almost to work against himself. Most famously, the Black Wednesday episode, in which Soros led a consortium of speculators that destroyed the value of the British Pound in a single day while earning himself a billion and a half dollars, galvanized the position of Britain’s Euroskeptics — the same group that eventually went on to lead the Brexit movement that is shaking the European Union to its core.
Today, increasingly powerful waves of right-wing populism and ethnic nationalism threaten the European stability and cohesiveness at the heart of Soros’ vision, while liberal, integrationist leaders and parties are increasingly on the defensive. In his native Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, himself once a Soros protege, has been at work consolidating power through constitutional amendments, restricting free speech and civil liberties, stirring up nationalist fervor through xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and aligning himself with authoritarian leaders, including Vladimir Putin. He is just one of a group that includes Turkey’s Erdoğan, France’s Le Pen, Britain’s Farage, and, of course, Donald Trump.
To this right-wing backlash, Soros has become the global bogeyman that most inflames and motivates activists and supporters. Orban’s recent reelection campaign was directed against Soros more than any of his actual opponents, featuring a series of posters and billboards with his smiling face, next to the slogan, “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” (Many have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.) In similar fashion, Soros appeared in Trump’s 2016 “closing argument” advertisement as a foreign-born puppet master working against the American people.
This tension goes right to the heart of Tisha B’Av. The book of Deuteronomy opens as Moses reflects on the forty-year journey that took the Israelites from disorganized tribes of former slaves to a nation with a developed civic infrastructure. “Eikha esa levadi – how could I alone bear your disputes,” Moses recalls, as he organizes a judicial bureaucracy.
The Rabbis, though, hear an ominous foreshadowing in Moses’ words — an echo of Isaiah’s exclamation, “Eikha hayta l’zona – how could the city of Jerusalem become as a harlot?” Isaiah identifies the very judiciary Moses created as the corrupt, oppressive tool of entrenched power that mercilessly oppressed the poor and vulnerable. The Judean Kingdom soon fell to the Babylonians, as Jeremiah lamented, “Eikha yashva levadad — how could the city be so desolate?”
It is tantalizing to wonder whether Moses himself may or may not have felt the chill of those faint echoes reverberating from the future. In any case, he was fortunate not to live long enough to see his life’s work undone by his own creation. George Soros is not so fortunate.
Commenting on the beginning of Deuteronomy, Rashi explains that Moses was not just remarking on the growth of the Israelite population; he was also lamenting their contentiousness and disunity. According to this approach, the appointment of judges and leaders that Moses recalls was not simply an attempt to relieve the burden of his ever-growing caseload. It was also an effort to assert control and guide society by imposing order and values from above.
The line from Moses to Isaiah and Jeremiah is a subversive perspective on Tisha B’Av. A popular rabbinic teaching attributes the destruction of Jerusalem to various sins that the people had committed, including idol worship, murder, sexual immorality, and baseless hatred. This teaching, though, more subtly, identifies the seeds of the destruction in the good and necessary work done to build Israelite society in the first place.
There was nothing else Moses could or should have done, but even his best efforts laid the groundwork for future calamity. Isaiah was correct and justified in campaigning against the corruption of his day, but his preaching only hardened the establishment and made the destruction inevitable. It is that tragic sense of history and human endeavor that we confront on Tisha B’Av.
Soros certainly can empathize. His own influence has waned, as direct association with him or his Open Society Foundation has become politically toxic. Like the prophets who raged against the corrupt leaders of Biblical Jerusalem, his ongoing efforts to support the values he believes in are also fueling the ongoing backlash. At this point, he is trapped; he can’t surrender, but, at the same time, he is burdened by the awareness that he may be a net detriment to his own cause. In other words, Soros is our Moses and Isaiah. As we observe Tisha B’Av this year, he may also wind up being our Jeremiah.