The glass tower that houses George Soros’s office in Manhattan is overflowing with numbers on screens, tracking and predicting the directions of markets around the world. But there’s one that’s particularly hard to figure out — a basic orange chart on a screen analyzing sentiment on social media.
The data, updated regularly since 2017, projects the reactions on the internet to the name George Soros. He gets tens of thousands of mentions per week — almost always negative, some of it obviously driven by networks of bots. Soros is pure evil. A drug smuggler. Profiteer. Extremist. Conspiracist. Nazi. Jew. It’s a display of pure hate.
The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent.
Soros and his aides have spent long hours wondering: Where did this all come from?
Only a handful of people know the answer.
On a sunny morning last summer, one of them could be found standing in front of the huge buffet in the Westin Grand Hotel in Berlin. George Birnbaum is built like a marathon runner — tall and slender, his head and face shaved clean. Elegant horn-rimmed glasses frame his piercing blue eyes.
Birnbaum — a political consultant who has worked in the US, Israel, Hungary, and across the Balkans — had agreed to talk for the first time about his role in the creation of the Soros bogeyman, which ended up unleashing a global wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the billionaire investor. But he also wanted to defend his work, and that of his former mentor and friend, Arthur Finkelstein.
George Eli Birnbaum was born in 1970 in Los Angeles, where his family moved after fleeing Nazi Germany. His grandfather was shot by the Nazis in front of his son, Birnbaum’s father, who later survived Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism followed the family as they moved to Atlanta, where Birnbaum grew up, and where the Jewish school he attended was often defaced with anti-Semitic slurs. It left a mark.
In an era when many American Jews drifted away from their specific identity, Birnbaum wasn’t allowed to forget it. Every weekend his father handed him the Jerusalem Post.
“First you learn what’s going on with the Jewish people in the world, then you can worry about the rest of the world,” Birnbaum remembered his father saying. He grew up believing that only a strong nation, the state of Israel, could protect the Jews from a second Holocaust.
All of which makes it bizarre that Birnbaum and Finkelstein’s ideas spawned a new wave of anti-Semitism, and that they did so in the service of an authoritarian leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, reviled around the world for his far-right views. The two men took all the arguments against Soros, from East and West, from left and right, and fused them together. Two American Jews, one a towering figure in US politics, helped create a monster. [Continue reading…]