Google company headquarters by the Forward

Inside Google, Jewish employees clash over Israel

“Jewglers” is one of many employee groups at Google, where there are also “Gayglers” (for LGBTQ+ employees), “Greyglers” (for older ones) and “Vetnet” (for veterans). The Jewglers’ 2,800 Jewish members mostly use its listserv to seek travel advice, share recipes and plan the company Hanukkah party.

But a progressive contingent cleaved off the group last summer after the Jewglers protested a company donation to the Movement for Black Lives. Now, a pair of letters from the breakaway group protesting Google’s business dealings with Israel has pitted the two Jewish bodies against each other in a fight for influence at the company.

The second letter, published anonymously this month in The Guardian, called on Google and Amazon to withdraw from Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion cloud-computing services contract with Israel, saying it would “make the systematic discrimination and displacement carried out by the Israeli military and government even crueler and deadlier for Palestinians.” The same letter, signed by hundreds of employees from both companies, was sent directly to the companies’ executives.

Organized under the group name Jewish Diaspora Solidarity, the anti-Zionist breakaway group is trying to challenge the prevailing pro-Israel Jewish voice at Google. Those employees first took their concerns public in May, with an open letter demanding Google support its Palestinian employees and cut ties with the Israeli Defense Forces. That letter, published during the 11-day war between Israel and Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip this spring, was followed by similar statements from employees at Amazon and Apple.

At Google, who gets to speak for the Jews?

Pro-Israel Jewish employees had already been raising questions about how Google addressed antisemitism, and the company’s nonresponse to the May letter further infuriated them. They had also complained of bullying after an employee posted anti-Zionist reading material on internal message boards.

During the racial-justice protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, Google’s donation to the Movement for Black Lives, which had been harshly critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, angered some Jewglers members. Four of them, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their employer, described a debate over Israel and antisemitism that has roiled the Jewish community at the company ever since.

Google has addressed neither the letters nor employee complaints about them, and instructed employees to not talk to the press. Several employees reached for this story declined to comment even anonymously. One likened Google’s surveillance of its 140,000 employees to Communist Russia.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment.

A million-dollar dispute

Though the Jewglers group forbids political discussion, it does serve a diplomatic purpose within the company, representing the Jewish voice both to other workers and to company management. The group successfully lobbied for kosher food in the cafeteria, for example, and when Google scheduled a company-wide meeting on a Jewish holiday, unsuccessfully sought a reschedule. More recently, the administrators of the group sent a message expressing Jewglers’ solidarity to the Muslim employee group, “Muslim@Google,” regarding China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims.

But when Google announced a $1 million donation to the Movement for Black Lives — part of a $175 million commitment to Black causes following Floyd’s murder — Jewglers protested. The Movement for Black Lives’ 2016 charter had called the United States “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” and referred to the security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank as a “U.S.-backed apartheid wall.”

The Jewglers said this violated the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which the group had officially adopted. At least one member called the genocide claim a “modern-day blood libel.” Others noted that while antisemitic violence was rising in the United States and around the world, Google had never made a company-wide statement supporting Jewish staff, let alone a large financial investment in groups fighting antisemitism. The group asked that Google replace the Movement for Black Lives with another racial equity nonprofit.

Google went through with the donation as planned. Months later, it agreed to donate $100,000 to each of four nonprofits fighting antisemitism selected by Jewglers — on the condition that the donations would not be publicized. One Jewgler characterized this as “throwing us a bone.”

At Google, who gets to speak for the Jews?

Jews against Jewglers

But a small contingent of anti-Zionist Jewglers opposed the donations, which went to the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, an Israeli nonprofit called Fighting Online Antisemitism and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

They noted that the co-founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is Rabbi Marvin Hier, who supported former President Donald Trump’s controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And like the Wiesenthal Center, the ADL has been accused by progressive groups of weaponizing antisemitism to defend Israeli policy. The contingent formed an unofficial breakaway employee group, Jewish Diaspora Solidarity, which Ariel Koren, one of the group’s founders, said now has more than 400 members.

Koren said that while Jewglers administrators enforced a ban on political speech when it came to criticizing Israel, pro-Israel messaging on the listserv was routinely tolerated. Still, she said, no one was looking to form an alternative to Jewglers until it seemed necessary.

“If it was really just about dialogue or conversation, I don’t think we would have written the letter or formed the group,” said Koren, a product marketing manager, who said she also supported the Movement for Black Lives donation. But employee groups “also create a sort of moral authority in terms of speaking for an entire community,” she said, “so if you’re an executive, you’ll turn to the pulse of that community when you’re making decisions.” That’s why, she added, “we needed the alternate space that represents young Jewish Americans in a more accurate way.” (Koren later clarified that the group also has older and international members.)

At Google, who gets to speak for the Jews?

The May violence that engulfed Israel and Gaza was, in many ways, the real breakpoint between the two groups of Jewish Google employees.

The war, and the attendant rise in antisemitic attacks on Jews in the United States, prompted the Jewglers to ask the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team for a solidarity statement similar to one Google had issued months earlier amid a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Group members pointed out that Google had an office in Tel Aviv, where workers were ducking into bomb shelters several times a day as sirens warned of rockets incoming from Gaza, and that American Jews had been attacked while eating in restaurants and walking to synagogue.

