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Tech Workers in the U.S. Speak Out at Their Workplaces in Solidarity with Palestine

For the first time, workers at three big tech companies based in the U.S. released open letters to management in solidarity with Palestinian struggle. Workers are also speaking out against the relationship between the tech industry and the Israeli government.

Rose Lemlich

May 28, 2021
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Image: Beth LaBerge/KQED

For the first time, tech workers at three major tech companies in the United States have taken public direct action to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against apartheid. Workers at Google, Apple, and Amazon have released open letters calling on management to publicly acknowledge the illegal occupation and human rights abuses by the Israeli government, support their Palestinian workers and the rights of their workers to speak freely about Palestine in the workplace, and (in some cases), review business contracts with the Israeli governement. These actions, at companies with little presence or history of organized labor (save the notable exception of the very nascent Alphabet Workers Union), came after eleven days of bombings and arrests by the IDF in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as street violence against Palestinians by extremist Israeli civilians. 

On May 18th, Google workers from an organization called Jewish Diaspora in Tech circulated a petition calling on the management of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to review all contracts with and donations to “Institutions that support Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, such as the Israeli Defense Forces,” as well as to listen to Palestinian workers’ demands, donate funds to Palestinian relief organizations, and recognize, “The harm done to Palestinians by Israeli military and gang violence.” On May 20th, workers in the Apple Muslim Association (a group of Muslim workers at Apple) circulated a similar letter internally at the company, demanding Apple’s management publicly recognize the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel, as well as affirm the importance of language around the occupation (demanding that management not use the terms “conflict,” “clash,” or “both sides”). On May 25th, workers at Amazon released a similar letter. Collectively, the petitions have gathered several thousand signatures. 

This particular moment is leading to an increase in activism from within the tech industry in part because of increased awareness of the occupation and support for Palestinians globally. “This time for me has been different than all the previous intifadas,” a Palestinian Amazon software engineer (who wished to remain anonymous) told Left Voice. “Where there wasn’t as much social media coverage to help show the other side of the story. Before, one side was always more dominant in the media and was kind of controlling the narrative.” A Palestinian hardware engineer at Amazon (who also wished to remain anonymous) agreed, saying “we hope that our message will also be carried into other tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, because those two companies control the content that is shared on their websites, especially when it comes to the Palestinian narrative.” 

The Amazon software engineer, who grew up in the West Bank, said that sharing that narrative more widely in these workplaces is a high priority for these tech workers, who feel a lot of pressure to not discuss the Palestinian struggle in the workplace. “One thing we are asking for, working at Amazon, is to normalize talking about the Palestinian cause and Palestinian human rights and the sufferings that Palestinians go through back home,” he said. “It’s polarized. You might not get shut down, but it’s preferred not to talk about it, let alone going the extra mile and trying to organize a Palestinian event at Amazon where you talk about your culture and have people wearing Keffiyehs.” And being able to talk about the experiences of Palestinians under occupation is the first step, he believes, to organizing to end it. He believes there has to be an understanding of what’s happening on the ground — that we cannot ignore the history behind the occupation if we want justice to be done. “Peace should be established on justice,” he said. “And once this is established for everyone, and everyone understands the real issues, then we can talk and we can do things that would guarantee a better future for everyone.”

Ariel Koren, an organizer with Jewish Diaspora in Tech, told me that her group had formed in the summer of 2020 following an enormous amount of pressure internally in the Jewish employee resource group (an employee organization set up by management) at Google to not express anti-zionist views. Koren had posted links from the Movement for Black Lives in the group’s listserv that included statements of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and she was all but censured for it. “This would be less concerning,” she said, “If it weren’t for the fact that the institutionalization of zionist, pro-occupation views has had actual economic and funding implications.” 

Those economic implications include a $1.2 billion contract for cloud computing services that Google and Amazon secured with the Israeli government last month. The United States sends $3.8 billion of taxpayer money in aid to the Israeli government each year. The Israeli government then turns around and sends billions of dollars of that money back to American companies who, in turn, provide the Israeli government with weapons, cloud computing services, and software that the Isareli military uses to improve their security and surveillance technology. The Israeli military tests that technology out on Palestinians, sells it back to the United States, and trains ICE and U.S. police forces on how to use it. 

