These days in Greece an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory has successfully infiltrated the public discourse. Officials of the right-wing New Democracy government, as well as by journalists of major media outlets, express suspicion regarding the role of NGOs in the movement of refugees.
An increasing amount of voices demand for NGOs that act in the sphere of migration to be researched for their “real” intentions by the Greek authorities. What state officials and journalists indirectly suggest is that members of NGOs actively seek to instigate refugees into revolting and destabilizing the region. This logic derives directly by the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories expressed for years now by the likes of Victor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister. Orban has been accusing billionaire George Soros, who is of Jewish descent, for financing NGOs to smuggle refugees in the country and destabilize it in that way. Donald Trump has also implicitly accused Soros of funding the Central American migrant caravan that aimed at crossing the Mexican-US border.
In all these cases there is this anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, according to which a super rich Jewish lobby is trying to destabilize the Western Christian civilization, by the means of a so called “islamization” – supposedly directed displacement of Muslim populations from Asia and Africa into Europe and North America. Far-right mass shooter Robert Bowers, who killed 11 and injured another 6 at the Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, has prior to his attack written that “It’s the filthy evil Jews bringing the filthy evil Muslims into the country!!” (sic). He wrote these words in a message he sent to HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – a non-profit organization of the US Jewish community that sends aid to refugees from around the world.
When the current Greek vice minister of migration and asylum Georgos Koumoutsakos speaks of the “shady roots” of NGOs that act as “leeches”, he implicitly reproduces this conspiracy theory. But this anti-Semitic position has been reproduced by people on the left as well, like mayoral candidate with the Greek Communist Party Nikos Sofianos, who has suggested on national television that Soros, through his NGOs, controls Larisa station in Athens, where he is doing “works” with immigrants.
This does not mean that there are not problems with the NGO sector. Awarded Indian author Arundhati Roy has already clearly pointed at the damages inflicted by the NGOisation of social movements:
“The capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate the agenda.
It turns confrontation into negotiation. It de-politicizes resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self-reliant. […] The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job.”
According to Roy, the NGO sector tends to incorporate popular resistances and initiatives into the capitalist economy and state bureaucracies, thus stripping them from their autonomy and democratic potential. For her, it is part of the current system and not its opponent as she notices certain linkage between the two: In India the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s, coinciding with the opening of India’s markets to neoliberalism. Furthermore, NGOs are often used by large corporations to clear their image through the so called “green-washing”, “pink-washing”, “money-laundering” etc. For years now they have been viewed as part of the status quo. But it seems that today, when grassroots activism, such as climate activism, has been dubbed as terrorism, even conformist entities such as the NGOs are being viewed as in need of restrainment. No wonder that such a discourse has been adopted by authoritarian governments from around the world, such as Orban’s.
There most certainly are problems with NGOs. But these issues have a structural and systemic character. They tend to bureaucratize grassroots movements and infuse them with economistic attitude. The argument that NGOs are driven by rich Jewish people who want to Islamize Christian populations, however is nothing more than a bad-hearted fallacy. Those who advance such conspiracy theories strive at spreading hatred and racism in order to cover the bankruptcy of the current political regime.
While anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are once again becoming mainstream and embraced by national governments, significant part of the Left seems incapable of recognizing anti-Semitism, as it is a conspiracy that imagines Jewish people as those in control of mass media and financial institutions, and for this reason they are often not being recognized by progressives as oppressed minority.
We mustn’t let the conspiracy theory of New Democracy’s government (which once again invests in the far-right) and the mainstream media without a response. Anti-Semitism is still at the core of the Right. Refugees rebel not because they are being made to by “shady” NGOs but due to the appalling conditions of the refugee camps run by state bureaucracies and financed by the EU. And it is not only the migrants. All around the world social movements resist the neoliberal efforts of subduing all spheres of human life to economism and political disempowerment. The root of the current multidimensional crisis is systemic, not conspiratorial. It is the ruling elites who would like us to believe otherwise.
Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher and a militant in social movements. He currently participates in the political journal aftoleksi.gr, and is also a bibliographer at AgoraInternational.org, and member of the advisory council of TRISE. Yavor writes for various international websites and is author of books and brochures on direct democracy, the commons etc. His new book, Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality, is available here.