By Bernie Banet, special to the WJN
Elon Musk may be the last person in the world we Jews would wish to have as an enemy, and yet he has been accused of being just that by the Anti-Defamation League and many Jewish leaders. A number of commentators draw the historical comparison that Musk is becoming our era’s Henry Ford as a spreader of antisemitic poison. They say Musk is causing harm both through his personal tweets and by the ways he has reshaped X, his rebranded Twitter platform, into an amplifier of extreme views. Just a few of the headlines over the past few months have read: “Henry Ford, Elon Musk, and the Dark Path to Extremism” (James Risen in the Intercept); “Elon Musk Went From Being Like Henry Ford in a Good Way to a Bad Way” (David Zipper at Slate.com); “Is Elon Musk Destined to Become Henry Ford? … The Evidence Is Strong and Not Welcome” (Charles Mauro in PulseUX Blog); and “Actually, Elon Musk Really Is a Lot Like Henry Ford” (Parker Molloy in The Present Age).
On the other hand, some prominent Jews are defending and befriending Musk. Most of these are right of center politically and/or religiously, including the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu.
This would seem to be a good time for American Jews to pay attention to the concerns about Musk and to the perceived parallels with Henry Ford. It seems urgent to evaluate the reassurances expressed by Musk’s Jewish defenders and to monitor Musk’s words and actions closely.
Musk’s empire of technology and innovation
Let’s begin by noting that Elon Musk is the world’s richest person. He is a technology titan whose investments are defining the planet’s future in multiple domains. The elements of his empire and of his influence perhaps even rival or eclipse what Henry Ford accomplished in the twentieth century. The Elon Musk constellation of enterprises grew from the proceeds from his success as a cofounder of PayPal, the online payments system.
Famously, Musk guides and has enormously profited from Tesla, which reenergized the electric vehicle industry at a time when electrification is seen as an important strategy to fight climate change. Tesla is more than Tesla cars and other vehicles. It is the advanced batteries that propel the cars, the charging stations electric vehicles need, and the artificial intelligence that allows Musk to tease buyers with the promise of “FSD” or Full Self-Driving. It is “gigafactories” to manufacture the batteries and “gigacasting” manufacturing technology that replaces many automotive components with a single die-cast unit.
Tesla’s AI and Robotics Division is working on humanoid robots, as well, and has demonstrated the progress of its Optimus prototypes. Advancing electrification in another way, Tesla makes solar panels used in industrial scale solar farms and solar tiles for rooftops, backed up by storage batteries.
Musk’s empire only begins with Tesla. There’s also The Boring Company that bores underground tunnels, and Neuralink, which is connecting brains and computers and aims to do so for humans. Much further along in generating revenue, SpaceX is a major player now in America’s space efforts, introducing reusable orbital launch rockets. SpaceX is also the developer of Starlink, a global satellite network launched by SpaceX rockets that aims to provide broadband internet service to underserved areas. Starlink has 5,000 satellites already operational in orbit.
Musk is heavily involved in artificial intelligence, in addition to Tesla’s automotive FSD, having been one of the founders of OpenAI which created Chat-GPT, GPT-3 and GPT-4. He has withdrawn from the OpenAI board. He founded xAI in March of this year, an artificial intelligence company that proclaims “the goal of xAI is to understand the true nature of the universe.”
The Musk enterprise that is most involved in fears about antisemitism is X, formerly known as Twitter, acquired by Musk in October 2022 for $44 billion. Twitter currently has 540 million monthly users.
Musk’s ventures have a market capitalization of over one trillion dollars. His personal net worth hovers around $225 billion.
According to Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker (“Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule”) even the U.S. government “came to rely on the tech billionaire — and is now struggling to rein him in.” According to Farrow, a number of vital American government-led initiatives depend on Musk’s technologies and enterprises. Starlink satellites, for example, have been an important communications tool for the Ukrainians in their defense against the Russians, but their use is uncomfortably subject to Musk’s whims.
