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‘I worry a great deal’: Greenblatt on Musk, online antisemitism and the ADL’s decision to stop advertising on X

Ahead of the Jewish High Holy Days, Greenblatt expressed fear that Musk’s words online could translate into dangerous offline consequences

JP Yim/Getty Images for The Asian American Foundation/Chesnot/Getty Images

Jonathan Greenblatt and Elon Musk

In less than a year, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has gone from feeling “cautiously optimistic” about new X owner Elon Musk’s takeover of the company to accusing the entrepreneur of stoking antisemitism on one of the world’s largest social media platforms.

Over the weekend, Musk published a series of posts on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, blaming Greenblatt and the ADL for the decline in advertising revenue on the platform and threatening to sue the organization for defamation. One post on Tuesday accused “Jonathan at ADL” of orchestrating a boycott of the platform — a November 2022 move that was spearheaded by a coalition of more than five dozen groups, of which the ADL was just one. In another post that drew widespread criticism, Musk attributed the rise in antisemitism in the U.S. to actions taken by the ADL.

“There’s no doubt that by claiming the ADL is causing antisemitism, this is invoking a classic trope of blaming the victim, blaming the Jews for their misfortune,” Greenblatt told Jewish Insider in an interview Thursday. “There were 60 groups in the coalition. Sixty that called for a pause on advertising last November. The idea that he chose, of all of them, just us — to claim that we’re somehow costing him some amount of money, that also does more than raise eyebrows. It underlines concerns.”

But Greenblatt declined to say whether Musk’s remarks could be described as antisemitic, or whether Musk himself is an antisemite. “I’ve never said Elon Musk was antisemitic,” Greenblatt noted. “I think people can lapse into tropes, people can invoke long-standing myths, that might not reflect their true worldview.”

“That being said,” Greenblatt added, “this question about whether he is or is not: That’s not the point. It’s not for me to try to understand what’s his mentality or his psychology. As the head of the ADL, my job is to protect the Jewish people.”

The High Holy Days begin in a week with Rosh Hashanah, and Greenblatt expressed fear that Musk’s words online could translate into dangerous offline consequences. He pointed to white supremacist anti-immigrant rhetoric that proliferated in 2018, which blamed the Jewish refugee group HIAS for rising immigration in the U.S.

“That of course led to the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the most violent antisemitic attack in American history,” Greenblatt said, referring to Tree of Life killer Robert Bowers’ self-proclaimed motivation for the attack, in which 11 worshippers were killed in Pittsburgh. “So, yeah, I worry a great deal about where this kind of animus building against ADL, this invective being launched against Jewish people in general — I really worry about where it could go and how it could explode into real world violence.”

Musk’s tweets attacking the ADL came just days after Greenblatt had what he described as a “productive” meeting with X CEO Linda Yaccarino. But now, he is urging caution for companies considering whether to advertise on the platform.

“We were spending money on the platform. But that stopped when these attacks started last week,” Greenblatt said. “I think brands make these decisions for themselves. We made a decision.”

Read Greenblatt’s full interview with JI’s Gabby Deutch below.

Gabby Deutch: You met last week with Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of X. Before this whole ordeal with Elon Musk, how would you have said that the meeting with her went? 

Jonathan Greenblatt: It was, I would say, a very cordial and constructive conversation. This was my first meeting with Linda. It was very positive. And in fact, after the meeting, her staff asked me to tweet out that we met, which is why I posted on Twitter, X, on Wednesday, the following day, that we’d had a frank and productive conversation about what works, what doesn’t work, and how the company could do better at fighting hate. I look forward to giving her and Elon credit when they get it right and I reserve the right to call them out when it doesn’t, something like that. She then replied positively to what I wrote. So that was why, for me, this turn of events has been so surprising, and of course, deeply disappointing.

GD: Did you get the sense in your conversation that she had control? For her to have this productive meeting with you and then for all of these events of the recent days to happen — it seems like the two people at the helm of the company are not in sync or in touch. 

JG: It’s not for me to hazard a guess as to what their management model is. All I know is that we had a good conversation, and I was certainly surprised and taken aback. Well, let me rephrase. I was not surprised when the hashtag started and spread. The ADL has been under attack from white supremacists and rabid antisemites for decades and decades, from Nazi sympathizers to John Birch Society members to KKK to Nation of Islam … to the radical anti-Zionists to QAnon to armed militia groups, all of these different types of extremists over the years have taken shots and launched campaigns. Their goal was to undermine and harm ADL. So that didn’t surprise me. In the past, the vector may have been an op-ed page, or a pamphlet. Today, the vector is Twitter and social media more broadly. Again I wasn’t surprised to see this happen. What did surprise me was to see how quickly this took off. And what surprised me even more and what contributed to that was when Elon started to engage with the parties who are behind this campaign. And I say that it surprised me because these were overt unapologetic antisemites. These were extremists of different stripes. His engagement, by dint of his number of followers and just his following, amplified and expanded the reach of this campaign by orders of magnitude.

GD: Do you think that Elon Musk is antisemitic?

JG: I’ve never said Elon Musk was antisemitic. I’ve talked to him enough times — I didn’t believe that. Unfortunately, the reality is that he has amplified and he has elevated some of the most despicable voices, and on top of that, the truth is that when you make claims like that the ADL is to blame for behind-the-scenes pressuring advertisers, or that somehow the Jews are responsible for antisemitism, these are invocations of classic antisemitic tropes, and they’re really problematic. His claim is that we called him antisemitic, or that we called Twitter antisemitic, and those things are entirely untrue.

