By Andrew Lapin
(JTA) – Elon Musk is famous for cracking down on staffers who criticize him, whether at Tesla, the electric car company he owns, or at X, the social media platform he purchased and renamed from Twitter.
So his confession to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the pair’s livestreamed conversation on Monday was notable.
“I, to be frank, probably got the most negative pushback from people at Tesla about this interview than anything else I’ve ever done,” Musk said.
Netanyahu and Musk entered the conversation dogged by criticism, Musk over his inflammatory statements about a Jewish civil rights group that has sought to tamp down hate speech on X and Netanyahu over his government’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. In that context, Monday’s conversation was perhaps an opportunity for the two men — both right-wingers who trumpet the promises of technology — to find respite in a friendly conversation. Netanyahu wore a dark suit with an Israeli flag lapel pin. Musk, also the CEO of SpaceX, wore a partially unbuttoned white shirt and blue blazer with a patch that appeared to show spacecraft.
Israeli tech workers abroad, many living in the San Francisco Bay Area where the conversation took place, have been leaders in the movement of expats against the judicial overhaul. Musk mentioned anti-Netanyahu protests in San Francisco as he let Netanyahu know that he had faced criticism for choosing to sit down with the Israeli prime minister.
Local Jewish leaders in the Bay Area say the prime minister declined to meet with them during his visit to the area, which precedes his appearance at the United Nations in New York later in the week. The area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, which tried to set up a meeting with Netanyahu, sent him a letter referencing Musk’s inflammatory statements.
“We hope that you use your position of leadership to press for sorely needed reforms to protect Jews and other minorities from rising hate online,” the letter said. “Just last week, X owner Elon Musk fanned the flames of antisemitism by demonizing the Anti-Defamation League and amplifying white supremacist conspiracies.”
The letter also said that any changes to Israel’s judicial system need to occur via consensus, and urged the prime minister “to work with the president and opposition leaders to heal today’s divides and forge a unified path.”
Speaking with Musk, Netanyahu laid out his defense of the judicial overhaul, saying it was an effort to curb “the most activist judicial court on the planet,” and that he hoped to be a moderate consensus-builder. He added, “Israel will always be a democratic country.”
Regarding the protesters, Netanyahu said his conversation with Musk was “a good opportunity to tell people who are protesting, too, at least so they know what they’re protesting about. Because I think many of them don’t know. And there’s a concerted effort to make sure they don’t know.”
The two men appeared to get along, riffing on James Bond and “The Terminator,” and expressing admiration for Jewish science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. Musk also reminded the audience that he briefly attended a Hebrew preschool as a child in South Africa, and quipped, “I can sing a pretty good ‘Hava Nagila.’” At one point, Netanyahu asked what Musk would do if he were the “unofficial president” of the United States. (Musk, who was born in South Africa, is ineligible to become U.S. president.)
But Netanyahu also used the conversation to gently push Musk to consider how he can balance combating hate and maintaining a commitment to free speech on X.
The conversation followed accusations of antisemitism against Musk after he spent the past two weeks lambasting the Anti-Defamation League, which he blames for tanking X’s ad revenue, and threatening litigation against the Jewish civil rights group. During that time, he has also engaged with white supremacists on the platform. On Sunday, he posted that George Soros, the progressive Jewish megadonor and frequent target of antisemitic conspiracy theories, seeks “the destruction of western civilization.”
“I know your commitment to free speech. I respect that because it’s the foundational thing of democracies, really,” Netanyahu said. “But I also know your opposition to antisemitism. You’ve spoken about it, you’ve tweeted about it. And all I can say is 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 a people that antisemitism represents. And I know you’re committed to that. I hope you succeed in it. It’s not an easy task. But I encourage and urge you to find a balance. It’s a tough one.”
Musk responded that he is “against attacking any group. Doesn’t matter who it is.”
He added, “I’m in favor of that which furthers civilization and which ultimately leads us to become a space-bearing civilization where we understand the nature of the universe. So we can’t do that if there’s a lot of infighting and hatred and negativity. Obviously I’m against antisemitism.”
The conversation segued into a referendum on civilization. “If someone were, say, completely self-centered, how would you feel if you don’t have civilization?” Musk said. “It’s very easy to figure out. Just go into the forest with nothing. See how long you want to live there.”
“See how long you live. You’ll die very quickly,” Netanyahu said.
“I know, exactly,” Musk replied. “So, civilization, as it turns out, is pretty nice.”
The event had been marketed primarily as a chance to discuss the broader implications of artificial intelligence, which Netanyahu has previously discussed on the phone with Musk. They also participated in a roundtable discussion on artificial intelligence that also included Greg Brockman, the president and co-founder of artificial-intelligence company OpenAI, and Max Tegmark, a futurist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor whose father is Jewish.
Musk has connections to both men: He was a founding board member of OpenAI and is a funder of Tegmark’s organization, the Future of Life Institute, which last year reportedly offered a grant to a Swedish pro-Nazi newspaper. During the roundtable, Netanyahu praised a book Tegmark wrote without mentioning his connection to the Nazi outlet.
Netanyahu sat on the sidelines of the A.I. roundtable that followed his conversation with Musk. The guests, Brockman and Tegmark, afforded Netanyahu little attention, beyond a brief mention by Brockman of the many Israelis who work at Open AI. At multiple points, the prime minister tried to press them on whether the advancement of A.I. technology would lead to a “concentration of power that will create a bigger and bigger distance between the haves and the have-nots,” but none of the futurists offered much sympathy for this point, and Tegmark likened Netanyahu’s concern to worrying about “hunter-gatherers” during the Industrial Revolution.
During their one-on-one conversation, Musk told Netanyahu that he thought A.I. was “potentially the biggest civilizational threat.”
“When you’re talking about having something that is an intelligence far in excess of the smartest human on earth, you have to say at that point, who’s in charge?” he added. “Is it the computers or the humans?”
Netanyahu hopes to position Israel as an A.I. industry leader, joking at one point, “You know what A.I. stands for. It stands for America and Israel, obviously.” He called the looming influence of A.I. “a choice between two things, a blessing and a curse,” comparing the dilemma to one posed by Moses when he “steered the children of Israel to the promised land.”