Henry Ford and Elon Musk: The parallels
Many were comparing Musk to Ford before Musk became associated with political extremism and antisemitism. For example, ironically, before his feud with Musk, even Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL, called Musk “a great innovator” and “the Henry Ford of our time” in a TV appearance in October 2022, seeming to forget about Ford’s anti-Jewish record. Both men, Musk and Ford, after all, were technology and business giants. Both, too, have been described as having somewhat messianic or megalomaniacal ambitions and highly difficult personalities.
Henry Ford, 1863–1947, is, of course, a world icon and was also a southeast Michigan resident. (We can drive on Ford Road from Dixboro to the Ford family’s Dearborn). We know Henry Ford as the father of the Model T, interchangeable parts, the assembly line, and of Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford, however, also has the shameful record of subsidizing the production and dissemination of antisemitic lies and conspiracy theories between the world wars, in the prelude to the Shoah.
Henry Ford widely distributed the Russian forgery known as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and various screeds against the threat purportedly posed by alien Jewish immigrants and international Jewish bankers to the American republic and the world. Ford sponsored publications that labeled Jews as greedy and dishonest capitalists, but also conflated Jews and Bolshevism. Ford did this in part through his Dearborn Independent newspaper, which he purchased in 1919. The Dearborn Independent was given away for free at Ford dealerships. Henry Ford republished those hate-filled articles in multiple book volumes titled The International Jew.
Ford’s antisemitic libels were an acknowledged inspiration and encouragement to Hitler and the Nazis. Ford was mentioned by name in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He was the only American with that distinction. As late as 1938 Ford accepted the highest medal for non-Germans from the Nazi German government. He was perceived at various times as finding common cause with the Ku Klux Klan, Lindbergh’s America First isolationist movement, and the Royal Oak, Michigan, radio priest, the antisemitic Nazi-sympathizer Father Charles Coughlin.
How did Elon Musk come to be seen as the new Henry Ford of American antisemitism? It wasn’t just by challenging Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match, which he did indeed do. It is Musk’s transformation of Twitter, which he acquired on October 27, 2022, and renamed “X,” that has given the “Elon Musk is the new Henry Ford” meme the ominous connotation that Musk is now also a hatemonger, as Henry Ford was, with X as the new Dearborn Independent on a planetary scale.
This perception is in large part because Musk has insisted that his Twitter/X drop filtering and moderation services that had screened tweets for hate-filled content and ordered that X end the deplatforming of extremist tweeters. This has made X a haven for right-wing conspiracy theories in general and for explicitly anti-Jewish memes. Musk’s welcoming back of Kanye West symbolized for some this change at the beginning of Musk’s Twitter control. Then came reports that the volume of extreme content had sharply increased: “Hate Speech’s Rise on Twitter Under Elon Musk is Unprecedented, Researchers Find” (by Sheera Frenkel and Kate Conger, New York Times, December 22, 2022), and “Elon Musk is the most dangerous antisemite in America. In his tenure as Twitter CEO, Musk has amplified antisemitic rhetoric and made the social media platform fertile ground for extremist recruitment” (Forward.com, June 2023).
Musk claimed that removing moderation and filtering was in the service of free speech. Commentators noted with suspicion, however, that Musk was being more than simply a libertarian free speech advocate. Right-wing extremism and anti-minority vitriol was being injected in increased volume into the Twitter/X social media space. Was Musk using the platform to amplify his own views, and were those views hostile to Jews and other minorities?
Aaron Ostrovsky stated in his article “Elon Musk’s dangerous tweets are empowering antisemites” in The Hill (thehill.com) on September 9, that, “… X has become an unrestrained free-for-all against Jews, where neo-Nazis and white extremists seemingly run rampant and antisemitism is widespread.”
The concerns of many American Jews about Musk and X were elevated as a feud between Musk and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) received public attention. Zack Beauchamp chronicled the origins of the conflict in a piece on September 6 on Vox.com called “Elon Musk’s strange new feud with a Jewish anti-hate group, explained.” Back in December 2022, ADL reported that eliminating the “verified” blue checkmark and reinstating the accounts of previously banned far-right tweeters had led to a surge of extremist posts. Additional reporting in the spring of 2023 reiterated this trend.
