Netanyahu speaks with Elon Musk about AI and anti-Semitism

Tech billionaire accused of amplifying anti-Semitism but Israel's Prime Minister was more keen to discuss AI and investment

Tech billionaire Elon Musk has been accused of stoking anti-Jewish sentiment on his social media platform X, formerly Twitter. AFP
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stop on his US trip to the UN General Assembly was not to meet a leader of a country but, in his own words, “the current leader of the most dramatic development in the new age and perhaps in general – Elon Musk”.

The two met on Monday at the Tesla offices in Fremont, California, and aired their conversation about anti-Semitism and artificial intelligence live on X, formerly Twitter.

The Associated Press reported that the livestream was “sparsely attended” but that hundreds protested outside.

“Obviously, I'm against anti-Semitism,” Mr Musk said. “I'm against anti-anything that promotes hate and conflict.”

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported the meeting was being set up by Jewish friends and colleagues of Mr Musk in a bid to stem a series of anti-Semitism scandals that have hit X since the billionaire took over in October.

Despite a number of accusations that Mr Musk is permitting and amplifying anti-Jewish sentiment, the Israeli minister in charge of fighting anti-Semitism, Amichai Chikli, drew intense criticism over the summer for saying comments made by the business magnate about the Jewish financier George Soros, who is a famous donor to liberal causes, were not racist.

Mr Musk has most recently been criticised for railing on X against Jewish organisation the Anti-Defamation League, accusing it of “trying to kill” his social media platform.

The angry words were the latest in a tit-for-tat battle between Mr Musk and the ADL. In May, the group’s director, Jonathan Greenblatt, criticised what he called a “profoundly disturbing … anti-Semitic campaign on [Mr Musk’s] platform”.

“I encourage you and urge you to find the balance. It’s a tough one,” Mr Netanyahu said after Mr Musk described challenges with managing free speech and hate.

“I hope you find within the confines of the First Amendment [of the US Constitution], the ability to stop not only anti-Semitism, or rolling it back as best you can, but any collective hatred of people that anti-Semitism represents.”

Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr Musk was also read in Israel as a chance for the Prime Minister to rehabilitate his image as a responsible steward of the country’s economy, which critics say is built disproportionately on start-ups and the high-tech sector.

On Sunday evening, he told journalists at Ben Gurion International Airport he was planning to discuss AI and investment in Israel with the tech billionaire.

“I think, in many ways, we stand today at a juncture for all humanity, where we have to choose between a blessing and a curse,” Mr Netanyahu told Mr Musk.

Often labelled the “start-up nation”, Israel has been rocked by anti-government protests since Mr Netanyahu came to power.

The coalition features some far-right ministers and is advancing hugely controversial legal reforms, which critics say will end democracy in Israel.

News agencies reported that about 200 people protested against the judicial overhaul outside the Tesla office where Mr Netanyahu and Mr Musk met.

The high-tech sector is playing a significant role in the movement and sounding the alarm that a weakened judiciary will deter would-be foreign investors and lead to the country’s brightest minds emigrating.

X said on its website it is “committed to combating hatred, prejudice and intolerance – particularly when they are directed at marginalised and persecuted groups”.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 6:19 AM