((JEWISH REVIEW)) — When George Soros gave control of his vast charity to his son, Alexander, it was clear that the new 37-year-old chairman would follow in his father’s footsteps in many ways.
Alex Soros is known to work well with George, the billionaire hedge funder, liberal philanthropist and Holocaust survivor who turns 93 next month. “We think alike,” George Soros said about his youngest son when naming him in June as his successor at the Open Society Foundations, which distributes roughly $1.5 billion per year to an array of causes.
But some departures are already evident. Alex Soros revealed one himself on the day of the handover announcement, saying, “I’m more political.” Another is less prominent but no less apparent: Alex Soros’ deep and public embrace of his Jewish identity.
George Soros, born in Hungary in 1930, was hidden as a child during the Holocaust and, as an adult, has always openly identified as Jewish — in addition to being one of the most prominent targets of right-wing antisemitism. But he is not active in any Jewish institutions, has given relatively little to Jewish nonprofits and, in 2007, wrote, “I am not a Zionist, nor am I a practicing Jew.”
Alex Soros is more vocal about his Judaism and once organized a convening to address rising antisemitism. He regularly posts pictures from his holiday celebrations, and has long been active in Jewish philanthropic causes. The first donation made by his own foundation, established in 2012, was $250,000 to Bend The Arc, a progressive Jewish group on whose board he remains today.
Alex Soros declined an interview request, as did other OSF staffers. But he has written and spoken extensively about how Judaism has shaped him, how he believes the Jewish community is developing, and how he hopes to shape Jewish philanthropy.
“Progressive causes, like the civil rights movement, are a part of the Jewish legacy in the United States,” he said in 2012. “Bend The Arc for me has a lot more to do with preserving this legacy than with anything else.”
Alex Soros’ ascendance at the Open Society Foundations was hardly a given. For many years, George Soros’ older son from his first marriage, Jonathan, was long presumed to be his heir: His middle name, Tivadar, comes from George Soros’s beloved father, and he was president of the elder Soros’ investment firm for nearly a decade. But he left after a clash with his father over hiring decisions and has launched his own investment firm, though the two reportedly remain friendly.
Alex is the older of two sons from George’s second marriage, to the Jewish historian Susan Weber. While Alex praises his father and, in a recent social media post featuring a grinning photo, called him “the greatest,” he described his upbringing as difficult to the Wall Street Journal. The elder Soros has a reputation for being controlling and for plowing through senior staff, both at his hedge fund and charitable endeavors. Alex, who grew up in New York City and a northern suburb, told the Journal he spent his childhood longing for his father’s attention.
“I was very angry at him, I felt unwanted,” he told the New York Times in 2012. “He had a very hard time communicating love, and he was never really around.”
In 1998, Alex Soros became George’s first child to have a bar mitzvah. (In addition to Jonathan, George Soros had a daughter and another son with his first wife, who was not Jewish.) He told Yediot Aharonot in 2018 that his father pulled him aside after the ceremony with some advice: “If you’re serious about being Jewish, you might want to consider immigrating to Israel,” he recalled being told. In a photo he shared with the Wall Street Journal, his father is handing him a Torah scroll as father and son wear the same kippah, black and patterned with white Stars of David.
Alex has said he grew close with his father after his mother filed for divorce in 2004, when Alex was starting out at New York University. But his trajectory toward heir apparent at first appeared uncertain, as he came into the public eye as a partier.
In 2008, the summer after his graduation, CityFile, a now-defunct New York City gossip site, mined his Facebook pages for photos and said he spent the time “chilling at dad’s house in Southampton, drinking 40s while cruising on the family boat, and making out with the babes at places like La Playa and Pink Elephant.”
Alex Soros deleted the photos and set about involving himself more intensely in his father’s charity. He traveled to the Amazon to meet with indigenous leaders and joined the board of Global Witness, a human rights group that focuses on victims of mining.
He also dove into therapy. “Growing up on the Upper East Side, going to a psychologist is like going to Hebrew school,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “It’s expected.”
That year, he launched his own eponymous foundation. His first donation was $250,000 to Bend The Arc.
Speaking to Philanthropy News Digest at the time, he made the case that his philanthropy did not mark a departure from his father’s.
