Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday publicly pressed tech billionaire Elon Musk to condemn antisemitism and find a way to combat it on his social media platform X as the pair met at a Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif.
“I hope you can find within the confines of the First Amendment the ability to stop not only antisemitism, or roll it back as best you can, but any collective hatred of the people that antisemitism represents,” Netanyahu urged Musk in the meeting, which was live-streamed on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. He added, “I encourage you to find the balance. It’s a tough one.”
While the meeting was largely cordial, Musk sidestepped Netanyahu’s call to forcefully denounce anti-Jewish hatred, which research shows has spiked on the platform since Musk bought it nearly a year ago. Musk has restored accounts previously banned for hate speech and has repeatedly criticized a prominent Jewish human rights organization, stoking a recent wave of antisemitic attacks.
Musk told Netanyahu that, while he’s personally against antisemitism, “free speech does at times mean that someone you don’t like is saying something you don’t like. If you don’t have that, then it’s not free speech.” He did not address his own role in promoting it.
The meeting came as each leader looks to the other to help fend off escalating criticism. The pair had said their meeting was intended to discuss artificial intelligence, but the conversation quickly veered to antisemitism and also touched on Iran as well as protests in both Israel and the United States against Netanyahu’s government.
Protesters who followed Netanyahu’s motorcade from the San Jose airport to the factory 17 miles north planned to continue protesting in San Francisco’s Union Square. Sunday night, Netanyahu critics projected “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi” — Netanyahu’s nickname — on the wall of the prison that is one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks.
For Netanyahu, the meeting with one of the world’s most prominent tech entrepreneurs comes amid outcry that his controversial push to overhaul Israel’s judiciary risks scaring off international investors and the tech community that has given Israel its reputation as a “start-up nation.” In remarks made in Israel before his departure for California, Netanyahu called Musk “the current leader of the most dramatic development in the new age and perhaps in general,” apparently referring to AI, and said he will “work toward encouraging him to invest in Israel in the coming years.”
For Musk, a personal visit from Netanyahu offered a chance to counter allegations of antisemitism after a series of tweets in which he blamed the 110-year-old Anti-Defamation League for trying to destroy X and threatened a lawsuit against the nonprofit. Research has found that antisemitic speech has risen dramatically on the platform since Musk acquired it last fall, and ADL leaders have said Musk’s recent criticism of the organization has further stoked hate online and off.
But on Monday, Musk twice passed up Netanyahu’s requests for a forceful, specific condemnation of antisemitism, pivoting instead to the importance of free speech and combating bots on X.
“Generally, I mean, I’m sort of against attacking any group,” Musk said. “You know, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
He went on, “I’m in favor of that which furthers civilization and which ultimately leads us to become a spacefaring civilization, where we understand the nature of the universe. So we can’t do that if there’s a lot of infighting and, you know, hatred and negativity. So, you know, obviously I’m against antisemitism. I’m against anti, really, anything that promotes hate and conflict.”
When Musk shifted to the importance of allowing free speech, Netanyahu politely pushed back.
“It doesn’t stop you from coming out, as you have, as I do in every possible form, and condemn antisemitism,” Netanyahu said. “The condemnation is quite separate from the question of access.”
Musk spoke instead about X’s newly announced plan to offer a lower pricing tier for its paid subscription service, which he described as “the only way I can think of to combat vast armies of bots,” including those that amplify hateful content.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement, “We appreciate PM Netanyahu for raising concerns about the proliferation of antisemitism on X/Twitter during his conversation with Elon Musk. We hope that Mr. Musk takes PM Netanyahu’s concerns seriously so that X/Twitter can become a safer and more welcome place for all.”
It is not the first time Musk and Netanyahu have spoken amid controversy over Musk’s dalliances with antisemitic tropes. This summer, Netanyahu smoothed things over in a conversation with Musk after the X owner compared the Jewish financier George Soros, a frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories, to the Jewish X-Men villain Magneto. Netanyahu’s government minister tasked with fighting antisemitism made a of point of saying that Musk’s comments were not antisemitic, despite widespread outcry in Israel. The two spoke about AI at the time, according to reports.
Netanyahu traveled to the United States for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, where he is expected to speak on Thursday. The visit to California was a late addition to Netanyahu’s itinerary.
Early in Monday’s meeting, the two found common ground in their concern over the potential for artificial “superintelligence,” which Netanyahu warned could lead to “the destruction of democracy” and Musk mused could end with robots controlling humanity.
Following the exchanges over antisemitism, Musk brought up the protests against Netanyahu’s government and noted the presence of protesters outside.
“I probably got the most amount of pushback at Tesla about this interview as anything I’ve ever done,” Musk said, adding, “I think it’s primarily the judicial reform question.”
Netanyahu defended his commitment to democracy, saying “Israel will always be a democratic country” and arguing that its judiciary had grown too powerful. His government’s move to diminish the influence of Israel’s Supreme Court has sparked months of nationwide demonstrations, arguably the greatest domestic crisis in the country’s 75-year history.
Musk suggested they return to the topic of AI. Following their one-on-one interview, the pair held an “AI safety roundtable” that included OpenAI president and co-founder Greg Brockman and MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who has warned of the existential risks he believes AI poses.
Musk’s more than two dozen tweets attacking ADL caused the organization to face a string of attacks, and a hashtag Musk amplified was used at a white supremacist rally in Florida.
X is still considering whether to sue the ADL for what executives say are false claims about the level of hate speech on the service. If so, it would be the second such lawsuit against an advocacy group that has criticized X. The company sued the advocacy group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, last month.