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The Tech Employees Who Want to Sever Silicon Valley’s Deep Ties With Israel

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Several people hold up a blue banner with a Google icon over an eye that reads "No Tech for Apartheid."
People hold up a banner that reads "No Tech for Apartheid" during a protest outside of Google's Gradient Canopy building in Mountain View on May 14, 2024. (Joseph Geha/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Last week, protesters blocked the entrance of Google’s largest development conference in Mountain View to protest the tech giant’s ties with the Israeli government.

At issue is Project Nimbus, Google and Amazon’s $1.2 billion cloud computing contract with the Israeli government, including the Israeli Defense Ministry. But as KQED’s Rachael Myrow explains, Silicon Valley’s ties to Israel run much deeper — which makes divesting a tall order.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Last week, protesters blocked the entrance of Google’s largest developer conference in Mountain View, demanding the company divest from contracts with the Israeli government as it continues its siege on Gaza.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: At issue is Google and Amazon’s Project Nimbus, the tech giant’s cloud computing contract that services the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Protesters included current and former Google employees under the name No Tech for apartheid.

Hasan Ibraheem: We are Google workers inside Google who have had enough of this. We do not want this contract to exist, and we do not want our labor to go towards aiding a genocide.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, we’ll look into the deep ties between Israel and Silicon Valley and the tech workers hoping to sever them.

Rachael Myrow: The ties run broad and deep, and they have since the 1970s. Across a wide range of technologies.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Rachael Myrow is senior editor of KQED Silicon Valley desk. How have you seen tech workers in Silicon Valley begin to organize against the tech industries ties to Israel?

Rachael Myrow: Well, it started on internal slack channels inside affinity groups that were in many cases, already issuing complaints to company management of feeling unheard or less seen than their Jewish or Israeli counterparts, or even retaliated against.

Rachael Myrow: But of course, the organizing took off after Israel invaded Gaza on October 27th. And that’s when you started to see groups like No Tech for apartheid making a bigger noise.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know you spoke to someone who began organizing with no tech for apartheid. Can you introduce me to Hasan Ibraheem? Who is he and how long has he been working in tech?

Rachael Myrow: The first thing you should know about Hasan is that he’s 23 years old. So, by his own admission, not that long out of college, his first job out of college at Google.

Hasan Ibraheem: I worked on sort of like ads infrastructure. I do mainly like backend server work.

Rachael Myrow: He’s there about a year and a half before this whole thing began with Israel and Gaza. So Hasan starts to get involved, with no tech for apartheid as the situation in Gaza escalates.

Hasan Ibraheem: We don’t expect that any one of our actions is going to cause these companies to suddenly pull out of the deals that they have with Israel, but we hope that with each action that we do, we inspire more tech workers to speak out.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what kinds of actions was he organizing exactly or helping to organize?

Rachael Myrow: Well, we know about him because he was involved in one of the sit ins that no tech for apartheid, staged recently in three different cities Sunnyvale, Seattle and New York. So he was involved in the New York sit in.

Rachael Myrow: Calling for an end to Project Nimbus, which is this $1.2 billion cloud services contract with the Israeli government, including the Ministry of Defense. So, the Israeli Finance Ministry described Project Nimbus as intended to provide the government, the defense establishment and others with an all encompassing cloud solution.

Rachael Myrow: There’s some highly disturbing reporting about the way that the Israeli Ministry of Defense is using artificial intelligence software to choose bombing targets in Gaza, which I should say has not been directly tied to Google or Amazon software per se, or Project Nimbus per se. But for the people in no tech for a part time, the smell of smoke suggests there could be fire somewhere in there.

Hasan Ibraheem: So the original contract was made in 2021. It was between Google, Amazon and Israel, and at the time no one could see the actual contract, but no one had the contract in hand to be like, yes, this contract is between the Israeli military and Google and Amazon until time magazine actually had a hold of it.

Rachael Myrow: No tech for apartheid is insisting that Amazon and Google here again, quote, stop doing business with Israeli apartheid and powering the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and following in the footsteps of those who fought to divest from apartheid South Africa.

