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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad.
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