Workers at these tech companies are increasingly speaking out about the connections between their everyday work in the tech industry and the use of the tools they build, especially by capitalist states, to repress the working class and oppressed around the world. Gabriel Schubiner, another organizer with Jewish Diaspora in Tech, said “I’ve seen how Israel, and the media speaking on Israel’s behalf, use both technology and academia as a form of political tech-washing that seeks to validate Israel as a progressive, Western-style capitalist democracy, in opposition to how Palestine and the Arab world are portrayed. I’ve also seen that there are deep engagements between the technology sector and the military industrial complex, and that technology sector is very much being weaponized.” A Muslim Amazon worker in a finance role (who wished to remain anonymous) said that similar conversations have been ongoing at her workplace, too. “Engineers have kind of had side conversations in different groups, like kind of asking each other, ‘What do you do if you’re asked to work on something like this?’ Or, you know, kind of asking each other, ‘Do you tell your managers that I won’t work on anything that’s relating to Israel or to “X”, whatever situation or cause or government?’” Schubiner put it more bluntly: “I don’t want my labor to be involved in militarizing the world and causing death and destruction,” they told me, “Like, it’s a very basic principle.” 

The workers in Jewish Diaspora in Tech put together their letter to show solidarity and welcome both Jewish and non-Jewish coworkers into conversations about the occupation, while forcefully rejecting zionist talking points that equate anti-zionism with antisemitism. “It’s really empowering to see that we’re finally able to talk openly about the consequences of the false conflation of anti-zionism and antisemitism in the workplace.” Koren said. She emphasized that it is important for Jewish workers in the tech industry to use their voices to amplify the Palestinian struggle. “Many Jews are speaking out now because they are tired of being spoken for by a vocal and pretty extremist minority that doesn’t represent them. We understand that as Jews, we have have a certain amount of privilege in this conversation, that our Palestinian colleagues in many cases are not afforded.” Those actions of solidarity have been noticed, as the Amazon finance worker stated, “A lot of the efforts that started here were a group of either Muslims or Arabs, or more specifically Palestinians. And we felt that it was very important that there was a broader voice behind this, because we feel like oftentimes it’s just ourselves pushing for something. And that’s why we thought that it was so great to see that the letter that came out from Google employees was from a Jewish diaspora group.

Garnering further support beyond the few thousand workers already involved in this organizing effort may be an uphill battle. Not only are zionist voices within these companies already loud, but the workforce in the tech industry in the U.S. is notorious for practices that stop workers from organizing among themselves. “There was a pretty common refrain from people, I think broadly at Google, but specifically within the Jewish ERG,” Schubiner said, “Where people who took issue with our letter felt, like, ‘Why are you trying to bring politics into our workplace? Why are you trying to make this political? Can we just, like, show up here and work?’ When you work at a tech company like Google, it’s easy to feel like, yeah, this is just my job. This is where I work. I go here and I tap on a computer every day and I’m in my little zone and it’s easy to forget that Google is one of the dominant centers of power in the world right now.” The growing understanding of the strategic placement of tech workers in both the global economy (central to communications, social media, banking, education, medicine, and more) and in the power of police states the world over is a major part of growing organizing efforts all over the tech sector. “I think there’s a broad perception,” Schubiner said, “That our work is separate from politics, but it never has been. All of the work that you’re doing deeply affects the world and I feel like more and more tech workers are learning to appreciate their work through an ethical and moral lens.” 

The Amazon finance worker agreed: “If we feel that something that the company is doing is wrong, we should not be complicit in that. And we should speak out and organize to the best of our abilities.” She continued, “I think that we’ve seen a very powerful tool in many instances in history was to say: I’m not going to do this, until you make a change. Even in Palestine,” referring to the recent day-long general strike by Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, from which tech workers may gather inspiration for future actions. She continued, “At the end of the day, we really are the ones that are making the money for the company. And we can decide that we won’t do what we’re supposed to do every single day. And that’s the most, I think, powerful pressure that workers collectively can have.”

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