Rachael Myrow: And one. It’s our responsibility to rise up in support of Palestinian freedom. The Amazon and Google execs who signed this contract can still choose to be on the right side of history.

Hasan Ibraheem: Google workers inside Google who have had enough of this. We do not want this contract to exist, and we do not want our labor to go towards aiding a genocide.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Rachel, you reported on this story about why some of these demands by tech workers, these demands to divest from military contracts like this with Israel, why? That is such a tall order. Why is it a tall order?

Rachael Myrow: To be frank about it. Money.

Guy Horowitz: And that’s because of what’s going on in Israel, not despite of what’s going on in Israel.

Rachael Myrow: So Guy Horowitz is Israeli. He’s been living in Palo Alto for the past six years, but he’s been a venture capitalist for the last 20.

Guy Horowitz: The essence of Silicon Valley, combining talent with technology and money. I think that’s the very basis of the Israeli Startup nation ethos.

Rachael Myrow: The two economies are joined at the hip by just about any business metric you can think of. How many Silicon Valley giants have purchased Israeli startups, how many Israeli startups have offices or even headquarters here? How many Israelis work here in the Bay area? How many Israelis are employed by Silicon Valley companies in Israel?

Guy Horowitz: So Israel wouldn’t be startup nation without Silicon Valley. But at the same token, it’s hard. To imagine Silicon Valley without Israel.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What are some examples, Rachel, of the investments. Silicon Valley has in Israel right now?

Rachael Myrow: So you have a ways, the satellite navigation software company that Google bought that for $1.3 billion in 2013. Nvidia, based in Santa Clara, California, bought Mellanox for about $7 billion roughly in 2019. And they recently announced plans to buy two more Israeli companies focused on AI. Intel, which is Israel’s largest private employer.

Rachael Myrow: I mean, just sit with that fact for a moment. Largest private employer in Israel. That’s Intel, which is based over here. So, they bought, Mobileye, the autonomous driving company, for $15 billion in 2017. They’ve they’ve got, plans for a major semiconductor manufacturing facility in Israel, according to the United States Israel Business Alliance.

Rachael Myrow: California now serves as the global or U.S. headquarters for 35 Israeli founded unicorns. That’s Silicon Valley parlance for privately held companies valued at $1 billion or more. And those are just the big startups. There are hundreds of smaller startups as well.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, how long has this relationship been going on?

Rachael Myrow: Some economists say things really heated up in the 1990s. But most agree this really dates back to the 1970s, when U.S. companies, in particular, began to notice Israel’s tech and science universities.

Guy Horowitz: It became evident that Israel was developing for its own needs, technologies that were relevant for Silicon Valley and that came from military sources as well as from the research institutions that were kind of working, in tandem with them.

Rachael Myrow: Technion, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. And they started to notice some intriguing developments in things like agtech and biotech.

Rachael Myrow: The Intel 8088, the chip which Intel credits with launching it into the fortune 500. The list is long. And, you know, he acknowledges or even both says, as many Israeli investors do, that it’s all deeply tied with, Israel’s military culture.

Guy Horowitz: The deeper Israelis engage in conflict, then unfortunately, Israel has been in conflict for the past 76 years even more. The more value would be driven for. Israel on the economic side and for Silicon Valley as a counterpart.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, that said, this actually isn’t the first time that tech and Google employees have lobbied against military related contracts, right?

Rachael Myrow: I’m glad that you brought that up because that is the case. They’ve been successful in the past, right? Google employees have successfully lobbied to cancel military related contracts like Project Maven with the Pentagon and Project Dragonfly, which was a proposed version of Google search that would have allowed the Chinese government to censor and monitor users within China.

Rachael Myrow: So those are those are two examples where employees internally pressured the leadership to take a different direction. But but I think I should add something from my reporting, Ericka, which is that when it comes to company contracts, labor law, U.S. labor law firmly comes down on the side of the company.

