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Jan
3
2024

Top Executive Leaves ADL Over CEO’s Praise of Elon Musk
Report
Top Executive Leaves ADL Over CEO’s Praise of Elon Musk
Yaël Eisenstat’s departure is the most prominent instance of post-October 7th dissent within the organization.
Mari Cohen and Alex Kane

Yaёl Eisenstat, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center for Technology and Society (CTS), is leaving the organization due to disagreement with the ADL CEO’s praise of Elon Musk, according to a current ADL staffer with knowledge of CTS-related decisions who requested anonymity to protect their job. Eisenstat’s decision to leave comes after three other staffers at CTS, which focuses on online expressions of hate speech, also quit due to disagreement with ADL leadership’s post-October 7th policies. In a LinkedIn announcement yesterday afternoon, Eisenstat—a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration who rose to prominence as a top Facebook executive turned big tech critic—said that she was leaving the ADL for the research center Cybersecurity for Democracy, framing the move as an opportunity to return to elections-focused work in advance of a high-stakes presidential contest. An ADL spokesperson echoed this line in a statement to Jewish Currents, saying that Eisenstat “is departing to refocus all of her efforts on protecting democracy during the 2024 election season, which is something she would not be able to do at ADL.” But according to the current ADL staffer, it was CEO Jonathan Greenblatt’s applause of Musk, the billionaire owner of X (formerly Twitter), that led to Eisenstat’s departure.

Despite Musk’s promotion of antisemitic and white nationalist sentiment, Greenblatt has repeatedly extolled the billionaire’s business prowess and, recently, his pledge to censor pro-Palestinian phrases on X. Internal critics say Greenblatt is especially willing to excuse Musk’s white nationalist sympathies if it helps the ADL fight anti-Zionism. In interviews with Jewish Currents, five current and former ADL employees—all of whom asked to remain anonymous to avoid professional consequences—discussed how this pattern has intensified since the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel and the continuing Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Former staffers told Jewish Currents that in the past months, Greenblatt has redirected the ADL’s day-to-day work to target pro-Palestine activism rather than focusing on antisemitism in American life, a shift they say seriously undermines the organization’s credibility.

Recent reports in Vice and The Daily Beast have confirmed that a significant number of current and former ADL employees are frustrated with this orientation, and specifically with Greenblatt’s public embrace of Musk, which many see as undermining the organization’s work. “There’s a pattern of Jonathan going rogue—belittling in-house experts and ignoring talking points prepared for him,” said a former ADL staffer. Under these circumstances, added the current ADL staffer, “it’s hard to see how Yaël [Eisenstat], a leading pro-democracy internet advocate, could maintain that reputation and influence if she had to continue to stay quiet and accept ADL’s endorsement of online censorship of anti-Israel critiques, not to mention the broader disregard of her advice and leadership.” The departure of Eisenstat is perhaps the most significant sign to date of the widespread staff discontent surrounding Greenblatt’s leadership, demonstrating, in the words of the former ADL staffer, that “there are a lot of people of all political stripes at ADL who believe what Jonathan is doing is reprehensible.”

“There are a lot of people of all political stripes at ADL who believe what Jonathan is doing is reprehensible.”

The ADL founded the CTS in 2017 with the goal of creating a Silicon Valley-based hub to fight online expressions of antisemitism and other forms of identity-based discrimination. After originally focusing on building a machine learning tool that could help identify and moderate antisemitic content, the CTS shifted to researching online hate and advising tech companies on how they could better their hate speech policies. The group enjoyed influence in Silicon Valley thanks to the ADL’s prestige. “The weight of the ADL’s name behind things we did meant we could sit in on conversations with Google or Tik Tok, and it felt like they were actually listening to the things that we were saying,” said a second former ADL employee. “Sometimes that led to actual change in how they ran their platform.” In September 2022, the CTS hired Eisenstat, whom The Washington Post described as “one of the most prominent critics of how [Facebook] and its peers tackle hate speech and misinformation.” Bringing Eisenstat on further amplified the CTS’s reputation: “She brought a ton of experience and a ton of credibility, which I think really bolstered CTS,” said a third former staffer. At the ADL, according to a fourth former employee, Eisenstat was especially interested in reforming the Big Tech business model, which relies on outrageous content to spur engagement and deliver clicks to advertisers; specifically, she wanted to hold companies accountable for recommending harmful content.

