The dishonest — and ironic — push to blame campus protests on George Soros

There is very obviously an element of opposition to the ongoing protests on college campuses that is rooted in familiar partisan rhetoric. The political right’s hostility to college professors and insistences that students are brainwashed into holding liberal politics, for example, is a regular undercurrent to the discussion. There are real disputes at play, certainly, and a complex weave of First Amendment issues, but there are also familiar partisan disparagements and insinuations.

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That includes one that is both ironic, given the context, and very misleading.

The New York Post offers the most useful distillation of the claim in the headline of a story it published on Friday: “George Soros is paying student radicals who are fueling nationwide explosion of Israel-hating protests.” This claim that the students are being funded by Soros — a Holocaust survivor who is a favorite boogeyman of the right thanks to his hefty donations to leftist groups — has been picked up and echoed elsewhere, too.

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By itself, this is a reflection of the idea that student activism is necessarily insincere or a function of young people being hoodwinked. Claims about Soros being the engine behind political or social movements have also been identified as being intertwined with antisemitism or explicitly antisemitic, given historical tropes about wealthy Jewish people controlling the world.

Here, then, this antisemitic framework is being deployed to undermine protests on college campuses … that have been repeatedly cast as being antisemitic.

More importantly, it’s simply not true. Or, more accurately, the connection between the protests and funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF) is so tenuous as to be obviously contrived.

One might begin by asking what Soros is theoretically paying for. After all, this is just kids setting up tents on a college campus. Is the allegation that Soros is planting students at Columbia University (for example) and fronting the $68,000 tuition?

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No. The New York Post article suggests other ways this largesse is apparently manifested.

“The cash from Soros and his acolytes has been critical to the Columbia protests that set off the national copycat demonstrations,” it reads, later describing the scene at Columbia: “Students sleep in tents apparently ordered from Amazon and enjoy delivery pizza, coffee from Dunkin’, free sandwiches worth $12.50 from Pret a Manger, organic tortilla chips and $10 rotisserie chickens.”

The “tents from Amazon” bit is a nod to a theory floating around on right-wing social media that someone is buying all of these tents for students, as though it would be otherwise impossible for a student to buy a $20 tent on her own. Mind you, there’s no evidence that the other stuff mentioned was bought by some billionaire donor, but the New York Post has been having fun recently referring to the food as “luxurious” as it wonders “[w]ho or what organization is behind the food delivery.” Clearly no average individual could have bought Dunkin’ doughnuts.

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But back to that “cash from Soros and his acolytes.” At no point does the Post article demonstrate how this purported cash has been critical, instead simply listing organizations that have been involved in the protests to some extent and tracing their funding back to OSF.

Take the group U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. It, the New York Post alleges, has a fellowship program that includes three people who have been at rallies on college campuses. In an illustration, the three are identified as “paid protesters” — suggesting that their motivation for participation is the money and not the views that led them to seek the fellowship in the first place.

“George Soros and his hard-left acolytes are paying agitators who are fueling the explosion of radical anti-Israel protests at colleges across the country,” the story hyperventilates. Eventually, it describes how.

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U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights is registered with the IRS as Education for Just Peace in the Middle East (EJP). And EJP has received grants from OSF.

The largest was $300,000, given in 2018. During that fiscal year, EJP took in just over $1 million in revenue. It spent about $1.3 million, meaning it operated at a loss. In fiscal 2019, it had net assets of about $165,000 — meaning that a big chunk of that OSF grant was already spent.

EJP also received a grant from OSF for $150,000 in 2021 and a two-year grant for $250,000 in 2022. The New York Post’s suggestion (echoing one published earlier in the week by the Wall Street Journal) is that this money went to those “paid protesters.” But money is fungible. During those years, the organization also spent $2.4 million, at least $2 million of which wasn’t OSF money.

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If the campus fellows identified by the New York Post are being paid the same as those who can currently apply for those positions, the total one-time cost to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights was about $10,000. Nor are the fellows identified in the article still fellows. A spokesperson for the organization confirmed in an email to The Washington Post that the individuals featured in the New York Post article were from last year’s class. In other words, they are no longer “paid” at all.

The New York Post story also accuses Students for Justice in Palestine of being “Soros-funded” and fundamentally involved in the protests. (That the protests metastasized nationally only after police raided the Columbia encampment undercuts the idea that this is driven from the top down, but so be it.) So where does the Soros money come from?

Well, the story alleges, Students for Justice in Palestine is funded by the Westchester People’s Action Coalition Foundation, or WESPAC. And WESPAC received $132,000 from the Tides Foundation at some point. And the Tides Foundation has received millions in funding from OSF over the years.

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It’s true that the Tides Foundation has received more than $11 million in OSF grants since 2017. It is also true that the Tides Foundation reported $298 million in revenue … in fiscal 2017 alone. The reported grants from OSF total less that 0.3 percent of Tides’ revenue from 2017 to 2022.

Regardless, Students for Justice in Palestine denies that it receives any money from WESPAC, nor is there any public indication that it does. In a statement to The Washington Post, a representative for the group indicated that the foundation “neither funds nor influences our organization’s political activity but instead extends its legal tax-exempt status to us in order to support our mission.”

“We refuse to engage with baseless claims regarding our funding in the middle of a genocide funded, militarily supported, and politically backed by the United States,” the statement concluded.

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The group Jewish Voice for Peace, also identified in the New York Post article, has received grants from OSF in recent years, both to its 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), the latter of which can engage in political advocacy. Here again, though, the issue is scale. From 2017 to 2022, the two organizations received $875,000 from OSF and, over that period, spent $19.6 million. The OSF money constituted less than 5 percent of the total spent.

All of this is very in the weeds, as we must be when assessing specific claims. Taking a step back, the allegations do not get more compelling. Soros (or, rather, the foundation he created) gave money to organizations a few years ago to influence protests that emerged in response to the six-month-old war in Gaza? Even if the money from OSF flowed directly into the $3,300 stipends of those three campus fellows, we’re meant to think, what? That although none of them attend Columbia, this is all their fault? That it’s intentional somehow?

What we’re meant to think, of course, is something simpler. That Soros is a nefarious figure bent on using his wealth to reshape the world in his image, an impulse manifested here in somehow being the engine of the protests (or, at least, somehow the doughnut donor). It’s just vague insinuations leveraging well-worn rhetoric and a preexisting visceral response to the Jewish billionaire.

There’s a term for allegations like that.

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