The public feud in the US between Elon Musk and the Anti-Defamation League is shaping up to be a high-stakes endeavor for both parties and could mark a defining moment in the battle over the borders of acceptable political discourse.
Musk, the tech mogul who bought Twitter last year and later renamed it X, has lifted many restrictions on alleged hate speech and other moderated content on the platform as part of his stated free-speech agenda. The ADL, a robust advocacy group against antisemitism and racism, has publicly criticized Musk’s policy, joining calls for advertisers to drop X. Musk this month threatened the ADL with a massive libel suit.
The confrontation was the latest eruption in the longstanding tug-of-war between anti-hate watchdog groups like the ADL — which was established in 1913 and has hundreds of employees and an annual budget of more than $80 million — and platforms like X that have resisted demands to censor their content.
The tussle has afforded observers a fresh glimpse at the diverse arsenal of legal and media weapons that have gone into this fight for the past 15 years. But perhaps more than in any previous clash around alleged censorship, the current confrontation also exposes divisions inside the parties’ respective camps, piling internal tensions on external pressures in a fight over the character of X, which was once referred to as the “world’s largest town square.”
The ADL-X faceoff has some partisan contours: The ADL is headed by Jonathan Greenblatt, an ex-staffer for former US president Barack Obama who has staunchly defended the group’s nonpartisan nature while aligning it with progressive values of inclusion. An avowed centrist, Musk last year said he was voting Republican and has promoted voices that jibe with pro-Trump conservatives while also unshackling extremist speech on the left.
The opening salvo of the current round of hostilities was fired on September 2, when Musk, who has more than 155 million followers on X, shared a post by Eva Vlaardingerbroek, a Dutch conservative speaker, that included the hashtag “#BanTheADL.”
The hashtag became a trending topic on X and unleashed a torrent of antisemitic speech, Greenblatt told CNN.
He added that racists had promoted the hashtag following his meeting last month with X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino.
Musk’s boosting of the hashtag prompted criticism of him not only by Greenblatt, but also by conservatives long critical of the ADL, who generally support Musk’s noninterventionist policies.
“The ‘ban the ADL’ hashtag contains no wisdom, no good faith, no allies. It’s akin to people trying to pass off antisemitism as ‘anti-Zionism,’” wrote conservative author and journalist Seth Mandel, who is Jewish and has written critically and extensively on the ADL, including on its targeting of X’s advertising revenue.
Mandel called the ad boycott “a huge mistake,” but added that the ADL is being “scapegoated” for it.
Anthony L. Fisher, who in 2020 wrote an in-depth article claiming the organization inflates the numbers of hate crime incidents linked to the far-right, questioned Musk’s credentials as a free speech champion.
“Musk fancies himself a free speech absolutist, despite his penchant for suing critics, arbitrarily suspending journalists he doesn’t like, and even banning some users for hate speech (which was bad, according to Musk and his minions, when the previous Twitter regime did it),” Fisher wrote on Friday in The Daily Beast.
Some of the ADL’s partners abroad defended the group in the wake of its fight with Musk. Alex Ryvchin, the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, told The Times of Israel: “I have personally seen and experienced far more antisemitism on the platform since Musk took over.” Accusations of ideological or political bias by the ADL, he added, “are intended to undermine their work and weaken the fight against antisemitism.”
In an interview published Friday in The Atlantic, Greenblatt said that the ADL had dropped the X boycott it had called for in November.
“Up until last week, ADL was advertising on Twitter. So the notion that we were trying to ‘kill the company,’ that’s a fiction,” Greenblatt said.
But the ADL is now again withholding advertising, Greenblatt told Jewish Insider, this time over Musk’s reposting of the #BanTheADL hashtag.
Advertising “stopped when these attacks started last week,” Greenblatt said. “Brands make these decisions for themselves. We made a decision.”
In a September 5 thread on X, Musk wrote: “Advertisers avoid controversy, so all that is needed for ADL to crush our US & European ad revenue is to make unfounded accusations.” Musk prefaced the thread with a statement that he is “against anti-Semitism of any kind.”
In that thread, Musk looped in the debate on an Orthodox Jewish woman with a large far-right following, Chaya Raichik, which he said shows that the ADL is deviating from its mission statement in favor of a political agenda involving X.
“ADL has pushed hard for us to shut down accounts like Chaya’s even though it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, which is their supposed charter,” Musk said about Raichik’s Libs of TikTok account.
