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Opinion: Elon Musk, Harvard and the art of ‘taking action’ while doing nothing

Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Elon Musk, who spends much of his time on futuristic endeavors, took a step into history on Monday. With his son on his shoulders, Musk visited a somber monument to humanity’s darkest past, the remains of the Auschwitz death camp, where the Nazis killed 1.1 million people during World War II, almost 1 million of them Jews.

Frida Ghitis - CNN
Frida Ghitis - CNN

That put Musk, whom many have accused of promoting antisemitism on his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, at the paramount memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, itself the zenith of industrialized hatred, which killed 6 million Jews just eight decades ago.

Why did Musk go to Auschwitz?

Was the pilgrimage one of self-reflection and atonement? Despite rising antisemitism across the globe, Musk’s trip appears to have been more of a public relations move aimed at repairing his reputation and boosting a flagging business.

Assaults, vandalism, harassment and even physical attacks against Jews had been increasing for months even before the Hamas assault inside Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent fierce counterattack inside Gaza.

Once the war started, Jews, regardless of their views or connections to Israel, have been targeted to a degree they had never experienced in the United States, a country that, on the surface, seemed to be mostly free of the antisemitic virus, perhaps a lasting refuge for a minority that has been persecuted elsewhere for thousands of years.

But suddenly antisemitism started coming out of the shadows on the far right and on the left.

Like in other entities where an upsurge in antisemitic activity started making headlines, Musk was taking performative action at Auschwitz. It was an effort to appear to be taking action while doing nothing.

After his visit to the death camp, Musk appeared at a conference on antisemitism in nearby Krakow, Poland. There, he defended his social media platform. X, he said, has less antisemitic content than other platforms. He gave no evidence to back that assertion up. But that, it seemed, was irrelevant.

There was nothing in his statements to suggest he will do anything about the problem.

Nothing suggests he will change the guidelines or even enforce X’s existing ones. A recent experiment by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an internet monitoring group, found 98% of reported posts with shocking antisemitic, Islamophobic or anti-Palestinian content were left untouched. (X has rejected the center’s work as an effort to drive away advertisers and filed a lawsuit against it. The center says the lawsuit is an attempt to silence the organization.)

The moment Musk bought Twitter, reinstated suspended accounts and fired the content moderation staff, the platform exploded with hate speech, as documented by independent internet monitoring organizations. The verbal invective converged with real-world attacks on Jews, as cataloged by the Anti-Defamation League.

Musk’s own words amplified the surge of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. When someone posted “Hitler was right,” accusing Jews of “hatred against whites,” Musk posted, “You have said the actual truth.”

He later apologized, calling the comment his “dumbest” ever. But it was hardly his first incendiary moment. Earlier Musk postings included one in which he declared that the Jewish financier George Soros “hates humanity.” It was described by Ted Deutch, head of the American Jewish Committee, as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the internet age.” The Protocols is one of history’s foremost texts of antisemitic incitement.

Despite Musk apologizing for his endorsement of the “Hitler was right” post, advertisers fled X. The stampede accelerated after Media Matters said ads on X were appearing next to pro-Nazi and white supremacist posts. When Apple, Disney and IBM stopped advertising, Musk accused them of trying to blackmail himX sued Media Matters.

To advertisers who left because of his antisemitic content, he said, “go f—k yourself.”

X was going into a tailspin. Ad revenue has collapsed. It was time to take action.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign that anything will change at the former Twitter, which has become a stronghold for far-right antisemites and people such as Tucker Carlson, who recently declared on X that rich Jews are funding a “white genocide.”

It’s easier to show up at a conference or a concentration camp, or to create a committee than to make real changes.

Consider Harvard University.

The school made headlines after a politically charged chain of events. President Claudine Gay was asked in Congress if calls for genocide against Jews violate Harvard rules against bullying and harassment. She said it depended on the context and later apologized. But after plagiarism charges surfaced, the embattled administrator resigned her post.

Many Jewish students said they had not wanted her to lose her job. They wanted Harvard to focus on tackling antisemitism with the same conviction with which it rejects racism or other forms of prejudice. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

A number of students have already filed a lawsuit against the school, describing it as a bastion of rampant and anti-Jewish hatred and harassment. The evidence is hard to miss.

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, setting on fire entire families in their homes, massacring more than 1,200 people and kidnapping hundreds more in the worst attack against Jews since the Holocaust, 31 Harvard student groups responded on that very same day, saying they held Israel “entirely responsible” and blaming Israel for the pogrom even before Israel started its military response, while the flames set by Hamas were still smoldering.

Since then, Jewish staff and students have implored the university for help in enforcing its own rules as they endure relentless harassment. A Harvard rabbi said antisemitism is “thriving” there, and after 26 years at the university, he’s “never felt so alone.”

The popular theory of “intersectionality” has been weaponized against Jews, incredibly claiming that the most persecuted minority in history is part of a white oppressor class. That view now seems to permeate university campuses.

Across the country, 73% of Jewish students say they have seen or experienced antisemitism since the start of the 2023-2024 school year. Nearly half say they don’t feel safe on campus.

Under pressure, Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, just announced the appointment of the man who will co-chair its new task force on antisemitism. (Another task force on Islamophobia is being created.)

It was a moment to find a leader without controversial baggage. One who would help soothe the rifts and make a genuine effort to address the problem. Instead, Garber named a man who only recently declared that the problem of antisemitism on campus has been blown out of proportion.

Derek Penslar heads Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. Whatever the scholarly qualifications, he is a terrible choice for this new position. The main problem is not that he has made some startling statements about “Jewish civilization,” or that as a fierce critic of Israel he has used the language of Israel’s enemies to attack the country.

The most serious problem with the appointment of Penslar, who describes himself as “left of center,” is that he does not seem to think the problem he has been tasked with solving is a terribly serious one. Outsiders, he said, have “exaggerated” the issue. And he worried that paying attention to antisemitism is obscuring the vulnerabilities of pro-Palestinian students.

Former Harvard President Larry Summers said the university made its credibility problem worse by naming Penslar. “I am unable to reassure Harvard community members,” he wrote on X, “… that Harvard is making progress in countering anti-Semitism.”

The ADL called Penslar’s appointment, “absolutely inexcusable.”

From Musk, on the far right, to Harvard, on the left, antisemitic forces are being given a pass. Much of what we’re seeing is PR, theater, a pretense of action with little real impetus to solve what is admittedly a difficult problem — but one for which useful steps, such as improved content moderation on social media and unbiased leaders in the effort to uproot antisemitism, are plain to see.

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