Meanwhile, the breakaway group was imploring Google to respond to the suffering on both sides of the conflict.

“We as Jews do not endorse the views of those who have written to you seeking to garner support for exclusively pro-Israel and pro-Zionist actions,” read a letter titled “Jewish Diaspora in Tech,” which the tech publication The Verge made public

on May 18. It identified the approximately 600 signers as “a coalition of diverse Jewish and allied Googlers concerned about the internal dialogue” around the crisis, and called on workers at other tech companies to add their names.

The letter listed five demands: center Palestinian voices at Google; fund Palestinian and Israeli relief equally; issue a companywide statement recognizing the conflict that includes “direct recognition of the harm done to Palestinians by Israeli military and gang violence;” and protect anti-Zionist speech at Google. The letter also called on Google to terminate contracts with institutions “that support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, such as the Israeli Defense Forces.”

Some Jewglers recoiled, calling the letter antisemitic and demanding a company investigation of the people who released it to the public.

An escalating conflict

Two days after the Jewish Diaspora letter went public, The Verge reported that members of the Apple Muslim Association had collected 1,000 signatures on a letter asking the company for a statement acknowledging the suffering of Palestinians; the next week, hundreds of workers at Amazon, Google’s partner on the cloud-computing contract, signed a letter echoing some of the demands of the Jewish Diaspora letter.

Neither Amazon nor Apple responded publicly to its employees’ open letter.

In a statement to the Forward, an Amazon spokesperson said, Amazon Web Services “is focused on making the benefits of our world-leading cloud technology available to all our customers, wherever they are located.”

Apple declined to comment.

Back at Google, internal message boards were aflame. One employee said a colleague posted the writings of Norman Finkelstein, a prominent critic of Israel, and that the diversity team ordered that stopped.

Some Jewglers were bitter that, given their group’s statement supporting the Uighurs, the Muslim employee group had not said anything about the rising antisemitism in the U.S. They also said that simple suggestions they made to management about condemning antisemitism were ignored, including a refusal to share a link to a public Anti-Defamation League event.

“I’m not particularly proud to work at Google over the past week and a half,” one member of Jewglers said in an interview at the time. “Antisemitism is not a political issue. It’s a Jewish issue.”

Then, in June, the conservative Washington Free Beacon surfaced a 2007 blog in which Kamau Bobb, who had since become Google’s head of diversity strategy, had said that Jews have “an insatiable appetite for war.” Google removed Bobb from his role but did not fire him from the company.

At Google, who gets to speak for the Jews?

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had been one of Google’s four antisemitism grantees the summer before, launched an ad campaign condemning Bobb’s continued employment as a “clear message that Google embraces a double standard in which antisemitism is less offensive and less worthy of opprobrium than other forms of hate.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said the organization was grateful for Google’s donation but was concerned about the company’s policies.

“If you’re a firefighter, and you get two magnificent firetrucks, and one of those little planes that drop stuff, that’s a wonderful donation,” he said by way of analogy. “But if the same source is helping to start fires all over, do you say is that enough? Hell no, that’s not enough.”

A dark cloud over Israel?

The letter the Jewish Diaspora group released earlier this month was more pointed than its predecessor; this time, Google employees were specifically protesting their company’s involvement in a business deal with Israel, known as Project Nimbus.

The project provides cloud services — file storage on the internet, rather than in on-site servers — to host and deliver information for government ministries and other public entities. As co-winners of the contract, Amazon is building three data centers in the country and Google is building one reported to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Koren, the Diaspora group member, said that because the contract did not give Google control over which Israeli agency uses the product or for what purpose, it would likely be used by the military and other departments, including the Israel Land Authority, in ways the group found problematic. The technology “allows for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians,” the letter said, “and facilitates expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.”

“Imagine being a Palestinian worker at this company,” Koren said in an interview, “being told that you can’t know what’s going into this contract, and knowing that the product is going to be used against your family.”

The day after the letter was released, Google.org — the company’s charitable arm — announced a €5 million (about $5.8 million) commitment to combat online antisemitism through monetary grants and in-kind ad donations on YouTube, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the conglomerate that holds Google.

In a post shared with all Google employees, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who is Jewish, wrote, “With the persistence of antisemitic sentiment around the globe, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to make YouTube a better platform for the many communities who use it every day. This is a priority shared by not only me, but also Sundar and Google’s entire leadership team,” referring to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Koren said that more than 600 Google workers had signed the letter as of Oct. 22, and that the Jewish Diaspora group, which is open to all, was growing. Its FAQ originally defined the group as “anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist, anti-Zionist Jews and allies.” But Gabriel Schubiner, a Google software engineer who co-wrote an OpEd for NBC News protesting Project Nimbus, said not everyone in the Diaspora employees group shares all those values. The FAQ introduction was later changed to “We are Jews and allies who honor our Jewish anti-colonialist traditions.”

Both he and Koren demurred when asked for the group’s position on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re a group of employees — we’re not trying to solve the conflict,” Schubiner said. “We’re trying to understand the relationship between technology and the conflict, and trying to mitigate the impact on human rights and human suffering that increased technology could bring.”

Author

Louis Keene

Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.

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