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Elon Musk’s strange new feud with a Jewish anti-hate group, explained

Elon Musk is venturing into some dangerous territory about Jews.

Elon Musk putting his hands together.
Elon Musk at the Paris Viva Tech Fair.
Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

For the past several days, Elon Musk has been engaging in a very strange feud with a leading Jewish anti-hate group.

In a series of posts on X (the site formerly known as Twitter), Musk repeatedly blamed the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for a 60 percent decline in the site’s revenue — alleging a coordinated effort by the group, which monitors extremism, to push advertisers away from Twitter after Musk purchased it last year.

“Since the acquisition, The ADL has been trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic,” Musk wrote. “To clear our platform’s name on the matter of anti-Semitism, it looks like we have no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League … oh the irony!”

One should take Musk’s threats against the ADL about as seriously as his proposal for a cage match against Mark Zuckerberg.

The group has criticized Twitter for its permissive content moderation policies, but the legal standard for defamation is dauntingly high. There’s no good evidence that the ADL or any other nonprofit is largely responsible for X/Twitter’s ad woes, which mostly have been caused by its owner’s erratic behavior. Though Twitter recently filed a suit against a different group that tracks online bigotry, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Musk also has a very, very long history of empty promises. The vow to sue the ADL should be slotted into that category until proven otherwise.

What’s interesting about Musk’s threats is not that they’re likely to come to fruition; it’s what they tell us about the world’s richest man.

In recent months, Musk has repeatedly engaged with antisemitic accounts on his site and even flirted with outright antisemitism in his own statements. His specific false criticisms of the ADL, that a high-profile Jewish group is “primarily” responsible for Twitter/X’s business problems, evoke a long history of antisemites using Jews as scapegoats. His allegations have also kicked off a Twitter/X hashtag, #BanTheADL, eagerly seized by antisemites. On Tuesday night, he replied approvingly to an account that claimed Jews “support censorship,” citing an anonymous user who describes white nationalist Jared Taylor as a role model.

The irony here is not, as Musk would have it, that a group called the Anti-Defamation League is engaging in defamation. It’s that, in attacking the ADL for accusing him of promoting antisemitism, Musk is actually validating their critiques.

Why did Elon Musk start a feud with the ADL?

The ADL is the leading American organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism, with a large staff dedicated to tracking antisemitic and extremist activities. Its annual reports tallying antisemitic incidents around the country are extremely useful resources; many of its experts have deep and valuable insights into neo-Nazi and other extremist groups.

As a result of its unique position, the ADL has become the closest thing we have to an “arbiter” of antisemitism in American public life. When it says something is antisemitic, or contributing to antisemitism, it carries a significant amount of weight. This doesn’t mean the group is perfect or above criticism — it has significant Jewish critics on both the left and the right — but rather that it has become, rightly or wrongly, the most influential Jewish group dedicated to fighting antisemitism.

And since Musk purchased Twitter last October, the ADL has become increasingly concerned about his decisions creating a safer space for antisemites.

In a December blog post, the ADL argued that two decisions in particular — making the verified “blue checkmark” available to everyone and reinstating a series of far-right accounts banned under previous management — had contributed to a quantifiable surge in antisemitic content on the site. In March and May of this year, ADL published new data that demonstrated similar conclusions: Musk’s decisions had made Twitter a friendlier one for antisemites and a worse place for Jews.

The ADL is not the only organization to arrive at this finding. Two recent data analyses, conducted independently, found that the number of antisemitic tweets had more than doubled since Musk purchased the site. But given the ADL’s public stature, its criticisms seem to have stung Musk more — especially when the group criticizes not just his business decisions, but his personal tweets.

In May, for example, Musk claimed that Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization.” When ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt warned that this rhetoric might “embolden extremists,” Musk claimed Greenblatt was “defaming” him.

The ADL CEO speaks on a podium in front of a red background.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in 2023.
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for National Urban League

It’s not obvious why Musk decided to reignite his feud with the ADL right now; there is no obvious recent incident like the Soros dustup. But what matters isn’t so much why Musk decided to go after the ADL, but whether his complaints have any legitimacy.

In one of his posts, Musk places the lion’s share of the blame for Twitter’s problem on the ADL. “Our US advertising revenue is still down 60%, primarily due to pressure on advertisers by [the] ADL (that’s what advertisers tell us), so they almost succeeded in killing X/Twitter,” he writes.

If the ADL’s work was “primarily” responsible for a social media giant’s collapsing revenue, that would be an extraordinary event: perhaps the most remarkable success of an activist pressure campaign in history. Such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and Musk provides none.

When my colleague Peter Kafka looked into this question last year, after another incident where Musk had blamed “activist groups” for a revenue decline, advertisers actually told him the exact opposite of what Musk was saying. Instead, it appears that Musk’s actions — especially his habit of sending bizarre and troubling tweets on his own personal account — scared advertisers the most.

“[Advertisers] deal with activists all the time,” one ad industry veteran told Kafka. “They certainly understand how to stand up to pressure. Him blaming activists? They’re laughing.”

Musk’s claims, in short, are totally unsupported by the available public evidence. As far we can tell, they amount to a baseless effort to blame his business problems on a leading Jewish organization.

Which raises the question of whether something darker is going on here.

Is Elon Musk antisemitic? That’s the wrong question.

Elon Musk is drawn to conspiracy theories. That much is obvious from the past decade of his public behavior, from his false claim that a man who rescued Thai children trapped in a cave was a pedophile to his more recent absurd suggestion that the man who attacked Paul Pelosi may have been his lover.

