Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, Sam Lessin, the former Facebook VP product management and today a serial tech investor, has become an unofficial ambassador for Israel. From his point of view, the Silicon Valley based Jewish-American investor believes that Israel is on the right side of history and is defending itself against the threat of a massacre and represents western democracy in the battle against terrorist organizations. He finds it difficult to understand Americans who cannot see this.
Consequently the content of Lessin’s social media posts have changed from AI, data and big-tech to posts exposing the hypocrisy of the international media, and anti-Israel demonstrations, highlighting growing antisemitism, including by his neighbor Elon Musk.
“Weak companies first of all blame the Jews”
And recently, as campaigns against Israel run wild on social media, he has begun to fear for the future of the US. Lessin, for example, has become one of the most outspoken voices in Silicon Valley for the banning of TikTok, the app owned by Chinese company ByteDance. The straw that broke the camel’s back, from his point of view, was a TikTok clip that went viral among Generation Z young people that claimed that Al Qaeda founder Osma bin Laden’s “Letter to America” document gives an alternative perspective about the US support for Israel and involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.
The letter, which justifies Islamic terror in the US because of its support for Israel, calls for an Islamic revolution in the western world, and says that the US is helping to spread AIDS and calls the LGBT community heretics. For Lessin, this has lit a red light that symbolizes how lost large parts of American young people are. “Bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ campaign shows how widespread the weakness is in the US. This is a big problem not only for Israelis, but for Jews in America because when societies are at a weak point, they first blame the Jews,” Lessin tells “Globes.”
How did we reach a point where Americans are encouraged to read Bin Laden’s writings?
“I think we must resolve this issue as quickly as possible. In the first decades after World War II, the US emerged victorious and was united by a common external enemy in the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War, we have looked for other adversaries. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made it clear to us that we are not as strong and big as we thought and the hatred and anger were directed inward, into the US. Poverty, a low rate of home ownership and a high birth rate in some parts led to unrest and the fact that some are looking for a scapegoat.”
How sure do you feel that Jews in the US are taking a pro-Israeli stand?
“Where I live I feel very certain. But as a Harvard graduate and former student, I ask myself how I would feel if I were studying there today. For sure I would be able to do much less there than I did as a student and that is very sad. I think there is an immediate threat to the physical safety of Jews and I don’t know if it will be addressed, but there is a bigger problem here for democracies in dealing with angry and sad young people whose values are not in line with our values. If you had told me a few years ago that there would be young Americans who would justify the terrorist attack by Hamas, I would have told you it was crazy, but obviously we have reached a point where enough people in American society think it is true, and it is very scary for democracy.”
You drew a direct line between the popularity of the Hamas narrative on TikTok and US national security.
“It is the law of large numbers. In an environment of billions of users in the world, and in which the Jews are a very small people, it is not surprising that you meet a very biased audience against Israel, but the spread of propaganda there is a matter of long-term American national security. Imagine that in 2027 China will invade Taiwan and young Americans will think that this move makes perfect sense. The Chinese don’t need to start such a campaign on TikTok all at once, they can drip such messages that will prepare young Americans to support the move. If Americans are spreading bin Laden’s propaganda, it is not unreasonable at all that they will spread Chinese propaganda.”
Therefore you argue that the US should boycott TikTok.
“The Hamas phenomenon on TikTok is a problem for Americans no less than it is for Israelis. I believe in freedom of expression, and if there are some crazy kids that want to say crazy things to each other, then that is their right. But the question is if there is here a foreign source helping to deliberately spread these things? I don’t think the Chinese really do, but I think the question is how comfortable are we with a foreign power having control over the content that our children consume? China expresses interest in taking Taiwan back. What can it do to influence young Americans? They will be able to do this at any point they decide to.”
“The numbers are only adding up against Israel”
You claim that Harvard has changed
“When you see video clips in which Jewish students are attacked, you realize that a lot has changed in higher education at elite universities. The world has changed. Trigger warnings came and DEI culture (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion – the movement that promotes affirmative discrimination of marginalized populations) developed. But students always say stupid things and this is a constant element of history. There used to be students here who supported Stalin and all sorts of other crazy things. I am disappointed with the students but not surprised and it is universities’ managements that should act here and put down red lines for those who act violently.”
What do we in Israel not understand about US public opinion?
“Even though there are cases of extremism, the majority of Americans still support Israel. First, the hard work you are doing against Hamas is a great service for you and the West. You are proving that you are a sovereign country that knows how to defend itself. But I think that in Israel, as in the US, most of the Jews who support you, are not big fans of Netanyahu and think that his policies and leadership in recent years complicate reality. This of course does not prevent them from supporting Israel’s right to self-defense.”
How are you Silicon Valley major investors working to prevent antisemitism and dissemination of disinformation?
This forces us to think about all of our conduct. In whom and how do we invest and to whom we donate and are we ready to profit from any type of organization. For example, will we continue to donate to Harvard? Can I add my own voice as weight to support people who understand my messages and can I promote them in the industry? The reality is that the numbers are only adding up against Israel. It will continue to be a relatively small country, but we must take care to maintain this discourse actively and not to rebuke people who oppose us, but to present them with the right information and make sure to do everything possible to convince them. There is no simple way, it’s a very confusing time in that sense.”
It seems that anti-Semitism is also raising its head in X and the owner Elon Musk is not doing much to solve it.
Musk also wrote terrible anti-Semitic things. He is a disciple of freedom of speech, but in my opinion there is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom from their consequences. Tesla shareholders are free to sell their shares in the company after hearing such statements, as are employees at Musk’s companies who may feel free to quit. I agree with Musk that one way to solve this is to verify more accounts. People should be free to say what they want but they shouldn’t be able to do it anonymously.
Published by Globes, Israel business news – en.globes.co.il – on November 23, 2023.
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