“Given my dad’s history and given the values that led to the creation of OSF, it can be argued that OSF is a Jewish foundation,” he said.
“His Jewish identity has had a major impact,” he added. “I see it as formative in what he does, especially in his philanthropy, and probably my own concern with the Jewish community comes from him as well.”
As he grew his philanthropic profile, Alex Soros also followed in his mother’s footsteps, earning a doctoral degree in history. His 2018 dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, had a title that, according to the Wall Street Journal, delighted his father: “Jewish Dionysus: Heine, Nietzsche and the Politics of Literature.”
Today, Alex Soros does not belong to a synagogue but observes Passover and the High Holidays with his mother, a source close to the family told (JEWISH REVIEW). In addition to Bend The Arc, he is on the board of the Center for Jewish History, based in New York City.
Over time, the younger Soros also built a social media presence that, rather than showing off his displays of wealth, features his Jewish identity, alongside a litany of encounters with world leaders. On Hanukkah in 2020, he posted on Instagram what he said was “one of the greatest bar mitzvah gifts I received,” a menorah made of dancing robots. He routinely posts Jewish holiday photos, usually focused on food. Passover is the Jewish holiday that is most important to him, and he hosts large meals with his mother, inviting both Jews and non-Jews. Challah, he once wrote, is his “favorite (leavened) bread.”
Alex Soros has also brought up his Judaism when posting to social media about his politics. Earlier this month, he posted a photo of himself with his arm around New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic majority leader. “With the man, many, including Robert A. Caro have called the Jewish LBJ,” he wrote, referencing President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s biographer, who is also Jewish. He also posted an encomium for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she died at the onset of Rosh Hashanah in 2020, writing that according to Jewish tradition someone who dies on the holiday “is a person of great righteousness or a tzaddik.”
Simon Greer, who founded Bend the Arc, told (JEWISH REVIEW) that Alex Soros’ Instagram presence is typical of his generation, and not just because younger Jews tend to live more online. George Soros was never apologetic about his Judaism, Greer said, but was typical of an older generation who tended not to speak publicly about it. Alex is of a generation that is happy to broadcast identity, Jewish and otherwise.
“Think about that generation of Jews who immigrated here and they wanted to be American. … They wanted us to believe in being Jewish, but they weren’t going to practice it the way maybe they had as kids,” he said. “And then as young adults, we were like, ‘Well wait, I love Passover. I’m happy to talk about the Exodus story.’”
Comments by Alex Soros suggest that he is attuned to fault lines within Jewish communities.
In the 2012 Philanthropy News Digest interview, he lamented what he saw as “a bit of an existential crisis happening for many American Jews” in which “many are turning to religious orthodoxy to get answers.”
He added, “While this in itself is not inherently negative, it is often coupled with more conservative political beliefs and a tribal outlook. Eventually, I think there will be a split, with the secular, universalist Jews on one side and the more Orthodox and religious on the other.”
Alex Soros has also had his Jewish outlook shaped by antisemitism, including attacks on his father. Greer said in an interview that he first met Alex when Greer and George Soros were being targeted by Glenn Beck, the right-wing provocateur who was then a Fox News host.
Alex Soros was young but already steeped in the history of antisemitism, which stemmed in part from his devotion to his father, recalled Greer, whom Alex Soros has cited as an influence.
“Beck had used the puppet-master stereotype against his dad,” Greer recalled. “Alex was well versed in the puppet-master trope. He studied antisemitism in Europe so he was totally clear that that’s from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He had no illusions about it.”
Alex Soros, he said, convened a meeting in 2017 at Chatham House, a research institute in London, to tackle rising antisemitism.
“It was still early in the Trump administration, and Alex really saw ahead on it,” Greer said. “I think he saw the rising tide of antisemitism. It concerned him and he funded and attended a convening where we brought experts from the U.S.”
He has also said his father’s experience in the Holocaust has guided his philanthropic work, inspiring him to continue his father’s commitment to human rights advocacy and political activism.
“My father, George Soros, lost family members in the Holocaust,” he wrote in a CNN op-ed last month applauding the Biden administration’s plan to combat antisemitism. “And for him, those experiences — of being ‘the other,’ of being hated for something that he couldn’t control — helped fuel his philanthropic career, and his dedication to help others fight for a life free from fear.”