GD: For him, what’s the dividing line between fanning the flames of antisemitism and amplifying these voices, and actually being an antisemite himself? There’s not that many people who would actually say, ‘I am a proud antisemite.’ Of course, they exist, unfortunately. But for other people, it looks like exactly what he’s doing, which is saying, ‘The Jews are the ones who are responsible for my problems.’ Do you not view that as antisemitic?

JG: I think people can lapse into tropes, people can invoke long-standing myths, that might not reflect their true worldview. When he said, clearly, online, ‘I’m not antisemitic,’ that syncs with what I’ve heard him say to me, and I know about — we have many, many, many common — friends in common. 

That being said, this question about whether he is or is not: That’s not the point. It’s not for me to try to understand what’s his mentality or his psychology. As the head of the ADL, my job is to protect the Jewish people. And what I’m concerned about is the damage being done when ardent unabashed antisemites are spreading their poison. I think again, if you’ll forgive me, I think you’re asking the wrong question. The real issue for me is, how do we deal with the debris left in the wake of this craziness. And that’s what I’m so worried about. We’re two weeks away from the High Holy Days. Less. We have been seeing at ADL, and dealing with, a wave of swatting attacks on synagogues all over the country, and threats against Jewish institutions, a surge of propaganda distributions, these GDL [Goyim Defense League] and their flyers. This past weekend, in Florida, we had these open demonstrations of Neo-Nazis, groups like the Blood Tribe and the Order of the Black Sun and the chanting ‘Ban the ADL,’ feeling emboldened in this moment, feeling energized in this moment. Again, I think the real issue at hand is how these false claims are being seen by so many. Not as ban the ADL, but as about going after the Jews. I worry a great deal about energizing and emboldening extremists who want to do us harm. And I’m afraid that’s what’s happened here.

GD: I want to clarify on the question about whether he’s antisemitic. The reason that I ask that is because we’ve seen in the Jewish community, a conversation in recent years, about defining what antisemitism is. And Elon Musk, of course, is not just some person on Twitter or X. He’s one of the most influential people in the world. And while of course, it is impossible to know what’s really in a person’s heart or in their mind, to a certain extent, doesn’t that not matter, when they are saying things that at least communicate an antisemitic worldview? In his heart, he might not think he is, but if that’s how it reads to people who do identify as antisemites, does that matter? 

JG: There’s no doubt that by claiming the ADL is causing antisemitism, this is invoking a classic trope of blaming the victim, blaming the Jews for their misfortune. That’s No. 1. And then No. 2, this charge that we’re somehow — there were 60 groups in the coalition, sixty that called for a pause on advertising last November — the idea that he chose, of all of them, just us,  to claim that we’re somehow costing him some amount of money, that also does more than raise eyebrows. It underlines concerns. The question for me is not, is he an antisemite? It’s not, like, what is his personal view? Because I can’t peer into his brain. But I have to consider the impact of his actions. I have no choice but to deal with the damage that’s done. I’m not an armchair psychologist. I’m the head of the ADL. It’s my job to keep our community safe. That’s why we fight antisemitism and extremism, online and offline. That’s why I find this situation so worrisome. And to be perfectly candid, Gabby, I think the threat of a lawsuit is frivolous. There’s no merit to it. We haven’t done any of the things that have been charged. However, what we will continue to do is to be ferocious, and focused on fighting antisemitism, no matter who it comes from: individuals, groups, political parties, whatever, wherever. Our job is to keep the community safe.

GD: So your point is essentially, it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether someone, in their heart of hearts, is an antisemite, if what they’re saying is antisemitism.

JG: Again, I will leave it to folks like you to do the analysis of what’s in their heart. I have to deal with the output and the outcomes that it generates. That’s where I’m focused.

GD: You were talking about the High Holy Days. Have you seen whether there’s been an increase in just the past few days in whether this is translating into offline antisemitism or threats?

JG: I can tell you that that Nazi rally that took place in Orlando over the weekend, they were chanting ‘Ban the ADL.’ The swatting attacks on synagogues … They had all these crazy antisemitic demands to stop the swatting. I know these people feel emboldened because we have the responsibility, almost like the misfortune of following them on different social media channels. We’re reading what they’re writing. They’re saying things like, ‘We feel emboldened. We have the world’s wealthiest man in our corner. We’ve got the Jewish community on the run. We’re winning.’ That’s the mentality amongst this group, the idea that we’re winning. That’s more than problematic, it’s downright dangerous. A few years ago, when we saw xenophobia rising, and animus building, blaming HIAS and other groups for white genocide and migrants crossing the border, that of course led to the the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the most violent antisemitic attack in American history. So, yeah, I worry a great deal about where this kind of animus building against ADL, this invective being launched against Jewish people in general — I really worry about where it could go and how it could explode into real world violence.

GD: You’ve met with Musk. You’ve met with Yaccarino. Clearly the message isn’t getting through to them about hate speech and about how folks on X are experiencing the platform under Musk’s leadership. Would you encourage mainstream companies to continue to advertise on Twitter?

JG: I think brands need to look at their entire value chain, if you will, and if you communicate your core corporate values and they place a value on diversity and they place a value on respect, they place a value on decency, you have to ask yourself: How do I ensure that my brand shows up in places that are consistent with those values? 

GD: Do you think X is consistent with those values?

JG: Brands need to make their own decisions. I would encourage folks who are wondering to do a search on #BanTheADL and tell me what they think.

GD: What do you think? 

JG: Well, ADL had been advertising on the platform … We were spending money on the platform. But that stopped when these attacks started last week. So to answer your question, I think brands make these decisions for themselves. We made a decision.

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