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
January 3, 2024

Yaël Eisenstat delivering a TED Talk in 2020.

Still courtesy of TED.

YAËL 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.”

According to a 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.” 

For many in the ADL orbit, this compromise has undermined the organization’s efforts to call out right-wing antisemitism online: “You can’t claim to hold tech accountable and advocate for civil rights when you’re praising a guy that endorsed the Great Replacement Theory,” said the fourth former employee. Staffers who complained were told by senior leadership that Greenblatt’s tweets were a result of him “going rogue,” without consulting anyone on the messaging, according to the second former employee. But a week later, Greenblatt repeated praise in an interview on CNBC’s SquawkBox, calling Musk’s plan to ban the anti-Zionist phrases “promising” and a “kind of leadership.” “He had time to talk to senior leadership since [the tweets,] and he still came out and said the same thing,” the employee said. The ADL spokesperson defended the CEO’s approach to Musk, saying that the organization “has repeatedly called out Elon Musk when he has gotten it wrong and credited him when he has gotten it right,” and adding that X suspending users who use the phrases “decolonization” and “from the river to the sea” “would be a big step forward and set a bar for other companies.”

Throughout, Greenblatt’s comments were conspicuously out of step with Eisenstat’s messaging on Musk. She has criticized X for not curbing antisemitic content that she says has flourished on the platform since October 7th. “X used to be the place, when it was Twitter, that people went to in times of a real time crisis,” she said in an appearance on Bloomberg TV. But now, “we are seeing [disinformation and misinformation] proliferate on the platform.” The second former staffer said that ever since Eisenstat joined the ADL, she has been “fighting hate brought about by Musk’s changes at Twitter . . . and I’m sure it felt very invalidating to her to have Jonathan turn around and [praise Musk].” The current staffer told Jewish Currents that this disconnect between Eisenstat’s and Greenblatt’s approaches to Musk and X has directly led to her decision to step away. “Yaël is one of the few senior executives who came to ADL with a huge personal brand already in place, and she is committed to fighting the enormous societal harms caused by Facebook, X, and other social media,” the ADL staffer told Jewish Currents. The staffer said that while many ADL employees will be “devastated to lose her,” they were “proud that she is standing up to the ADL’s many capitulations to Musk’s hate and anti-democratic actions, just as she stood up to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook in the past.” Three former staffers described her departure as a loss for the organization: “Yaël is a powerhouse—she’s a really strong leader and she’s somebody who is respected by a wide variety of people,” said the second former employee. “I don’t think it’s a great sign for the ADL that somebody like that is choosing to leave, particularly over a decision by leadership.”

Musk is only one of several decisions Greenblatt has made in recent years that have sparked dissent within the ADL. For instance, in September 2022, when Fox News published an article attacking the ADL’s anti-hate education curriculum for including “concepts from critical race theory,” such as white privilege, alongside other “far-left ideas” like gender identity, the ADL capitulated, saying that “there is content among our curricular materials that is misaligned with ADL’s values and strategy” and that the group was committing to “launch[ing] a thorough review of our education content.” Staffers in the ADL’s Education Department felt that the response to Fox “threw them under the bus,” according to the first former staffer. Some department employees expressed these concerns during a Zoom call with chief of staff Steven Sheinberg. According to the current ADL employee and one former employee, in the middle of the meeting, Greenblatt emerged on screen, surprising staffers. “People audibly gasped that he was eavesdropping on the call, and they were horrified,” the former staffer said. “This is why people don’t trust him.” An ADL spokesperson confirmed that Greenblatt had dropped in on the meeting conducted by Sheinberg, but that he “made his presence known, didn’t mean to surprise anyone, wasn’t aware of the topics being discussed at the time that he joined, and left soon after.”

