Joel Cohen

Musk & Netanyahu: But why?

It seems bizarre. Elon Musk is perhaps the richest man in the world, and among the most controversial. He has often picked fights, sometimes for no easily recognizable reason, with “big deal” people around the globe. At the same time, he also has accomplished more than virtually anyone in so many different fields – technology, space, automobiles, communication. He’s basically a modern-day Leonardo or Benjamin Franklin. Small wonder that Walter Isaacson has written biographies of all three!

Musk uses his unparalleled platform “X” (formerly Twitter) to promote anyone or anything he wants to. X also is employed when Musk, who looks closely at what is posted by others on X, chooses or allows the platform to become a forum that derides positions or people he opposes. He maintains a battery of lawyers to litigate for or to defend him, as he hews to a stated “free speech” absolutism that often gets the best of him. This policy has taken deeper roots across X, as Musk has cut back on the company’s content moderators, resulting in criticism of the platform for a perceived increase in hate speech including antisemitic content.

A few weeks back, as frequently happens, Musk seems to have gone too far. He used X to retweet an incredibly offensive antisemitic trope supporting the odious “replacement conspiracy theory.” Musk referred to the remark that argues that Jews were “replacing” more deserving constituents of society, saying that “You are correct.”

Astonishing! In so doing, Musk seemingly endorsed the conspiracy theory that Jews, and unspecified Leftists, are conspiring to replace the white race with immigrants and other races. In retweeting the disturbing post, Musk was noticed across the globe, especially given the controversial Gazan conflict.

The fallout was immediate. Advertisers on X – major corporations among them — scrambled to formally disassociate themselves from Musk. Who could blame them?  So what did he do? He threatened to sue his advertisers for acting on their moral umbrage.

Of course, given his wealth and enviable platform he was able to quickly tell the world that he had indeed made a “foolish” remark without having provided sufficient context, and “handed a loaded gun to those who hate me and arguably to those who are antisemitic.” Even given his apology (if that’s what it was), as Mark Twain said a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth it still getting its shoes on.” Just imagine how many millions of Musk’s twitter followers saw his antisemitic tweet and took it as confirmation from a famous man of their own conspiracy theory inclinations. It is the nature of conspiracy theorists that they pick and choose what to believe. What stock will they put in Musk’s mea culpa when it contradicts their deeply held antisemitism?

Amazingly, though, Musk has done much better for himself than just tweeting an apology: that is, a one on one for the whole world to see on the arm of Prime Minister Netanyahu at the very kibbutz where the colossal October 7th barbarism against Jews unfolded. Beyond that, a widely publicized, public meeting with Israel President Isaac Herzog. Basically, as Musk might put it in his own defense, “Antisemite? Would both the prime minister and president of Israel have appeared with me so publicly if that were so?”

The Jewish people might want to know if Musk had actually done “tshuvah”, which is the making of a true exhibition of contrition, in order to accomplish those two spectacular audiences in light of his prior “sin”, if you will, of helping defame the Jewish people, whether it was intentional or not. But no; he basically said he was misunderstood. Sort of like saying he was misquoted in his own autobiography.

 After all, how many people right or wrongly accused of antisemitism could possibly accomplish what he did? Indeed, there are very few people in the world who basically have the capacity, if called upon, to significantly contribute to support a nation under stress.

Or, perhaps more importantly, who can employ a worldwide digital network to persuade those who don’t see Hamas for what it is, to henceforth see Hamas for exactly what it is. Add Musk’s almost singular ability to articulate for the world’s population that Hamas, if of a mind to, would ultimately come against any peoples that would interest it – Palestinians, or Muslims of any stripe included. The State of Israel might be only the first step.

Virtually no one besides the likes of Musk has the “power of persuasion” and willingness to aggressively use it – no holds barred – that he does. He, uniquely, can be “all in” there – especially at a time when Israel has been losing the global PR war it confronts given the number of civilian deaths in Gaza, notwithstanding the righteousness of Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas. And it he chooses to, he possesses the ability to use his unequaled bank account to help pay for his sins.

Accordingly, one can easily understand why Netanyahu and Herzog, and maybe any other leaders of the world who find themselves in a tight spot, likely would be willing to publicly “forgive and forget.” This, in order to encourage Musk, without even saying so, to open wide his platform, if not his heart, or better regulate his platform to eliminate conspiracy theories and hate speech and encourage truth – both to significantly assist them with the existential (or even lesser) problems they might face, such as Israel is now facing.

For those who believe that Israel, by welcoming Musk with open arms, has “made a pact with the devil” given the disturbing comment with which Musk became associated (whether warranted or not), let’s consider that for a moment. By engaging with Musk publicly at such a high level, Israel has positioned him on the world stage as an ally of Israel. Musk can effectively denounce Hamas exactly for what it is to the world’s largest audience — indeed, more so, literally, than any streaming service or network. Yes, Musk has a very controversial side to him; but should Israel give up what he could bring to the table because of that?

Strategically, in addition to X, Musk can impact telephonic communication in Gaza and other parts of the Middle East by enabling or discontinuing the technology satellites created by StarLink, which he owns. Meaning, if Israel determines that its national security interests are enhanced by cutting off or turning on such power in adjoining nations, the ability to accomplish that will likely lie in the hands of an ally, not an enemy. This is realpolitik in its most impressive form. Henry Kissinger would be proud!

Would Israel have been wiser to stiff arm Musk when, in some sense, he essentially sought to “make peace” with the Jewish people, instead saying “sorry, you participated in an act of antisemitism”?

Now, do I/do we, know what truly lies in Elon Musk’s heart about the Jewish people? Can we? Should it matter? After all, one probably wants to know who the person is when he’s looking you in the eye or when you’re breaking bread with him.

At the same time, isn’t it more important to see what he’s doing, regardless of his feelings? It can also matter when you use his platform, further enriching him and making his voice stronger—for good or ill. Social media gives us a strange sense of intimacy with people we have never met, causing us to place our trust in strangers. Some of those strangers are obscure, and others very famous such as Musk. We can only know them by their words—and, importantly, their public actions.

As his biographers tell us, Harry Truman never appeared to be a great admirer or friend of the Jewish people. Indeed, he appeared to be exactly the opposite. Still, who was the first world leader to have recognized the State of Israel?

Think about that!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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