Why Netanyahu Is Covering for Elon Musk

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Elon Musk visited Israel Monday. He toured Kfar Aza, a kibbutz that Hamas attacked on Oct. 7, killing dozens, and was photographed alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two then recorded a conversation on X, the social media platform Musk owns, and where he has spread antisemitic conspiracy theories. Just this month, for example, Musk wrote, “You have just said the absolute truth” in response to a post that read:

Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them. I’m deeply disinterested in giving the tiniest shit now about western Jewish populations coming to the disturbing realization that those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country don’t exactly like them too much.

This did not come up in Musk’s conversation with Netanyahu, a talk that consisted mostly of defending Israel’s methods of war in Gaza, which Musk vaguely promised to help rebuild. Nor did either man mention other Musk posts from earlier this year, like when he likened Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros to supervillain Magneto and said that Soros hated humanity, or when Musk blamed the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to fight against the defamation of Jews, for advertisers leaving his social media platform.

It is tempting to look at these comments and compare them, for example, to head of the ADL Jonathan Greenblatt’s recent decision to praise Musk for his “leadership in fighting hate” after Musk said that using the terms “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea” would be considered violations of his platform’s terms of service. But there is another context in which to consider Musk’s visit to Israel: The Israeli prime minister, head of the world’s Jewish state, has a long history of laundering far-right figures so long as they support him and waving away their antisemitic comments.

Perhaps most famously, there is Netanyahu’s long-standing political alliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. For years now, Orbán has pushed anti-Soros smears. (Recently, the prime minister has moved on to attacking Alex Soros, the billionaire’s son, who has taken over the elder Soros’ Open Society Foundations.) In 2018, after promoting the idea that Soros was flooding the country with migrants, Orbán passed “Stop Soros” legislation, which made it illegal for individuals or groups to try to help undocumented immigrants seeking asylum. Mere months prior, he was quoted as saying, at a reelection rally, “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Later that same year, Orbán took a trip to Israel, where he visited Yad Vashem and was praised by Netanyahu for Budapest’s opposition to antisemitism.

Netanyahu also offered former U.S. President Donald Trump protection from charges of antisemitism. This was true not only during his presidency, when Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem but also failed to denounce those chanting “Jews will not replace us,” in 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, but also after he left office. In 2022 the former president posted a social media screed against “ungrateful” American Jews, whom he instructed to “get their act together—before it is too late.” (Trump has repeatedly expressed the idea that more American Jews should have been supportive of him, given his support for Israel.) Asked in an interview about allegations that Trump—who, in addition to regularly calling liberal American Jews disloyal, has a long history of using in his political rhetoric what are widely regarded as antisemitic tropes—is antisemitic, Netanyahu offered, “He has a Jewish son-in-law and his daughter converted to Judaism and his grandchildren were raised as Jews: I don’t think so.”

Other members of Netanyahu’s government have shared his practice of laundering their allies’ antisemitic views. For example, Amichai Chikli, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, took it upon himself in May to defend Musk from charges of antisemitism after he attacked Soros. Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign affairs minister, pushed to change his country’s policy toward, and establish ties with, Romania’s far-right party, despite that party’s history of Holocaust denial.

There is various speculation as to why Netanyahu and company have taken this stance toward far-right figures across the world. Netanyahu once boasted about close ties to strongmen like Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to suggest that he was in a different political league from his domestic opponents. But there is perhaps more to it than a shared admiration for strength: In an interview last year, Jelena Subotic, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said that right-wing figures in Israel and around the world bond over anti-Muslim sentiment and the idea that nationalism is good while multiculturalism is bad. (Or, as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley put it in October, Netanyahu, Orbán, Trump, and other right-wing leaders have found solidarity in “ethnic purity, cultural conservatism, and the rollback of democratic institutions.”) There is also the reality that Netanyahu is the right-wing leader of Israel—not the leader of Jews, liberal-leaning or otherwise, around the world. That helps Netanyahu take and use those who support ethnonationalism but do not mind Jews—so long as they are in the Jewish state.

Musk’s visit signified continuity, not change. Netanyahu may speak about fighting antisemitism, but he has repeatedly embraced people who use rhetoric widely considered to be antisemitic so long as they serve his political purposes. He must know that those who meet him use these meetings to slap down accusations of antisemitism. “Look at my relationship to Netanyahu and Israel,” Musk might say, like Trump and many Hungarian officials before him. And we will. We’ll look at his relationship to Netanyahu, and we’ll look at his antisemitic posts, and we’ll see that the one does not preclude the other. It never has and never will.