In posts on X, Musk blamed the ADL for a drop in X’s revenue of 60%. Musk wrote, “Since the acquisition, the ADL has been trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it and me of being anti-Semitic….it looks like we have no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League …oh the irony.”
There is no evidence that ADL’s warnings about Musk’s X do account for X’s serious revenue problems. Musk endorsed a “Ban the ADL” campaign” that became open season for attacks on Jews in general. Does the word “scapegoat” ring a bell? Musk’s own posts seemed themselves to reinforce antisemitic tropes: For example, that George Soros “hates humanity.”
Aaron Ostrovsky explains in his The Hill piece cited above that before Musk got involved with it, the “#BantheADL campaign was hardly noticeable, relegated mostly to a small fringe of extremists. But Musk got involved when he ‘liked’ a tweet by Keith Woods, an Irish white nationalist and self-proclaimed ‘raging anti-semite,’ who was one of the lead initiators of the campaign.”
Musk responded, “To be super clear, I’m pro free speech, but against anti-Semitism of any kind.”
Musk’s Jewish defenders
Some important Jewish leaders — on the right side of the political and religious spectrum — have rushed to Musk’s defense or have made a show of engaging in friendly dialog. An early example was Alan Dershowitz on May 21, in the Wall Street Journal. Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece entitled “Elon Musk Is Right About George Soros — and Not Anti-Semitic.” According to the renowned and controversial Dershowitz, it is Soros, not Musk, who is the danger to the Jews through his support of Human Rights Watch and J Street. Dershowitz wrote “I agree with Mr. Musk that Mr. Soros’s acts contribute to fraying the ‘fabric of civilization.’ And Mr. Musk has shown no hostility toward Israel or the Jewish people.” I would translate this Dershowitz explanation as: Musk is not against Jews. He’s just against “bad Jews” such as those who oppose some of the policies and actions of the Israeli government and are therefore anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
Benjamin Netanyahu, besieged prime minister of Israel in a right-wing coalition, sought out the company of Elon Musk on his recent visit to the United States. They spoke in San Francisco on September 18. JTA reported the meeting as “Netanyahu and Elon Musk talk antisemitism, judicial reform during friendly chat streamed on X.” The JTA report stated:
“The two men appeared to get along, riffing on James Bond and The Terminator, and expressing admiration for Jewish science fiction author Isaac Asimov. Musk also reminded the audience that he briefly attended a Hebrew preschool as a child in South Africa, and quipped, “I can sing a pretty good ‘Hava Nagila.’” At one point, Netanyahu asked what Musk would do if he were the “unofficial president” of the United States. (Musk, who was born in South Africa, is ineligible to become U.S. president.)
Then on September 18, Haaretz.com described the Netanyahu-Musk conversation with a different headline twist, as “Fawning Netanyahu defends Musk against antisemitism allegations.”
Ben Samuels in the Haaretz piece quotes Bibi’s remarks to Musk: “I know your opposition to antisemitism. You’ve spoken about it, tweeted about it. All I can say is, I hope you will find — within the confines of the First Amendment — the ability to stop not only antisemitism or roll it back as best you can, but the collective hatred of people that antisemitism represents. And I know you’re committed to that. I hope to help you succeed. It’s not an easy task, but I agree with you to find a balance. It’s a tough one.”
Musk to Bibi: “I’m against antisemitism, I’m against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict. And I’m in favor of that which helps both society and takes us to a better future for humanity collectively.”
Also in the Ben Samuels account in Haaretz is this response to Bibi’s affirmation of Musk’s good will by Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Yizhar Hess: “Choosing to pal around with Elon Musk at a time when antisemitism runs rampant on X not only sends the wrong message to Jews around the world, but puts them at risk. Fighting antisemitism requires decisive action, not platitudes and hoping for better. Today’s talk served at the very least to legitimize inaction. I’m proud to stand with ADL and all those fighting the world’s oldest form of hatred.”
