Before State Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, appeared on a conservative talk radio show earlier this month, he tweeted out a plea to listeners: “Please call your state representatives &tell them to pass #HB2, and stand with the innocent victims, as well as the brave police officers and witnesses who come forward, and against Kim Gardner, George Soros, and criminals in STL.”
The second name — Soros, a liberal Jewish billionaire— caught the attention of the local Anti-Defamation League chapter. The organization accused Onder of promoting conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism and called for him to apologize.
But was it fair to accuse Onder of anti-Semitism? After all, this was the same person who had sponsored legislation earlier this year aimed at combatting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, so Onder had demonstrated his support for Israel.
The director of the local ADL chapter said the group’s response to Onder’s statement was deserved because it’s part of the “explosion of the use of the word ‘Soros’ in the political arena” and whether “subtly or not opens the gateway to what the ADL has called the anti-Semitic subculture that blames Jews for the riots or blames Jews for increased crime.”
Onder, meanwhile, told the Jewish Light that he does not think of Soros — who has said he is not a practicing Jew — as being Jewish. Onder also said he mentioned the philanthropist in criticizing Gardner because he has been a primary backer of her campaigns for St. Louis circuit attorney through a super PAC.
“She seems to be very dependent on this one very far-left, out-of-state progressive donor, and I think it is something that does bear mentioning,” Onder said.
The ADL has tracked references to Soros on social media. In recent months, as protests — and in some cases riots and looting — have erupted in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, as well as other Black people who have recently been killed by police, conspiracy theorists “have alleged that George Soros has played a role in fomenting the chaos,” the organization states.
The group found that negative tweets about Soros, in the immediate wake of Floyd’s death, rose from 20,000 per day on May 26 to more than 500,000 per day on May 30. The majority of the tweets allege that Soros funds antifa and is paying protesters to riot.
The organization says that while most of the tweets do not mention Soros’ Jewish heritage, they often lead to conspiracy theories about Jews sparking riots in an effort to gain control.
Gardner has been a frequent target of criticism from Republicans over the increasing amount of gun violence in St. Louis, the high turnover rate among prosecutors under her, and allegations that she has politicized her office.
Soros does in fact appear to be the largest backer of Gardner. He was the initial funder of Missouri Justice & Public Safety PAC, which was organized in 2016 to support Gardner, and has since donated several hundred thousand dollars to support the Democrat through the PAC and been its primary backer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
But Karen Aroesty, regional director of ADL, points out that he was not the sole donor to Gardner or other candidates but is consistently singled out.
“Why highlight him other than to call out the stereotype of the shady, behind-the-scenes Jewish billionaire? That’s just awful,” Aroesty said.
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, also objected to Onder’s tweet and sent a letter to the senator, who she describes as a “a great friend and ally to the Jewish community.”
“It is because I know what a great friend you are that I want to raise to you the angst and fear that language such as ‘Soros-funded’ can evoke within the Jewish community,” Picker Neiss wrote. “Unlike other forms of discrimination, as Professor Deborah Lipstadt likes to point out, antisemitism punches up rather than punches down. In that, she means that rather than attempt to position the Jews as ‘less than’ and thus not deserving of society’s benefits, antisemitism says that Jews are too successful, that we control the media, that we control the government.”
Onder defended his tweet, saying that he was not promoting conspiracy theories and that Soros did fund Gardner’s campaign. Onder also referred to Soros’ criticism of Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks on Soros, who has supported J Street, a left-leaning Israeli advocacy organization.
“One of his greatest critics has been Benjamin Netanyahu, so I don’t really associate George Soros very much with Judaism. He really dislikes AIPAC. He dislikes neoconservatives, many of whom are Jewish…And I would also say, that I for instance am Roman Catholic and when someone criticizes me, I don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the person criticizing me is anti-Catholic,” Onder said.
Still, references to Soros have become a tactic in the political arena whose “effect is almost inevitably to induce some anti-Jewish sentiment or to play off of anti-Jewish stereotypes in trying to paint your opponent,” said Josh Pasek, a University of Michigan professor who studies new media and political communication. “I guess that” Onder’s statement isn’t “an advertent attempt to invoke anti-Jewish sentiment but it has that necessary effect by the singling out of a single Jew.”
Onder is not alone among Republicans in attacking Gardner by linking her to Soros. Former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, who appears to be trying to make a political comeback after resigning in 2018 amidst scandals, released a video in June in which he attacks Gardner, whose office charged him with felony invasion of privacy. The charge was dropped when Greitens resigned. The Greitens video includes a clip from One America News, a conservative cable news channel, with the headline, “SOROS WITCH HUNT CRUSHED: FMR GOP GOV. GREITENS EXONERATED.”
After text saying that the “true extent of the plot against” Greitens “is slowly being exposed,” Greitens says on a talk show, “People are saying that the woman who charged me is a Soros-funded prosecutor who…”
But as with Onder, some might say there is reason to question whether Greitens was intentionally evoking an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory because Greitens is Jewish.
Pasek, the Michigan professor, says that the “same biases can exist across any groups. It’s not like a Black person can’t be racist against Blacks.”
He added, “As a potential out-card, it doesn’t even make sense on that level, but again, I don’t think any of these people are doing it necessarily with the intent to evoke anti-Jewishness, but that is the effect.”