With 2.5 million followers, the account aims to expose and mock LGBTQ+ individuals or their supporters, sometimes using critical or hostile invective, such as the term “groomers.” The account is seen as having influence among right-wing policymakers pushing to ban books or classes touching on LGBTQ+ issues from schools and libraries.
An entry about Raichik in the ADL’s “Glossary of Extremism,” which omits any reference to the fact that she is Jewish, explains that she “attempts to generate outrage and stoke anti-LGBTQ+ hostility by reposting selected out-of-context social media content.” Musk later promised to release data supporting his claim that ADL sought to have Raichik censored on X.
The ADL faced similar claims of politicking when it objected in 2018 to Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s “judicial record does not reflect the demonstrated independence” required of a justice, Greenblatt said, prompting complaints that he had overstepped the ADL’s mandate.
On its website, the ADL says it is “combating antisemitism, countering extremism and battling bigotry.”
The watchdog’s attempts to keep up with liberal discourse while threading the nonpartisan needle came to a head in 2020, when it changed its definition of racism from “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another” to “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color.”
Critics charged that the new definition, adopted following the Black Lives Matter protests, omitted many expressions of antisemitism, and the ADL changed the definition again to say racism “occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment” based on race.
Several Jewish pundits with critical attitudes toward the ADL have seized on the Greenblatt-Musk fight as an opportunity to air their grievances about the nonprofit.
“Let’s be clear about the ADL, it’s a progressive interest group that proclaims that it’s speaking in the name of Jewish causes, which is untrue,” conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who is an Orthodox Jew, said on September 6 on his podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” on his Daily Wire media platform.
Ron Coleman, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer from New York and an anti-censorship advocate, called the ADL under Greenblatt “merely a tax-exempt cadre of the national Democratic Party,” in a September 5 op-ed in Newsweek about the feud with Musk.
Coleman, who had volunteered with the ADL in the 1980s and 1990s, told The Times of Israel that the ADL was “as nonpartisan as could reasonably be” under Abe Foxman, the organization’s former director, whom Greenblatt succeeded in 2015. “Foxman took great pride in this relative nonpartisanship,” Coleman said.
That changed, Coleman said, with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president. The ADL, which called for Trump to be removed from office and condemned him repeatedly for alleged racism, “jumped on Trump in a manner that was entirely consistent with what a Democratic proxy would be expected to do,” Coleman said.
But whereas Trump is a right-wing politician with some appeal among ultranationalists, “it was with Raichik that the ADL really showed its hand,” Coleman said. “This showed how the ADL’s mission creep has merged with the identity politics of the left, such that someone who treads on these perceived interests like Chaya is punished not because it has any effect on anything.”
Conservative Jews and other Jews have also accused the ADL of preferring to act tough on right-wing antisemitism while downplaying left-wing expressions of anti-Jewish racism and of ignoring the singling out of Haredi Jews, including in New York over noncompliance within that community of emergency guidelines during the COVID-19 crisis.
A spokesperson for the ADL did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the criticisms concerning Raichik.
On its website, the ADL addresses allegations that it is partisan under a section titled “Myths & Facts About ADL.” It reads: “ADL deliberately avoids partisanship. ADL calls out antisemitism on both the left and the right.”
Just as the ADL-X fight is allowing ADL’s Jewish critics an opportunity to revisit their criticisms of Greenblatt’s performance, it is doing the same for centrists and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who have issues with Musk generally, and his approach to the ADL specifically.
“By singling out the ADL as being especially responsible for suppressing free speech, he has stirred up a hornets’ nest,” Philip Klein, the editor of the conservative National Review Online, wrote in a September 7 op-ed. “Those who see Jews as uniquely responsible for all the world’s ills are now pointing to Musk’s comments about the ADL as validation.”
After Musk accused the ADL of being “the biggest generators of anti-Semitism on this platform” by demanding that accounts be banned, the Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg, who has written critically about the ADL and about antisemitism on the left, took issue.
In a September 6 op-ed, Rosenberg accused Musk of promulgating an ancient antisemitic trope, namely the “conceit that Jews cause themselves to be persecuted.”
In the Atlantic interview, Greenblatt acknowledged that his organization has a broad interpretation of issues that merit its intervention. But, he said, this has been true for at least 70 years. Many American Jews, he said, believed that “desegregating America’s schools was not a Jewish issue. But ADL’s leaders believed that it was, and they stood up, took the risk, and I think ended up on the right side of history,” Greenblatt said.
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