Will Netanyahu, Musk talk AI, innovation or X antisemitism? - opinion

Will Benjamin Netanyahu and Elon Musk discuss AI, electric vehicles, and innovation, or allegations that under Musk, X has become an incubator for antisemitism?

 TESLA CEO Elon Musk arrives for a bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Insight Forum for US senators hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at the Capitol in Washington, last week (photo credit: Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)
TESLA CEO Elon Musk arrives for a bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Insight Forum for US senators hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at the Capitol in Washington, last week
(photo credit: Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the United States this week. During the visit he is scheduled to meet with Elon Musk.

Musk is one of the richest people on the planet. His net worth of about $200 million is larger than the national budgets of 15 European countries. He has styled himself as tech-crusader motivated by the possibility of improving life on the planet earth using technology and innovation, as opposed to being driven by simple making money. Under his ownership, Twitter is increasingly being seen as a platform for the propagation of extreme views, rather than benefiting the planet, and all in the name of free speech.

In addition to owning social media network Twitter (now rebranded as X), Musk is also the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. Although X is smaller than some of the other social networks its size is hugely leveraged by having a concentrated number of politicians and public opinion leaders who fight in it over cyberspace. Musk’s endless financials resources coupled with the power of social-tech give him major influence over our political and social discourse.

The question we should be concerned about is whether the topic of conversation between Netanyahu and Musk will be artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, and innovation instead of the increasing accusations that under Musk, Twitter has become an incubator for antisemitism.

Free speech or free to hate?

Just over a year ago Musk acquired X for $44 billion with the expressed aim of creating a platform for the protection of absolute free speech. Since taking over there has been much controversy, which has been well reported. He has liked and retweeted messages that have conspiratorial overtones, and has now focused his anger and influence in targeting the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), the over-100-year-old Jewish organization whose main mission is to combat antisemitism, among all types of racism. His anger was sparked by the ADL’s repeated criticism about the policies of Musk’s social network with regards to hate speech and antisemitism.

 (L-R) Benjamin Netanyahu, Elon Musk (credit: FLASH90, REUTERS)
(L-R) Benjamin Netanyahu, Elon Musk (credit: FLASH90, REUTERS)

Even before the latest spat with the ADL, he has repeatedly courted controversy. In May of this year he falsely claimed that the Allen, Texas mass-shooting was not committed by a far-right extremist, in the face of massive evidence. Doubling down, he claimed that the whole thing might be a psyop, a type of false flag operation. Also, in May he seemed to back up Charlie Kirk’s claim that American was being invaded by refugees. Kirk has over 2.5 million followers and is known for spreading falsehoods and right-wing conspiracies.

In July, he suspended the account of Dom Lucre, for posting child exploitation pictures, only to restore the account days later. Lucre has over half a million followers and is considered a major QAnon conspiracy theory influencer. Also in July, Musk reinstated Ye (the rapper formerly known as Kayne West) to the social network. He had been suspended in the wake of repeated antisemitic rants at the end of 2022, and was perhaps the most negative influence on the spread of antisemitism in recent times.

He has echoed classic antisemitic tropes saying that the ADL itself is responsible for the rise in antisemitism and previous attacks on George Soros, characterized by Israel’s foreign ministry as leading to “a flood of antisemitic conspiracy theories on Twitter.”

The ADL has become the focus of Musk’s ire even though other organizations had joined with the ADL in criticizing Twitter and Musk after the takeover. This itself has been used as proof that he is singling out Jews. The ADL has not only become a target for Musk but by openly antisemitic and racist personalities who are running a campaign across the network under the hashtag #BANtheADL.

Musk’s Israeli defenders

Musk has however been defended by some Israelis of note.

Diaspora Minister and Israel’s minister in charge of combating antisemitism, Amichai Chikli, countered the Foreign Ministry’s statement about Musk with his own via Twitter in May. “As Israel’s minister who’s entrusted on combating anti-Semitism, I would like to clarify that the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens see Elon Musk as an amazing entrepreneur and a role model. Criticism of Soros – who finances the most hostile organizations to the Jewish people and the state of Israel is anything but anti-Semitism, quite the opposite!”

Erel Segal is a headline journalist on Israel’s Channel 14. He has a nightly monologue on the channel, dedicated to a key issue of the day. After Musk threatened the ADL with charges of defamation and the resulting condemnations against Musk, he used his monologue to address the issue. Right at the end he switched to English to deliver Musk a personal message.

“I have a pact of destiny with Greenblatt, we are both Jewish, but with you, Elon, I have a common world of values, mission alliance” (Channel 14 Erel’s Report, September 6). Sensitive readers will identify Segal’s subtle twist of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s idea of covenant of fate and covenant of destiny, classically used to describe the two types of bonds holding Jews together. Segal recycles the philosophy to let us know that while he cannot disconnect from other Jews (e.g. the CEO of the ADL) because Jews are tied by fate, his common mission is actually with the non-Jew Musk.

Listening to the monologue we understand what combines Segal’s and Chikli’s common mission with Musk, and against the ADL and Soros. In the great culture war of 2023, one side represents progressive or neo-Marxist ideas, while the other defends absolute free speech and the fight against hyper-political correctness driving agendas around transgender politics etc. It seems that this to Segal poses a greater threat than the potential normalization of antisemitism.

ADL under the microscope

There has been significant criticism targeted at the ADL under the stewardship of Jonathan Greenblatt. He has been attacked for co-opting the organization to the progressive agenda. Critics claim he is undermining the core mission of fighting against antisemitism by replacing a bipartisan agenda and support base with a partisan and liberal or progressive only support base. Some of this criticism seems reasonable, and has definitely damaged the ADL in the eyes of parts of the Jewish community and at large.

This cannot be an excuse for a campaign driven by self-declared white nationalists and antisemites. The line between legitimate criticism, particularly from within the Jewish community and antisemitic attacks from without has blurred as toxic conspiracies and other gaslighting takes place online.

When the identity politics wars around conservative or progressive politics become co-opted by white supremacists, Musk finds himself in the middle of it. What started out as a mission to create absolute free speech has plunged him into a deepening controversy around antisemitism.

Netanyahu’s dilemma

Parts of the ideological base of Prime Minister Netanyahu see the world through the lens of this culture war, explaining the partisan opinion on whether Elon is either empowering antisemitism on his network, or worse still, harbors antisemitic views himself, or is a just a defender of free speech, maligned by the thought police of the extreme Left.

In reality and even on the basis that Musk is not actually antisemitic, his behavior as one of the most influential humans on the planet, echoing antisemitic tropes, and treading close and often across the line should mean that Israel’s leader chose solidarity with the Jewish people under attack, rather than give Musk the implied clean bill of moral health by not raising the controversy with him.

On the one hand, if Netanyahu meets with Musk and only talks about green technologies and artificial intelligence, he is handing him a pass, and signaling to those on Musk’s far-right that they should carry on their crusade for absolute free speech and the defeat of the libs, with no worries about empowering further the already toxic antisemitism and conspiracy theories running rampant across cyberspace globally and X specifically. On the other hand, Netanyahu can choose the moment to confront Musk and challenge or even recruit him to tackle the spread of extremism and hatred, including against Jews.

Let’s hope he makes the right choice.

The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva, and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.