Eisenstat arrived at the ADL just as Musk was finalizing his bid to take over Twitter, which he had pursued in part out of a desire to relax moderation rules that clamped down on harassment and hate. Soon after, Greenblatt began cozying up to the billionaire, causing controversy within the ADL. In October 2022, Greenblatt went on CNBC to talk about Musk’s impending takeover of the social media network. According to a recent Vice investigation, before the television appearance, Greenblatt’s staffers had prepared talking points that highlighted how Musk had been accused of racial discrimination in a lawsuit targeting his electric car company Tesla. Instead of heeding those talking points, however, Greenblatt praised Musk as “an amazing entrepreneur and extraordinary innovator” and the “Henry Ford of our time”—a striking parallel to draw given Ford’s history of antisemitism (Greenblatt eventually backtracked on the implied praise of Ford). The appearance sparked alarm within the organization. “We were stunned by that CNBC interview,” the former ADL staffer told Jewish Currents. “Jonathan went over the heads of CTS and the comms team to praise Musk.” Soon afterwards, Greenblatt suggested inviting Musk to be a featured speaker at the ADL’s annual Never is Now summit in November 2022, according to the current ADL staffer and the first former ADL employee. Both staffers told Jewish Currents that Eisenstat dissuaded Greenblatt from doing so. According to the current staffer, Eisenstat especially did not want the ADL to embrace Musk after he signaled he would reverse content moderation policies that targeted bigoted speech and let previously-barred hateful accounts, including Donald Trump, back on Twitter. “The risk of inviting Musk was we would end up, at the very least, becoming ‘useful idiots’—a risk that was evident to Yaёl and others, if not to Jonathan,” the current staffer said.

Despite Greenblatt’s show of warmth towards Musk, the ADL soon began to oppose many of the billionaire’s new policies. In November 2022, the ADL and eight other groups that were part of the “Stop Hate for Profit” coalition, including the NAACP and Color of Change, launched an advertising boycott of X in response to “an uptick in extremist activity” on the platform; the ADL briefly stopped running its own ads there. By December, the ADL’s researchers were reporting that antisemitic content on the site had increased by over 60% only a few months into Musk’s takeover. “He has emboldened racists, homophobes and antisemites,” Eisenstat told The New York Times that month.

By the summer of 2023, however, the ADL had relaxed its advertising boycott and resumed running its own ads on X. This did not stop Musk from accusing the ADL of trying to “strangle” his company with the advertising boycott and even threatening to sue the group for defamation in September 2023. Despite clarification from advertisers that it was Musk’s erratic behavior that dissuaded them from spending money on the platform, Musk singled out the ADL in what analysts argued was a repurposing of an age-old antisemitic conspiracy theory which locates the source of financial troubles in Jews. In response to Musk’s renewed attacks, the ADL again paused advertising on X, but changed course in just a month. The fourth former employee said that at the time, they raised concerns about this move within the ADL. “It makes us look hypocritical to advertise on Twitter when we’re finding that Twitter is this major megaphone for antisemitism,” they said. “I was like, ‘Wait, is there some return on investment that we’re getting?’ A lot of people had that question. But no one ever had an answer.” (An ADL spokesperson responded that the organization has been “completely clear . . . about our reasons for continuing to advertise on X,” as the ads are an “antidote to the antisemitic poison and white nationalist ads.”)

These dynamics—of Greenblatt criticizing Musk’s antisemitism, only to follow up with praise for the billionaire—intensified after October 7th. Musk courted controversy in November after he endorsed a tweet claiming that Jews were driving hatred against white people, echoing an antisemitic conspiracy often called the Great Replacement Theory: “You have said the actual truth,” Musk responded to the original poster. He also specifically accused the ADL of practicing “anti-white” and “anti-Asian” racism. The comments prompted another wave of advertisers publicly refusing to spend money on his platform. Greenblatt initially responded by calling Musk’s endorsement of white nationalist messaging “indisputably dangerous.” But the relationship soon warmed again: On November 17th, Musk tweeted that the terms “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea”—both of which Palestinians and their allies often use to criticize Israel—“imply genocide,” and that X users deploying those terms would be suspended. (These policies have not yet gone into effect, and it isn’t clear if they will.) Greenblatt said in a tweet that Musk’s new policy was “an important and welcome move,” and that he appreciated Musk’s “leadership in fighting hate.” In response, Eli Pariser, a member of ADL’s tech advisory board, which provides guidance and tech expertise to the CTS, told Rolling Stone that he was considering resigning if the ADL didn’t apologize and change course; Peter Fox, a member of a different ADL advisory board, wrote a Forward op-ed publicly criticizing the organization’s appeasement of Musk, saying Greenblatt had been “duped.” According to the first former ADL staffer, Greenblatt is “waging war on pro-Palestinian activists, and if a rabid antisemite like Elon Musk is willing to try to ban [their slogans], Jonathan is willing to tolerate that.”

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