A version of this article was originally published at the Jewish Daily Forward.
Yesterday, a tweet making the rounds online depicted George Soros, progressive Hungarian Jewish philanthropist, as an octopus with tentacles embracing the earth’s surface. But this anti-Semitic tweet didn’t come from the alt-right- it came from Adam Milstein, real estate mogul and prominent pro-Israel philanthropist, whose Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation takes as its mission “to strengthen the State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People, and its special ties with the United States of America”.
The image was accompanied by the caption “Soros gives $18b to his Open Society fdn. $$ used for civil unrest, dividing Americans, and suppressing free speech”. Two days later, when his tweet began to receive negative attention, Milstein deleted the tweet and, bizarrely, retweeted the same message, with a different image. This time, his chosen meme attacked another progressive Jewish leader, legendary American Jewish community organizer Saul Alinsky, for allegedly engineering a conspiracy to ‘create a socialist state’ in America by controlling healthcare, gun laws, welfare and more.
As Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, I’m used to hearing, day after day, the false claims from pro-Israel figures like Milstein that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, led by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), has created an unsafe and hateful campus climate for Jewish students. A recent study from Stanford confirms what I’ve heard from talking to Jewish students every day for over two years- that these allegations simply aren’t true.
Instead, students tell me that it is the rising antisemitic white nationalist movement in America- not student activism for Palestinian human rights- that makes them fear for their safety, as Jews, on campuses. How could a stalwart Israel advocate like Adam Milstein- a self-proclaimed frontline defender of Jewish students against antisemitism, a prominent board member of StandWithUs, Birthright Israel, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the AIPAC National Council and more, casually propagate well-worn alt-right anti-semitic motifs- all the more so at a time like this?
The prominent pro-Israel philanthropist’s attacks on Soros, whose Open Society Foundation funds pro-democracy and human rights causes around the world, comes as around the world, growing far-right ethno-nationalist movements scapegoat Soros, and progressive Jews more broadly, as the alleged masterminds of the progressive movements they abhor. In countries like Hungary, Soros-related antisemitism goes hand-in-hand with Islamophobia– and Milstein’s Twitter account, not surprisingly, is rife with diatribes against ‘Sharia law’, ‘radical Islam’ and other common Islamophobic tropes.
Milstein is hardly the first right-wing Israel defender to join the anti-Soros crusade. Last month, Yair Netanyahu, son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted an anti-Semitic meme depicting Soros controlling the world’s affairs, including his father’s political opponents. And earlier this summer, hours after Israel’s ambassador to Hungary joined Hungarian Jewish groups and Human Rights Watch in denouncing a state-backed anti-Soros smear campaign that, in the words of the ambassador’s statement, “evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear”, Israel’s Foreign Minister startlingly issued a ‘clarification’ that insisted that Soros was a legitimate target for criticism, accusing Soros of funding organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself”.
Indeed, today’s disturbing convergences between far-right antisemitic movements, and right-wing Israel advocacy more broadly, are becoming harder to ignore. For the second year in a row, Steve Bannon, former Trump advisor and architect of the alt-right Breitbart News Network, has been invited to speak at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual gala, this time joined by another former Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, member of the neo-Nazi group Vitezi Rend in Hungary. On Thursday, hours before Milstein deleted his Soros tweet, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer, in a speech at the University of Florida, repeated his now-familiar mantra that Israel is a model for the white ethnostate he hopes to build in America, through a movement he regularly calls “white Zionism”. And earlier this year, Netanyahu, eager to avoid upsetting his allies in the Trump administration, was slow to condemn the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, even as chants of “Jews will not replace us!” struck terror into the hearts of American Jewry.
But as a proponent, through my work with JVP, of the right to boycott Israel on college campuses, Milstein’s anti-Semitic tweet hit close to home for me. The Milstein Foundation supports a plethora of pro-Israel campus groups, including Hillels across the country and Project Interchange, which recruits student government leaders throughout the UC system for trips to Israel designed to shore up support against BDS.
Milstein- who served three months in prison for felony tax evasion in 2009, despite a plea hearing in which Israel’s LA consul general, the CEO of StandWithUs, and other prominent Israel advocates intervened to request leniency- has personally backed undemocratic attempts to stifle criticism of Israel on college campuses. In 2014, it was revealed that Milstein had solicited funds from wealthy donors on behalf of multiple pro-Israel student senate candidates at the University of California-Los Angeles, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent student government from voting to divest from corporations complicit in Israel’s occupation. After the funds were channeled to student candidates through UCLA Hillel, the candidates, who did not disclose the contributions, swore to Milstein that they would work to make sure that UCLA “maintains its allegiance to Israel”.
Can we really trust figures like Milstein, and the larger right-wing Israel advocacy movement he represents, to safeguard Jewish students on college campuses, when they have shown themselves eager to align themselves politically with, and bolster the messaging of, antisemitic movements the world over?