The elder Soros’s philanthropy has focused on pro-democracy efforts in the former Communist bloc and elsewhere, and has focused on Democratic politics and criminal justice reform in the United States. His critics have taken aim at his advancement of progressive politics at the local and national level, as well as at the influence he wields as one of the most prominent megadonors in the world.
Unlike his son, George Soros has rarely donated to explicitly Jewish causes, and some of his pronouncements on Jews and Israel have sparked backlash from Jewish leaders.
In 2003, George Soros told a gathering of the Jewish Funders Network that there was “a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the [Ariel] Sharon administration [in Israel] contribute to that.” Those comments elicited outrage from some Jewish figures such as then-Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman, who said Soros was “blaming the victim for all of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s ills.”
In a 2007 essay in the New York Review of Books, Soros wrote that he has “a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.” But he also wrote of the “pervasive influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee” and added that the group’s conduct lent “some credence” to antisemitic claims of an “all-powerful Zionist conspiracy.” A year later, he would provide approximately $750,000 in seed funding to J Street, founded as a liberal alternative to AIPAC. Last year, he donated $1 million to J Street’s Super PAC.
Alex Soros shares his father’s opposition to right-wing politics in Israel and some of the country’s policies.
“I worry when Jews in America start to support policies in Israel which they wouldn’t support in America, which don’t allow for separation of church and state, which don’t give full rights to people who are technically living under occupation, and which don’t allow for immigration of people who aren’t Jews, or for non-Jews to become citizens,” he said in the 2012 Philanthropy News Digest interview.
In 2016, years after his role in his father’s charitable giving had intensified, hacked emails showed that the Open Society Foundations backed groups that aimed to work on “challenging Israel’s racist and anti-democratic policies.” The foundation’s Arab regional office in 2015 praised a 2007 initiative to create a binational constitution for Israel. (In his interview with Yediot, Alex Soros said he opposes the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, known as BDS, and said the Open Society Foundations’ Arab office makes funding decisions autonomously.)
Two years later, in his Yediot interview, Alex Soros lacerated Netanyahu for forcing the foreign ministry to qualify its prior condemnation of a Hungarian government anti-Soros campaign that the country’s Jewish community had deemed antisemitic. (His father suggested that he speak to the Israeli newspaper after it initially asked George Soros for an interview, the paper reported.)
“I was disappointed by the Israeli prime minister’s cynical conduct, his failure to help Jews and to stand behind them,” Alex Soros said. “This isn’t Israel, this is Netanyahu. His ties with radical right-wing, antisemitic and corrupt elements contradicts Israel’s commitment as a Jewish state.”
In his recent CNN op-ed, Alex Soros criticized the current Israeli government — led again by Netanyahu — for “increasingly aggressive and hostile policies towards its Arab population, elevating extremists to cabinet rank, authorizing new settlements in the occupied West Bank and proposing dramatic new curbs on the independence of the judiciary.” He has visited the country several times, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
Israel may be unlikely to be a centerpiece of Alex Soros’ philanthropy, but democracy is one.
In addition to being elected chairman of OSF in December, he is also president of Democracy PAC, George Soros’ powerhouse political action committee that made him the leading donor to Democrats in last year’s midterm elections. Alex is also the only family member on the committee overseeing Soros Fund Management, the family’s investment office, which is worth $25 billion.
He is already making changes at OSF. At the end of June, he announced 40% cuts to the foundation’s staff of about 500, Bloomberg News reported, in the name of “generating a nimbler organization.” He also told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to invest more heavily in political causes such as abortion or voting rights.
That’s in line with his long-standing giving. In 2012, the year he broke into philanthropy, he gave $200,000 to a Jewish super PAC responsible for the “Great Schlep,” a campaign that originated in 2008 to convince elderly voters in Florida to back Barack Obama in that year’s presidential election.
In 2016, he urged Hillary Clinton to embrace progressive policies to win the Florida Jewish vote — and in so doing offered a glimpse into his looming future as one of the world’s most influential philanthropists.
“As a community, our response to improved fortune has been to do whatever we can to cast a wider net for other Americans,” he wrote in a South Florida Sun-Sentinel op-ed. “When one looks through the history of progressive battles in the U.S. from labor to civil rights, one has seen American Jews on the front lines.”