Elon Musk in Berlin, Mar. 22, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Patrick Pleul-Pool-AFP via Getty Images)
Elon Musk in Berlin, Mar. 22, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Patrick Pleul-Pool-AFP via Getty Images)

By targeting the ADL, Musk has chosen Jews as his scapegoat

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Earlier this week, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, the owner of X (the company formerly known as Twitter), threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, the venerable and long-running nonprofit organization founded in 1913 to fight antisemitism and other forms of hatred and bigotry in the United States and around the world.

In his threat, Musk absurdly accused the ADL of “trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic” — despite the fact that the ADL has actually gone out of its way to avoid accusing Musk of antisemitism. Musk went so far as to claim that the ADL is single-handedly responsible for X’s advertising revenue being down by 60% since he purchased the company, and therefore suggested that “they would potentially be on the hook for destroying half the value of the company, so roughly $22 billion” — though he rather magnanimously clarified that he would settle for $4 billion in damages from the ADL instead.

To be clear, Musk, who has a long history of announcing plans that do not come to fruition, is exceedingly unlikely to file an actual lawsuit against the ADL, any more than he actually ever planned to cage fight Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. For one, he would be extremely unlikely to win such a lawsuit, and secondly, the discovery phase of the lawsuit would bring a lot of unwanted attention to Musk’s policies related to hate speech on the X app.

That’s because this empty threat of a lawsuit is not about winning actual financial damages from the ADL. Rather, it’s about having someone to blame for Musk’s own failures as a business executive. And in this case, rather conveniently, that someone is the Jews.

This lawsuit is Musk’s own personal version of the Dolchstoßlegende, the stab-in-the-back myth. According to this myth, propagated by such prominent German figures as general and politician Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, Germany did not actually lose the First World War on the battlefield, but was instead betrayed by certain citizens on the home front who did not want Germany to succeed — in particular, socialists who fomented strikes and labor unrest, and Jews.

The myth, which became widespread in the right-wing German press after the end of World War I, allowed these German generals to salvage their reputation. It wasn’t that the Germans got legitimately defeated by a superior army, but that the Jews sabotaged the war effort from the home front. Soon, antisemitic caricatures of Jews stabbing good honest German soldiers in the back became common in German media.

Blaming the ADL serves a similar rhetorical purpose for Musk. If, as Musk claims, the ADL is making “unfounded” accusations of antisemitism and hate speech on the X app, leading advertisers to pull out of advertising on the app, then the company’s widely reported financial woes are not actually the fault of Musk’s mismanagement at all. No, they’re the fault of a conspiracy of meddling Jews and leftists to undermine the hard work of the good entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Indeed, in dialogue with the known alt-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, Musk made this claim explicit, endorsing the narrative that “Democrat groups buy bots to falsely smear people by association.” In this telling, the widely documented rise in hate speech and antisemitism on X since Musk bought the platform is not actually real, but is just a false flag operation by lying, perfidious Jews and leftists to undermine Musk and his hard work to create a platform for free speech. Antisemitism can be dismissed entirely, because it’s all part of a left-wing plot.

That’s why Musk can allege that “the ADL pursues a far left political agenda, rather than focusing on combating anti-Semitism.” And it’s why he can say that actually, rising antisemitism is the fault of the ADL itself for being too vociferous in calling attention to it.

Because the truth is, antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, through problems that long predated Musk’s ownership of the app, have skyrocketed since he purchased it. Musk’s campaign against the ADL itself builds on a white supremacist campaign to #BantheADL that has been building over the past few days. Musk has engaged widely with white supremacist and far-right accounts in his campaign against the ADL, leading known white supremacists to claim that Musk is sympathetic to them.

And despite Musk’s weak protestations that he is “against anti-Semitism of any kind,” he has a long history of it himself. Remember his claim that George Soros, a common target of antisemitic conspiracy theories, “hates humanity.” And he has boosted the accounts of far-right antisemites for months now.

The truth is, no one needs to make recourse to the ADL or its campaign against hate speech on social media to explain why Musk’s company is failing. The company is failing because he’s a bad manager, and because advertisers do not want to be associated with a platform that is becoming a haven for hate speech.

Just weeks ago, two brands suspended their advertising on X after their ads appeared next to openly pro-Nazi content. Advertisers do not want to be part of the company that Musk is building, and so they’re leaving, and taking their money with them.

Rather than confront his own failures, Musk is crafting a narrative whereby powerful, wealthy Jews are responsible for tanking the value of his company. And as Musk knows, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more he stokes antisemitism in the name of defending “free speech,” the more the ADL and other Jewish groups will protest rising antisemitism, which will then be cited by antisemites as further evidence of their original narrative.

Musk likes to portray himself as part of “the people,” in contrast to “the effete elite” trying to take him down. But as the world’s wealthiest person, Musk is by any reasonable standard part of “the elite” himself. That’s why Musk needs antisemitism, because it’s a form of bigotry that postulates its target as all-powerful and dominating, rather than less powerful or capable. Musk needs to portray himself, the richest man on earth, as an insurgent against the real elites (Jews), represented by groups like the ADL.

Despite the fact that plenty of Jews on both the left and right offer critiques of the ADL and its strategies for combating antisemitism — some of them valid — for Musk’s white supremacist supporters, the campaign against the ADL is really a campaign against Jews on social media. They aren’t interested in critiquing one nonprofit group, but the very idea that Jews should speak up against growing antisemitism in online spaces at all. For many of Musk’s supporters, the ADL is just a way to say “Jews.”

By threatening to file a lawsuit against the ADL, Musk has crafted his own personal stab-in-the-back myth. When Musk’s company fails, his biggest fans will blame the Jews. And that should be a terrifying thought for everyone committed to marginalized voices being safe online.

This article was originally published on the Forward. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward. 

Joel Swanson
Joel Swanson

Joel Swanson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, where he studies and teaches undergraduate courses on modern Jewish intellectual history. He teaches, speaks and writes widely on Jewish history and politics, for both academic and journalistic sources.