Netanyahu’s Odd Embrace of Elon Musk

The Israeli prime minister is playing a seedily transactional game.

Elon Musk and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the Kfar Aza settlements in southern Israel.
Government Press Office of Israel / Anadolu / Getty

November 30, 2023, 11:59 AM ET

Less than a month after the billionaire Elon Musk enthusiastically endorsed the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that motivated the deadliest massacre of Jews in American history, this week, he received a warm welcome to Israel from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since Musk took over Twitter, which he has renamed X, the sort of hateful content that drives both negative and positive engagement has flourished on the site. But he has also directly promoted some of the most toxic claims on the platform. He endorsed as “the actual truth” the idea that Jews were deliberately supporting the immigration of nonwhite people in an act of “hatred against whites.” The post’s implication was that not restricting immigration to Western countries on the basis of race and religion is racist against white people, who have a racially defined right to political, cultural, and demographic hegemony in those nations.

As my colleague Yair Rosenberg notes, “It wasn’t the first time Musk echoed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from his social-media bubble.” No conspiracy theory is necessary to explain why people flee poverty and persecution for nations with greater economic opportunity or political freedom; this is a large part of the story of the United States of America. But perhaps Musk finds in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a useful means of redirecting frustration over social change or economic hardship away from the obscenely wealthy, like himself, who profit from lower marginal tax rates and a more threadbare social safety net.

At a New York Times event yesterday, Musk apologized for the post, which has caused the platform to hemorrhage advertisers. “I’m sorry for that … post,” Musk said. “It was foolish of me. Of the 30,000 it might be literally the worst and dumbest post I’ve ever done. And I’ve tried my best to clarify six ways from Sunday, but you know at least I think it’ll be obvious that in fact far from being anti-Semitic, I’m in fact philo-Semitic.” That self-description is less than reassuring.

Whatever Musk’s motives, the incident has worsened X’s financial situation. The site had already plummeted in value since he turned it into a platform for amplifying the far right. For the prime minister of the Jewish state to host Musk mere weeks later, helping launder Musk’s reputation, may seem strange. In fact, it is part of a larger pattern in which Israeli politicians and pro-Israel advocates have offered to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism from far-right figures in exchange for support for Israel. As Emily Tamkin argues in Slate, Netanyahu himself has long courted far-right leaders in Europe who have strategically deployed anti-Semitism as a political tool. Such illiberal leaders are less likely to oppose Israeli territorial maximalism, and a Europe led by authoritarian right-wing populists is less likely to object to Israel holding Palestinians captive in an occupation that denies them suffrage or national self-determination. This is the same logic that explains Netanyahu’s courtship of American evangelicals at the expense of support from liberal American Jews. Right-wing Christian Zionists are less likely to express tedious pangs of conscience about the Israeli government’s actions.

It is important for non-Jews to understand that the Israeli prime minister is not the pope of the Jews. He is not a religious leader to whom global Jewry looks for guidance. He is a secular politician, in Netanyahu’s case one beholden to a right-wing constituency in a nation that defines itself in explicitly ethnic terms. Netanyahu cannot grant absolution for anti-Semitism to someone who has alleged that a global Jewish conspiracy seeks to destroy white people by allowing nonwhite people to be their neighbors. An anti-Semite cannot make a pilgrimage to Israel, kiss Netanyahu’s ring, bathe in the Jordan, and have the Hitler particles cleansed from his skin like Naaman curing his leprosy.

That Netanyahu’s actions effectively make anti-Semitism against diaspora Jews more respectable is, quite simply, not his problem—it’s not like they can vote for his opposition. Most Jews around the world support Israel as a Jewish state and as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Netanyahu, however, is more interested in bolstering his own vision of Israel’s future. Netanyahu views the Israeli national interest as preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The particular form of anti-Semitism endorsed by Musk is also consistent with Netanyahu’s own political values in its right-wing ethnonationalism. It is also not a stretch to say that Netanyahu, like Musk, sees those in his own society who advocate for equal rights for all as agents of a global conspiracy.

The outcome of all this is a seedy transactional relationship, in which Netanyahu empowers anti-Semitism against diaspora Jews while shoring up support for Israel. But this approach is hardly unique to him; the right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro once said of the far-right pundit Ann Coulter that he does not “lose sleep” over remarks she made about Jews because she supports Israel. This is more or less the bargain offered: You can be as anti-Semitic as you like as long as you are also a Zionist.

No conspiracism is necessary to understand why American Jews, as a religious and ethnic minority, might prefer that the nations in which they live be liberal democracies. There is also no mystery why such a group would on average oppose racist immigration policies, given that such restrictions prevented Jewish immigration to the U.S. during World War II, thereby exacerbating the Holocaust. It is equally easy to understand why Netanyahu would view right-wing authoritarians, even those who hate Jews—especially left-wing Jews—as more reliable allies than his more universalist coreligionists. But all of this highlights the fact that the interests of the Jewish people and the interests of the state of Israel are not necessarily the same. Indeed, the more the Israeli government sees anti-Semitic Zionism as useful to its cause, the more they diverge.

The Atlantic