The Israeli Minister Who Is Defending Elon Musk

Amichai Chikli championed the billionaire when his tweets were criticized for anti-Semitic overtones. I asked Chikli why.

Amichai Chikli, a young dark-haired man in a suit, gesticulating
Shahar Azran / Getty

Updated at 4:55 p.m. ET on May 24, 2023.

When Elon Musk tweeted that the Jewish financier George Soros “hates humanity” and “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization,” he drew international condemnation. Musk’s outburst was “not just distressing,” but “dangerous,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, said on Twitter. “It will embolden extremists who already contrive anti-Jewish conspiracies and have tried to attack Soros and Jewish communities as a result.” Later that day, Israel’s foreign ministry tweeted, “The phrase ‘The Jews’ spiked today on the list of topics trending on Twitter following a tweet with antisemitic overtones by none other than the owner and CEO of the social network, Elon Musk.”

But soon after, that statement was deleted and disavowed by Israel’s foreign minister, who promised, “There will be no tweets like this again.” The next day, Amichai Chikli, the country’s minister of diaspora affairs, went further. A hard-right politician who first entered Israel’s parliament in 2021, Chikli broke with his own party when it joined the country’s recent anti–Benjamin Netanyahu government, and was later rewarded with a parliamentary seat in Netanyahu’s Likud party. Last Thursday on Twitter, he publicly praised Musk as an entrepreneur and “role model,” and declared that “criticism of Soros - who finances the most hostile organizations to the Jewish people and the state of Israel is anything but anti-Semitism, quite the opposite!” Chikli subsequently doubled down on this position, citing an op-ed written by Alan Dershowitz that states, “No sin­gle per­son has done more to dam­age Is­rael’s stand­ing in the world, es­pe­cially among so-called pro­gres­sives, than George Soros.”

I’ve reported critically on the activities of Soros’s foundation, and I certainly don’t think scrutiny of him is bigoted. But having covered anti-Semitism for more than a decade, I also found Musk’s remarks about Soros to be demonstrably anti-Semitic, and was confused by how some people, like Chikli, seemed willing to excuse such rhetoric out of distaste for Soros’s politics. So I spoke with Chikli yesterday in an attempt to understand his perspective. Our conversation below has been edited for clarity, but there was not much to be found, in part because even after we spoke it was unclear to me whether Chikli had read Musk’s tweets in the first place.

Yair Rosenberg: Let’s start with the tweet that kicked off the whole controversy. Last week, Musk goes on Twitter and writes, “Soros reminds me of Magneto.” What did you think of this comparison when you saw it?

Amichai Chikli: First of all, I hadn’t seen it at the beginning. I just saw the waves of reaction. I listened to what was being said in the media. I saw Soros becoming the victim. I saw Elon Musk becoming the vicious anti-Semite. And it sounded ridiculous to me.

Rosenberg: So you didn’t see the specific thing that he wrote.

Chikli: I was responding to the trend and not directly to the tweet. Obviously, before I wrote something, I learned about the tweet. But I was responding to the trend. What added to my motivation to respond was that a lower-level foreign-ministry employee, who is not the minister, was saying that [Israel is] standing up to protect Soros.

Rosenberg: So I assume you saw Musk’s second tweet, where he explained what he meant in the first one. He wrote that Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.” What did you think of that?

Chikli: But I wasn’t responding to his tweets. I was reacting to the reaction to the tweets, and in particular the reaction of nonelected officials in the foreign ministry, who spoke in the name of the state of Israel, and joined the trend that portrayed Elon Musk as an anti-Semite.

Rosenberg: Okay. So let me read what you said. You wrote, “As Israel’s minister who’s entrusted on combating anti-Semitism, I would like to clarify that the Israeli government and the vast majority of Israeli citizens see Elon Musk as an amazing entrepreneur and a role model. Criticism of Soros - who finances the most hostile organizations to the Jewish people and the state of Israel is anything but anti-Semitism, quite the opposite!” So you made a case there, and I suspect you could make a longer case here, that George Soros is anti-Israel.

Chikli: One hundred percent. This is one of the most hostile individuals, who funds dozens of organizations that are all into delegitimizing the state of Israel. It’s not just because of his opinion. It’s very systematic.

