Google Workers Say Israel-Hamas War Has Stifled Speech

When Sarmad Gilani joined Google as a software engineer in 2012, he was drawn by the company’s famously open culture, where employees can publicly criticize leadership and are encouraged to embrace their racial identity and sexual orientation while at work.

He said certain political positions, like support for Black Lives Matter or Ukraine, were usually met with agreement and even embraced by the company. But there was one topic Mr. Gilani was always wary of raising: The treatment of Palestinians.

“You have to be very, very, very careful, because any sort of criticism toward the Israeli state can be easily taken as antisemitism,” he said in an interview. Mr. Gilani, a 38-year-old American born to Pakistani immigrants, explained that his caution was also informed by a lifetime of being misunderstood and profiled for being Muslim.

That was before Oct. 7.

In the month since Hamas launched an attack inside Israel, and Israel retaliated with a bombing campaign and invasion of the Gaza Strip, discussion of the topic at Google — for Muslims and Jews — has sunk into an morass of hostility and intolerance, Mr. Gilani and other employees say.

Israeli and Jewish employees have expressed anger over messages posted in Google’s internal channels, including at least one that was overtly antisemitic, and on Wednesday a group of workers published an open letter addressed to Google leadership accusing the company of a double standard that allows for “freedom of expression for Israeli Googlers versus Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Googlers.”

The letter was not signed by any individuals. Instead it was attributed to “Muslim, Palestinian and Arab Google employees joined by anti-Zionist Jewish colleagues.” The New York Times discussed the matter with seven Google employees and reviewed messages posted in employee channels for this article. A few of the employees, including Mr. Gilani, were willing to be identified, but others asked not to be named out of concern for professional ramifications.

Pro-Palestinian employees say the company has allowed supporters of Israel to speak freely about their opinions on the topic, while taking a heavy hand with Muslim employees who have criticized Israel’s retaliation in Gaza.

“I do not feel safe saying what I want to say,” Mr. Gilani said in an interview before the letter was published.

Google said the acrimony described to The Times by both Muslim and Jewish employees was limited to a small group of its many thousands of workers.

“This is a highly sensitive time and topic in every company and workplace, and we have many employees who are personally affected,” Courtenay Mencini, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed response to questions. “The overwhelming majority of those employees are not engaged in internal discussions or debate.”

Google isn’t unique in facing this turmoil. The topic has exposed rifts at other elite institutions in the United States — colleges, Hollywood and the Democratic Party, to name a few — as declarations of solidarity for Palestinians or calls for an Israeli cease-fire are met with condemnation as undermining Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism.

Businesses are struggling with how to address the conflict and to draw clear boundaries around acceptable speech on the topic. More broadly, anger over the conflict has led to a rise in hate crimes and threats against both Jews and Muslims.

Among technology companies, Microsoft has taken down posts by workers discussing the conflict, and at Meta, internal tensions also rose as the company removed internal employee messages supporting other Palestinians at Meta.

But at Google, the issue has a unique meaning.

Even compared with its Silicon Valley peers, Google has become a hub for employee activism, a legacy of the company’s open and informal founding culture.

In recent years, Google employees have protested former President Donald J. Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, walked out to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment, formed a union and petitioned leadership to stop working with the Pentagon.

The letter sent on Wednesday resurfaces another sore point: Google’s role in a $1.2 billion contract to supply Israel and its military with artificial intelligence and other computing power, technology that critics and activists say could be used to surveil Palestinians.

When the contract, called Project Nimbus, took effect in 2021, a number of employees objected publicly and said they were threatened for speaking out in support of Palestinians, claims that are similar to those in Wednesday’s letter. Last year, a Jewish employee of Google who led an effort to get the company to drop out of the contract resigned, claiming it had retaliated against her.

After the fighting broke out last month, employees started a new petition for Google to cancel Nimbus. By Tuesday, it had 675 signatures, according to one of the employees.

“Criticizing Project Nimbus has made people targets,” said Rachel Westrick, a software engineer at Google who said she supported the letter. Ms. Westrick said she also wanted the company to condemn the violence against Palestinians, as it did the attack by Hamas, and address racism that she says her colleagues have experienced.

The company has said Google’s role in Nimbus involves it providing services for run-of-the-mill government agency work and isn’t applied to highly sensitive or classified projects.

Israel’s supporters see calls to drop Nimbus, and other efforts to boycott the country, as hostile to the Jewish state. Jewish and Israeli workers also said the language that their colleagues were using was deeply offensive, in particular when Israel’s actions in Gaza were described as a “genocide.”

One Israeli employee said that, in her view, the company had allowed a lot of pro-Hamas statements to spread inside of Google’s internal communication platforms unchecked. Google is slower to internally acknowledge anything regarding Israel, in this worker’s view, compared with issues like Black Lives Matter and violence against Asian Americans.

Three people said one worker had been fired after writing in an internal company message board that Israelis living near Gaza “deserved to be impacted.”

The company released a statement condemning Hamas on Oct. 7, and a few days later it told Jewish employees that it was monitoring internal platforms for antisemitism and promised to take action — including firing offenders — if warranted.

The next week, in an email to staff, Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, acknowledged that Jewish employees were “experiencing a rise in antisemitic incidents,” and that Palestinian, Arab and Muslim employees were “deeply affected by a concerning rise in Islamophobia and are watching with dread as Palestinian civilians in Gaza have suffered significant loss and fear for their lives amid the escalating war and humanitarian crisis.”

But the employees behind Wednesday’s letter say this isn’t enough: “We demand that Sundar Pichai, Thomas Kurian and other Google leadership issue a public condemnation of the ongoing genocide in the strongest possible terms,” it reads. Mr. Kurian is chief executive of Google’s cloud computing business.

Supporters of Palestinians at Meta also feel they are facing unfair treatment. A handful of workers there reported that on Workplace, Meta’s internal communication platform, posts that included the phrase “pray for Palestine” or otherwise expressed support for Palestinians — with no mention of Hamas — were being flagged for removal internally, according to two employees who shared the messages with The Times.

Around the same time that Meta’s workers were having difficulties internally, the company said a “bug” in its code — a mistranslation of Arabic — had led to the word “terrorist” being inserted in some users’ Instagram biographies if they included the word “Palestine” or a Palestinian flag emoji. The Washington Post and 404 Media earlier reported on some of the problems at Meta.

A Meta spokesman declined to comment.

Mr. Gilani said he couldn’t figure out what, if anything, he could say at work about what he saw as the killing of innocent civilians.

He knows the risks of speaking out on such a divisive topic, thanks in part to an experience he had in 2014. After he was repeatedly stopped by airport security, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to try and find out if he was on a watch list. But instead of getting the information, he was approached and questioned by the F.B.I. at Google’s offices.

But now, he said, he’s worried that retaliation against Muslim employees is having a chilling effect on speech at Google, and he has developed a playbook for how to speak on the subject at work: Condemn Hamas and move on.

“It feels like I have to condemn Hamas 10 times before saying one tiny, tiny thing criticizing Israel.”

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