The latest Musk and the Jews event was a “roundtable” among Jewish Americans, Jewish Israelis, and Musk on September 28, organized by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. The event included former Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, and three important rabbis. The Forward’s Mira Fox reported it under the heads: “Why are all these Jewish leaders groveling to Elon Musk? In what was ostensibly discussion of online antisemitism led by Ben Shapiro, Jewish leaders ignored rising rates of antisemitism on the platform.”
Another Forward article on the same day about the same event, this one by Lauren Markoe, was headlined: “Elon Musk: I’m not antisemitic, I’m ‘aspirationally Jewish.’ He also claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that antisemitism has dropped on Twitter since he bought it.”
Musk noted at the roundtable that he went to a Jewish preschool in South Africa, that Elon is an Israeli name, and that he had been to Israel twice. “I don’t have a Jewish friend. I think probably, I have twice as many Jewish friends as non-Jewish friends. That’s why I think I like to think I’m Jewish basically.”
Were these chats a misguided attempt to provide Jewish cover to Musk, to curry favor from Musk for whatever reason, or a sincere effort to enlist him as an ally? Perhaps it is not such a bad idea to try to get on the right side of the richest man in the world, whom the Prime Minister of Israel is happy to view in a friendly chat as the unofficial president of the United States?
Haunted by Henry Ford’s poison pen
The antisemitic publications that Henry Ford paid for and distributed fed into Hitler’s brain, as we see from Mein Kampf. The publications and Ford’s other support of Nazi sympathizers did not create German Nazism, but they contributed to it and helped to pave the way for it, and the World War and Shoah that followed.
Jews have no issues with the Ford Motor Company or the Ford family of today, though we are uncomfortable when we suspect whitewashing of history, as in the case in 2019 in which a mayor of Dearborn tried to suppress the antisemitic history of Heny Ford by censoring an article and firing the editor of the city-funded magazine that published it.
We do know that in our county stands the Willow Run site where Ford Motor Company built B-24 Liberator bombers to defeat Hitler, while Henry Ford was still alive.
The historical memory of Ford’s hate lingers, though, and the nightmare recurs when we see Elon Musk and X stirring up potentially violent extremism, despite his protestations of philosemitism. The “some of my best friends” excuse rings hollow, once again.
The ethical and legal questions about the responsibility of a social media platform or search engine or internet service provider to moderate or not moderate information content are complex, no doubt. Hate speech seems largely to be constitutionally protected against government intervention in the United States. Private entities that publish and distribute information can accept a moral duty to prevent group libel, and can enforce their own standards, but this burden is not universally acknowledged in the internet cloud.
On November 18, 2022, Elon Musk tweeted, “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach. Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter. You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out, which is no different from rest of Internet.” It is not clear that this policy is being followed for anti-Jewish posts. It would be very helpful if it were. Some of Musk’s own tweets, as we have seen, are being pointed to as negative examples, no matter how “aspirationally Jewish” he is.
The latest development in Musk’s feud with the ADL is that there appears to be a truce. On October 4, ADL issued a statement indicating that it will resume advertising on X. Included in the statement was the following:
“To be clear, any allegation that ADL has somehow orchestrated a boycott of X or caused billions of dollars of losses to the company or is ‘pulling the strings’ for other advertisers is false. Indeed, we ourselves were advertising on the platform until the anti-ADL attacks began a few weeks ago. We now are preparing to do so again to bring our important message on fighting hate to X and its users.
“A better, healthier, and safer X would be a win for the world. We’ve said that publicly and repeatedly, and we hope that company leadership shares that goal as well. As we do with all platforms, we will credit X as it moves in that direction, and we also will call it out when it has not.” JTA reported that Musk reacted to the statement in two tweets: “Thank you for clarifying that you support advertising on X,” he wrote. “And also very much appreciate that ADL has bought advertising on X.”
Musk’s truce with the ADL does not end the threat that hate amplification on social media presents. Elon Musk’s past actions and unclear motives are still concerning. Continued vigilance on the part of the Jewish world seems warranted.