The problem, however, is that the modern enterprise of conspiracy theorizing is intimately bound up with antisemitism. Time and again, conspiracy theorists end up positing Jews or some famous Jew as the villain in their baroque stories.

This is because, in historical terms, antisemitism has always been a conspiracy theory. In fact, antisemitism created the tradition of “conspiracy theorizing” in the modern Western world.

Deborah Lipstadt, a historian currently serving as the State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, traces the structure of antisemitic ideas back to the very origins of Christianity — specifically, the New Testament description of Jesus’s death.

The early church taught that “the Jews” conspired to kill Jesus — even though Jesus and his apostles were all Jewish and the Romans who actually executed him in the story were not. This, according to Lipstadt, was in part a strategic choice: Christianity had become a competing religion to Judaism, and its leadership wanted to marginalize the older, more deeply rooted tradition.

“Jews, [early Christians] argued, repudiated this new faith because of their inherent maliciousness,” Lipstadt writes. “This formulation rendered Judaism more than just a competing religion. It became a source of evil.”

This is the crucial thing to understand about antisemitism: It is both bigotry and an explanatory framework. Jews aren’t just detestable people, in the antisemitic mind; they are the force responsible for all that is bad in the world. While the exact contours of these conspiracies changed over history, blaming the Jews for the world’s ills — from war to famine to pandemic — became a persistent feature of the European social environment, morphing with the times to explain whatever plagued the continent at the moment.

After the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, antisemitism secularized. Antisemitic writers and politicians developed a new vocabulary that picked up on the old Christian bigotry but rearticulated it in ways more appropriate to modern Europe. Now Jews were not “merely” Christ killers, but a traitorous population who threatened the continent’s new nation-states. Jews were not true citizens, but an international group plotting to use modern finance to undermine the stability of European society and manipulate the West from behind the scenes for their own benefit.

Put differently: The overarching structure of the modern Western conspiracy theory — a global cabal manipulating the world from behind the scenes for its own profit and power — is an antisemitic construct. Many of its most significant texts, like the infamous 1903 Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were explicitly antisemitic.

Visitors to a museum look at an exhibit on antisemitic propaganda.
Visitors look at Nazi antisemitic posters addressed to Poles on display in Kraków’s Museum of Contemporary Art in May 2020.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

After the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, the horrific endpoint of centuries of antisemitic conspiracy theories, explicit anti-Semitism became far less socially acceptable in both Europe and the United States. Even some conspiracy theorists backed off from openly blaming Jews (to a degree).

But the link between conspiratorial thinking and antisemitism proved impossible to sever. In his book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, the European scholar Jovan Byford explains that modern conspiracy theories always draw on the conspiratorial past. Either intentionally or unintentionally, their vocabulary and concepts invariably draw upon foundational antisemitic tropes.

“While a writer may seek to dissociate him- or herself from the ‘outdated’ trends within the conspiracy tradition, including the focus on the Jewish provenance of the alleged plot, they nevertheless continue to operate in an ideological space with a long antisemitic tradition,” he writes.

This is why modern conspiracists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) so frequently end up entering antisemitic territory, doing things like blaming California wildfires on a space laser controlled by a prominent Jewish family. The conspiratorial tradition in the West is so intimately bound up with antisemitism that it returns to that well again and again.

Which brings us back to Elon Musk.

When Musk blames the ADL for Twitter’s ad revenue problem, he’s not merely making a false claim about his business: He’s positing that a Jewish organization has tremendous behind-the-scenes power and is using it to hurt him, specifically. Whether he intends them or not, there are undeniable resonances with classical antisemitic conspiracy theories and that’s a large part of what separates Musk’s comments from legitimate criticisms of the ADL.

Similarly, when Musk claims George Soros “hates humanity” and compares him to the Jewish supervillain Magneto, he’s not merely criticizing Soros. He’s casting the Jewish philanthropist as a monster, using his money to undermine the foundations of humanity itself — comments that tap into the myriad antisemitic conspiracies floating around about Soros and his actions.

I want to be clear: There is nothing intrinsically antisemitic about criticizing either the ADL or Soros. Both are important actors in public affairs whose activities deserve to be scrutinized. But the way in which Musk has gone after both of them has crossed the line from good-faith critique to absurd hyperbole that obviously draws on and mainstreams antisemitic ideas. Seth Mandel, a conservative Jewish writer highly critical of the ADL, has noted a surge in antisemitic tweets targeting the ADL in the past few days.

“The groypers tweeting ‘ban the ADL’ are bad people with bad intentions and bad designs. Don’t be fooled, don’t ‘consider their argument,’ they are ghouls who hate you. No nuance,” he writes. “The ADL and I are arguing over how to keep Jews alive. The groypers want us all gone.”

In light of what we know about antisemitism, conspiracies, and Musk, his role in making his site worse for its Jewish users isn’t very surprising.

Musk loves to publicly espouse conspiratorial explanations of what’s happening in the world. The more time you spend thinking in those terms, and the more you engage with the sort of fever swamp characters that Musk regularly chats with on Twitter/X, the more likely it is that you will end up engaging with some antisemitic ideas — as Musk seemingly has.

When the billionaire claims that he harbors no personal animus toward Jews, it’s entirely possible he’s telling the truth. But antisemitism, much like racism, isn’t just about personal animus. It’s also about what you say and do relating to the group, and the effects that has on its standing in social life.

Put differently: Whether or not Elon Musk “is” an antisemite is immaterial. What matters is that his actions are making antisemitic ideas and habits of thought more acceptable on his social media site and among his legions of devoted fans.

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