How concerned should we be about Elon Musk?

How concerned should we be about Elon Musk?

When the crazed Robert Bowers shot up Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, murdering 11 congregants, he declared on his social media “Why hello there HIAS!,” referring to the 150-year-old Jewish organization founded to assist immigrant resettlement. According to press accounts, his posts were also dripping with hate against people he called “globalists,” including the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist and investor George Soros.

Soros has become first on the list of prominent American Jews who are a regular focus of MAGA movement outrage for supposedly wielding overwhelming power, ostensibly against American interests. Many observers have reasonably concluded that these crusades have been dog whistles to attract the most antisemitic and racist elements to the rightwing fold, including violence-prone outfits like QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and assorted neo-Nazis.

Now Elon Musk, the tech tycoon who has become the world’s second richest person, has signed onto the conspiracy-mongering about Soros. But if dog whistles in politics mean using coded language to appeal to a specific demographic without alerting others, what are we to say about Musk, who took to his social media account to claim that George Soros “hates humanity” and “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization,” and compared him to a comic book “evil genius” who like Soros is a Jewish Holocaust survivor? Very little of the Jew hatred is left to the imagination. Unsurprisingly, after Musk’s posts the search term “the Jews” immediately surged on Twitter, which quickly became “filled with AntiSemitic conspiracies and hate speech targeting Jews around the world,” as an official in Israel’s foreign ministry pointed out at the time.

Some have made the educated guess that the volatile Musk decided to lash out at Soros in response to the investor selling some Tesla stock, along with much of his other tech securities holdings. (Let’s note that neither the amount of Tesla stock Soros disposed of nor his current prominence as an investor more generally could have been any real threat to Musk’s large empire; Mr. Soros, now 92, has actually given away almost two-thirds of his original fortune to fund his philanthropic activities, which include donations to progressive groups such as EMILY’s List, the voting rights organization Win Justice, and the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy J Street.) Perhaps Musk’s repugnant rant was a bit like the all-too-common cases of road rage we sometimes see: A wound-too-tight driver imagines that someone else on the road has veered too close to their lane and flashes the finger, punctuating the gesture with an ethnic slur. If no physical violence develops, most of us treated to such an indignity would be inclined to drive on and eventually shrug it off.

Elon Musk is not just any raging jerk, however. He’s not disappearing down the highway anytime soon.

Like some other public figures who have crawled into the swamp of antisemitism, Musk gets the attention and perhaps admiration of huge numbers of people. At last count, he has more than 140 million Twitter followers, claiming the top spot and beating out former President Obama and Taylor Swift, among others. While much of the notice he gets is due to his aggressive self-promotion, he can also point to real accomplishments in the renewable energy field. Americans often are captivated by the romance of technical innovation, sometimes without looking at the innovator’s baggage. We should keep in mind Henry Ford, justly celebrated 100 years ago as the inventor of the assembly line and the affordable family auto, who also earned Hitler’s thanks for his relentless promotion of the infamous anti-Jewish forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Beyond Musk’s personal following, Twitter has global impact. Musk took personal control of the company last fall and then quickly laid off half its staff, notably including the team responsible for addressing misinformation. It’s now clear that abandonment of responsibility in this area has become settled policy for Twitter; in the last week of May the AP reported that the company had dropped out of the European Union’s voluntary program for online platforms to combat misinformation. The news of Twitter’s and Musk’s latest step backward came only one day after the Biden administration announced the first National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, a major portion of which is devoted to rolling back the normalization of Jew hatred. This strategy document, based on input from more than 1,000 stakeholders, including all segments of the Jewish community, asks national influencers and media figures to use their positions to speak out against antisemitic and other forms of hate and calls on Congress to hold social media platforms accountable for spreading hate-fueled violence.

We can learn a lot about who the friends of our American Jewish community are by their response to Elon Musk’s anti-Jewish ranting. Our mainstream community leaders largely mirrored the comments of Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the noted Holocaust scholar and special envoy to combat antisemitism, who said that Musk had clearly “crossed the line.”

Then again, there have been others who claim to support Jews who went the other way. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis chose to make his announcement as a Republican candidate for president in a chat with Musk 10 days after Musk’s anti-Jewish remarks.

The far right now predominating in Israel’s new government also gave off a sour note. Eli Cohen, heading foreign affairs, publicly chastised the less senior official who had questioned Musk’s tweets, telling an interviewer that “Soros isn’t exactly someone who need the protection of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.” Amichai Chikli, now in charge of diaspora matters, apparently thinks that it’s Elon Musk who needs Israeli protection, moreover. He called Musk “an amazing entrepreneur and a role model.” Chikli said that he is entrusted by the Netanyahu government with the responsibility for combatting antisemitism, but he subsequently admitted in an extensive interview that he had not really bothered to read about Musk’s rant before leaping to his defense.

Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter. 

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