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Our parents shunned Volkswagen and Mercedes — is it time for Jews to give up their Teslas?

The car should be a model of innovation; with Elon Musk, it’s a symbol of conspiracy theories and antisemitism

Like many American Jews of her generation, my mother refused to drive a German car. For her, Mercedes and Audi didn’t represent luxury; they represented Nazism. She even pronounced Volkswagen in the German way: Volks-VAHgen.

In the wake of Elon Musk’s statements condoning, tolerating and embracing antisemitism, I wonder if my Tesla Model S is now treyf — if, for American Jews, Tesla is the new Mercedes.

This would not be the first of our Tesla’s gilgulim, to use the Kabbalistic term for reincarnation.

My partner and I bought it in 2017, purely for environmental reasons. We wanted to get off the fossil fuel carousel, and leave behind the endless shenanigans of car dealers, repair shops and other shysters. We loved it instantly.

Quickly, though, we discovered that we’d unintentionally bought a status symbol. Friends would admire it when we gave them a ride; strangers gawked at it on the street. As a very non-conspicuous consumer (our previous car was a Prius), this was weird. Although admittedly kind of fun, too.

Then the Tesla brand began to tarnish.

There were the allegations of mistreatment and racial bias at Tesla plants. The misleading statements about the “self-driving” feature, which turned out not to self-drive at all and caused collisions when drivers expected it to do so. The flouting of COVID-19 rules in 2020. Gradually, our car became a kind of symbol of tech-bro libertarianism, an automotive Bitcoin.

And then came Elon Musk’s purchase of (ex-)Twitter.

In the last 12 months, Musk has turned a problematic but valuable social media platform into a cesspool of alt-right hate and rage-mongering. (If you don’t believe me, look at my mentions in the last 24 hours.) X-Twitter is unreliable, erratic, and messy. Every journalist I know loathes the place, even as most of us are still on it while we hope for Threads/Bluesky/Whatever to someday supplant it.

And then there’s the antisemitism. According to an ADL analysis, only around 25% of antisemitic tweets reported to Twitter are taken down. (This article has numerous egregious examples of posts that were left up.) Alt-right antisemites like Ali Alexander, Andrew Anglin, David Icke and Nick Fuentes have been replatformed.

Even worse, Musk himself has posted and retweeted statements that many regard as antisemitic.

Musk likened George Soros, the Jewish financier-philanthropist who supports progressive and democratic causes, to the (Jewish) comic-book villain Magneto, and said that he “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.”

This wasn’t mere criticism; it was demonization. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, responded: “Soros often is held up by the far-right, using antisemitic tropes, as the source of the world’s problems. To see Elon Musk, regardless of his intent, feed this segment — comparing him to a Jewish supervillain, claiming Soros ‘hates humanity’ — is not just distressing, it’s dangerous: it will embolden extremists who already contrive anti-Jewish conspiracies and have tried to attack Soros and Jewish communities as a result.”

Elon Musk at the VivaTech fair in Paris in June. Photo by Getty Images

And there’s more. Musk argued that the shooter in Allen, Texas, wasn’t really a neo-Nazi, when piles of evidence showed that he was. He has chit-chatted with antisemites in the QAnon conspiracy cesspool. And he has done nothing when virulent antisemitism spread on Twitter — last May, the phrase “The Jews” was trending, with the overwhelming portion of tweets containing horrifying antisemitic conspiracies and hate speech.

And all this antisemitism is in addition to Musk’s amplifying endless lunatic conspiracy theories, from anti-vaccine nonsense to false claims about U.S. extremist groups, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the war in Ukraine.

So where does that leave our still-beloved Tesla?

I still love it, but I’m ambivalent. I feel like we’re driving around a big blue checkmark, which formerly was a sign of being an authenticated Twitter user but is now a sign of fealty to Elon Musk.

To be sure, this isn’t about boycotting the company. Musk isn’t making any money off us — the car is paid off and almost never needs repair. It’s about symbolism. Tesla is Musk and Musk is an alt-right troll with, at best, a gaping blind spot for antisemitism. And brands have social meaning; they convey support of certain values and qualities, which is why companies spend billions of dollars to maintain them.

(Arguably, the best analogy isn’t to Mercedes, which made engines, armaments, and vehicles for the Nazi regime, but to Ford, which was run by a notorious antisemite. For what it’s worth, my mother wouldn’t drive a Ford either.)

Here’s where I’ve landed. We’re not selling our Tesla. It’s our family car, it’s expensive, and we love driving it, charging it, and never taking it to the shop. There are a lot of things I feel guilty about, and this will just have to be one more of them.

Moreover, there’s a virtuous side to it as well. As I’ve written about in these pages before, I see the climate crisis as a moral, religious issue. And while individual sacrifice is not actually relevant to solving it (the term “carbon footprint” was invented by the fossil-fuel industry), transforming the way we drive collectively is. For those with no available means of transportation other than cars, going electric is a moral, religious imperative.

But I’m not sure I’d buy a new Tesla today. There are other electric cars on the market (more affordable ones, too), and they don’t carry the whiff of stigma that I associate with mine. Maybe it’s silly, worrying that other people might think that I support bigotry and antisemitism. But isn’t this how our values are shaped in community? There are things we stand for, and things we don’t. At the very least, the Tesla feels like Marit Ayin, an action that could mislead someone else. I don’t want to say that what Musk is doing is OK.

My last point is this: I’m ambivalent about my ambivalence. I wish Musk had never bought Twitter and had kept his big mouth shut, because Tesla’s cars and solar panels are crucial and awesome examples of what sustainability can look like. You don’t have to sacrifice quality for environmental virtue. You can have the best of both. If only this dude would STFU.

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