Rosenberg: But here is my question. This whole thing happens because of Musk’s tweets. And he didn’t say he didn’t like Soros because of his positions. He said that Soros wants to end civilization because he hates humanity. Aren’t these two very different things? If Musk had just said, “I don’t like Soros, because he doesn’t like Israel,” do you think anyone would have called him anti-Semitic? Didn’t that only happen because Musk accused a rich Jew of wanting to ruin the world, which is what anti-Semites have said about Jews for centuries, whether it’s “Zionists” or the Rothschilds or whoever?

Chikli: But if you’d like to have a serious interview, you must understand, and I will say it, I think it’s the third time. I wasn’t—

Rosenberg: —responding to the tweet, you were responding to the reaction. But it’s confusing to me that you would respond to say Elon Musk is not an anti-Semite when you don’t know what he said.

Chikli: I stand behind my words. I don’t think that he’s an anti-Semite. You can also say that George Soros is doing huge damage, not just to the state of Israel, by promoting the deal with Iran, which I think is damaging for humanity.

Soros speaks highly about the “open society” while his foundation has zero transparency about where the money goes. It’s not just anti-Israel, I think it’s anti–freedom of speech. I think he is the No. 1 promoter of what we call today “woke soft tyranny.” And his ideology is a threat to freedom of speech and the core values of the Western civilization. This is far more than the state of Israel.

Rosenberg: Let me try to put this in a different way because maybe I’m not being as clear as I want to be in my question. Here’s an analogy. As you know, many Israelis today think Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to destroy Israel. Many others think former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and the opposition are trying to tear the country apart. But if someone in America says something anti-Semitic about Netanyahu or Lapid, it’s still anti-Semitic, regardless of the target and whether one agrees with them, right? That’s a separate question.

You can have the lowest opinion of Soros, but that still doesn’t give anyone license to say anti-Semitic things about him. So you might not like George Soros at all, but Musk didn’t say Soros is bad on Israel, or he’s bad on freedom of speech. He said Soros hates humanity and wants to destroy civilization.

Chikli: I think we are now on the fourth time, you insist—

Rosenberg: I will print every time that you say this, don’t worry!

Chikli: [Laughs.] You think I was looking with a microscope at every single letter in Musk’s tweets. Again I will say, I was responding first to the trend, and second to the response of unelected officials who took authority from nowhere to speak with the name of the state of Israel on a very serious issue, to protect a man who is super hostile to the state of Israel, and who is maybe the No. 1 promoter of woke anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel.

One last thing about the accusation of Elon Musk allowing anti-Semitism to spread on Twitter. The organization that reported this is called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. And guess what? When you go and check them out, there are a few interesting things about them. One is that they are funded by Soros’s Open Society Foundations. And second, in their methodology, when they are looking for anti-Semitic tweets, they look for the following: Jesus, Hitler, and George Soros. This is also one of the points that I wanted to dispute—suggesting criticism of Soros is anti-Semitism; that is ridiculous.

Rosenberg: Of course. But the question isn’t whether it’s inherently anti-Semitic to criticize Soros. He’s one of the richest and most influential people in the world; obviously, you have to be allowed to criticize him. The issue is that sometimes anti-Semites criticize Soros because he’s Jewish and rich, and it’s not about his positions; it’s about who he is, right? You should be familiar with this problem because the same thing happens to Israel. It’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, but some people criticize Israel because they’re anti-Semites and therefore say anti-Semitic things. Isn’t that what’s happening here?

Chikli: I want to give you the professional answer to why I wasn’t putting the focus on those people who, as you said now, might refer to Musk’s quote from an anti-Semitic perspective. Why was it not my focus at all? In the United States, when we researched the trends in the media, the vast majority of anti-Semitism is new anti-Semitism: the anti-Semitism that delegitimizes, demonizes, and sets double standards against the state of Israel.

It’s true that anti-Semitism coming from the far right is often louder and more violent. But that’s a small part of the phenomenon that we see today. It’s not less disturbing, but it’s not the new, main trend. And I was responding to the big picture. I wasn’t interested in how did everyone feel about the following tweet of Elon Musk, dada dada dada. That’s not what I was responding to, as I said—I think this is now time No. 4.

Rosenberg: Five.

(After publication of this article, Chikli contacted me via WhatsApp. “I know exactly what [Musk] said,” he told me. “And still that wasn't my main motive to respond and write about it.”)