Lost in the brouhaha of the Trump indictment were Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ comments at a press conference last month that should raise concerns far beyond his assaults on the “woke” and Mickey Mouse. DeSantis limns Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his ilk as “Soros-funded prosecutors,” with a Trump-like dog whistle that “The Soros district attorneys are a menace to society.”
What does this locution and coded signaling mean?
If you passed through Budapest in 2017, you would know. Strongman Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, has been beating the drum about George Soros like a KKK rally. In Hungary’s parliamentary elections that year, citizens couldn’t miss the billboards, metro walls and even floors of trams with posters of the Jewish-born Hungarian billionaire and the admonition, “Let’s not allow George Soros to have the last laugh!” The invocation of progressive funder Soros as a Satanic figure is an update of the Rothschild libel that burned through the continent in 1846 after the battle of Waterloo: It’s always the fault of a rich Jew.
Orban is no longer just the Hungarian Trump. He has become the darling of Florida’s governor, Fox News pundits and even kicked off last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, in Dallas. That ostensibly sentient Americans would gravitate to a man whose aura is reminiscent of Berlin in the 1930s is a disgrace to our republic and our freedoms. Like the interregnum between the two World Wars, the scent of antisemitism bursts into skunk-like efflorescence when Soros-coding injects itself. Soros equals Jew equals money equals Satan.
The sad and terrible history of the depredations of antisemitism is not restricted to the infamous pogroms of Eastern Europe in the first quarter of the 20th century, when perhaps 1.75 million Jews emigrated to America, or the Holocaust, when 6 million perished and the nations of the world all but closed their doors and turned a blind eye. In fact, the origins of Jew-hating go back at least as far as the 3rd century BC, where records depict riots in Alexandria. A millennium later, the 6th and 7th century AD saw anti-Jewish edicts, slavery, forced conversion, exile and death.
The Crusades were a horror show of their own. In 1096 AD, during the First Crusade, hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. It is likely that the need for a refuge such as Israel dates to this time. A few hundred years later, in the 14th century, the idea of conspiratorial plotting by Jews took shape during the Black Death, which was attributed to the poisoning of wells. In 1348, even before the plague reached Strasbourg, dwellers of the city who had bought the conspiracy theory burned alive 900 Jews. The trope of Jewish plotting has a long and bloody lineage.
Strains of antisemitism, subtle or full-blown, have filled all too many shelves of our shared literary heritage, not to mention philosophy and theology. In 1543, Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies” recommends a pogrom against them, with a sentence paving a road to the Holocaust: “We are at fault in not slaying them.” When Walt Whitman edited The Brooklyn Eagle in the 1840s, his paper took historical and cultural shots at Jews. By the 1920s, there was no doubt about Henry Ford’s antisemitism as it played out in The Dearborn Independent. When war came to Europe, Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee alleged that Jews were pushing the U.S. to declare war on Germany. Poet Ezra Pound broadcast antisemitic screeds four times a week from Mussolini’s Italy. The Jew-hating beat goes on and on.
The past is prologue. It is hard to imagine the Yale- and Harvard-educated DeSantis blithely name-checking George Soros with no awareness of the fine line he is crossing. But the right-wing mantra of the day appears to be race-baiting, misogyny and antisemitism under any other names. Trump opened the door to transgressive speech and pandering to the mob no matter what the cost — or even amplifying the cost. How many egomaniacal heads of state does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None — curse the light and let others bathe in your glorious glow.
One of the thorniest issues around antisemitism is distinguishing it from anti-Zionism. Unfortunately, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is a far-right leader who has plunged his own country into protest as he seeks to kneecap his nation’s judiciary. The distinction between feelings about Jews and Israel is muddy at best. The more repressive Israel’s policies appear to some, the easier it becomes to lump in all Jews with Israeli’s current leadership. Exploiting the moment, a mosaic of groups — left, right, Arab, Muslim, you name it — find it easy to cloak antisemitism in anti-Zionism. From there, it’s a short walk to slandering with “Soros” coding, DeSantis-style.