As Jewish Currents reported in 2021, Greenblatt has also clashed with the ADL’s civil rights office over legislation targeting criticism of Israel, with the CEO choosing repeatedly to privilege Israel advocacy over the protection of civil liberties. Notably, Greenblatt repeatedly supported state and national legislation penalizing those who boycott Israel even as the ADL’s own civil rights lawyers believed such measures were unconstitutional. In May 2022, Greenblatt announced that the organization would focus more on combating anti-Zionism, declaring that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) were the “photo inverse of the extreme right.” That speech sparked significant dissent within the ADL, according to leaked audio from an internal staff meeting obtained by Jewish Currents last year. In response to the dissent, Greenblatt said that if staffers disagreed with his position that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, “then maybe this isn’t the place for you.” Still, at the time, staffers in the CTS found that they could mostly continue their work without too much interference, as the department was not asked to center the fight against anti-Zionism in its work. “I knew that Greenblatt had made statements that I found disgusting but I didn’t find personally that it was impacting my work,” said the third former employee. “When we put out the online hate and harassment survey, anti-Zionism was not a major driver of it. We were really focused on Holocaust denial language and those sorts of things.”

That compartmentalization became more difficult after October 7th, when Greenblatt’s pro-Israel commitments became even more strident, and the organization stepped up its efforts to target the anti-Zionist left as it took to the streets to protest Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Two former employees said they were frustrated when Greenblatt used words like “barbarians” and “savages” to describe Hamas militants—terms that their own work fighting dehumanization had taught them to avoid. “In the immediate aftermath, I was not particularly happy with some of the messaging, but I was told ‘emotions are running high, Jonathan [has never been] this emotional,’ and I was willing to extend grace to understand that,” the fourth former employee said. But Greenblatt and senior leadership continued to disappoint. After October 7th, the third former employee told Jewish Currents, employees were told to put all their existing work on pause and focus primarily on anti-Zionist discourse. “There was genuine antisemitism and cases of white supremacist accounts piggybacking on anti-Zionism, and I think we could have done a lot more messaging around that,” the employee said. “But it was not that at all. It was really focused on [opposing] anti-Zionism no matter who it was from, no matter the context, even if it’s an 18-year old college kid who maybe has family dead. If they said something, we were going to call it out.” (The ADL spokesperson disputed that work fighting anti-Zionism had eclipsed other priorities, stating that the efforts to track anti-Zionist rhetoric were “ongoing well before October 7th,” and that “while ADL continues to prioritize work related to the horrific terrorist attack on Oct. 7, those efforts are certainly not to the exclusion of other important projects.”) CTS employees were also frustrated to find that immediately after October 7th, references to rising online Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism were cut from their reports before publication, according to multiple former ADL staffers. (In response, the ADL spokesperson noted that a later ADL report did focus on the harassment of Muslims, Palestinians, and Arab Americans, and that Greenblatt had condemned the killing of six-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume and the shooting of three Palestinian American students in Vermont.)

CTS employees were frustrated to find that immediately after October 7th, references to rising online Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism were cut from their reports before publication.

Instead of moderating his response as the immediacy of the Hamas attack receded, Greenblatt appeared to double down: When activists from Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow occupied a capitol building for an anti-war protest in mid-October, Greenblatt described the organizations as “hate groups” and again as “the photo inverse of white supremacists.” Indeed, since October, the ADL has listed protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza, including many led by Jewish leftists, as part of their map documenting antisemitism in the US, according to The Intercept. In October, the ADL partnered with the Brandeis Center to send a letter to university presidents asking them to investigate whether SJP chapters on their campuses were violating laws that ban giving “material support” to militant groups such as Hamas—an effort the American Civil Liberties Union identified as an attempt to “stifle free speech.” The current staffer said the letter caused dismay among some employees who felt that the ADL was leveling serious accusations against student groups without any evidence of anti-terrorism law violations. Some staffers were frustrated with the lack of transparency around such decisions: “For the Brandeis Center letter, which was atrocious, we found out about it when [the public] saw it,” said the third former employee. “I don’t even know who worked on that.”

As yet, the internal discontent roiling the ADL has not impacted its fundraising horizon, according to the current staffer. This year, the organization’s goal was to raise over $80 million—a goal they reached before Thanksgiving. But the current staffer said that Greenblatt’s decisions had nevertheless damaged the organization’s credibility—a state of affairs reflected in Eisenstat’s departure. “If you are a civil rights, human rights, or democracy advocate, you don’t go to work for the ADL without being willing to swallow some stuff that you disagree with, but this has gone way past that,” the current staffer said. “Jonathan has so undermined our credibility and expertise.” The fourth former staffer echoed that concern: “ADL certainly had its problems for decades, but at least some of the research was credible. Now I don’t know why anyone would take anything the ADL says seriously at all, and that sucks.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.