Rachael Myrow: The leadership has the legal right to decide the direction a company takes, with or without the approval of individual employees. So labor attorneys I talked to said, you know, if you don’t like it, you can attempt to pressure the company or leave.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah. I think you’re you’re kind of heading towards where I want to go next, Rachel, which is to the Google employees behind no tech for a part. I mean, you know, we have seen universities recently hired to the demands by student protesters to divest from Israel. But I guess, is it realistic to think that tech would do that

Rachael Myrow: After the reporting for this story? I would argue it’s unlikely.

Guy Horowitz: So in a nutshell, I think it’s going to be a nonproductive effort, maybe even counterproductive effort.

Rachael Myrow: Guy and other people like him that I’ve talked to, they don’t seem to be worried about divestment, at least from tech in the slightest. Ericka. And I don’t mean to suggest that these guys are the kind of people who don’t worry. They definitely worry about a lot of things, but not divestment.

Guy Horowitz: So whoever is saying divestment is a way to make Israel, reconsider its political or geopolitical stance on Palestine or whatever. But hey, the deeper the conflict is and the longer it goes would actually make Israel a more lucrative place to do business with for the next 20, 30 years.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: At the end of the day, Rachel, we are talking about private companies for whom profit is king. How does Hasan respond to this? Why protest anyway?

Rachael Myrow: I think for Hasan, this is this is a moral issue. He sees a direct line from what’s happening right now in Gaza to write the corporate balance sheets of of Silicon Valley.

Hasan Ibraheem: I would not be disappointed to stop working for a company that has an active, contract with the Israeli military.

Rachael Myrow: I think he feels powerfully, you know, not not in a egocentric or a naive way, that he’s in a very special position as somebody who works in tech. To call out what’s upsetting him.

Hasan Ibraheem: We will continue to make noise about this. We will continue to make our voices heard. We will continue to educate our colleagues about what’s going on. And we’ll. Yeah, we’ll continue standing up for Palestine.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What happened to Hasan and others who took part in those actions against Google that we were just talking about?

Rachael Myrow: You know, in Hasan’s case, he says he and the fellow protesters in New York were about seven hours into their sit in when they were informed they’d been put on administrative leave, and then their badge access was taken away. Their corporate device is taken away.

Hasan Ibraheem: 9:30 p.m. almost ten hours in, the police arrived. So then the very calmly arrested us and escorted out of the building.

Rachael Myrow: About 24 hours later, he gets an email telling him he was terminated immediately.

Hasan Ibraheem: And then the following Monday was when the rest of the 50 people were also fired.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So what’s next for him, Rachel? I mean, has this experience changed the way that he feels about being in the tech industry?

Rachael Myrow: Well, you know, he’s, he’s been spending a little time, regrouping with family. But he’s he’s back in it, back in, you know, the protests. He’s participating. He’s energized for the fight ahead.

Hasan Ibraheem: I’m going to continue on doing that. Going to look at what opportunities there are in terms of my next job, because obviously I’m gonna need a job at some point. But I’m going to be a lot more conscious when it comes to actually choosing what company I work for.

Rachael Myrow: I’ll tell you, I, I think I don’t want to speak for Hasan, but I think he recognizes that his problems with Google and its corporate sensibilities extend to other big tech companies. So he told me he might work for maybe a smaller tech firm, without these, you know, multinational contracts or or a nonprofit maybe that needs a software engineer. He’s got options.

Hasan Ibraheem: I want to make sure that my labor is actually going towards something I support.

Rachael Myrow: We’re at a kind of an inflection moment. You know, it is a world where we’re asking, what kind of world do we want to live in, and how do we use or not use technology to help us get there?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Rachel, thank you so much.

Rachael Myrow: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Rachael Myrow, senior editor of KQED Silicon Valley desk. This 35 minute conversation with Rachael was cut down and edited by me. Maria Esquinca is our producer. She scored this episode and added all the tape. Our senior editor is Alan Montecillo.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Thanks as well to KQED reporter Joseph Geha for the protest tape you heard at the top of this episode. Music courtesy of the Audio Network. We are a production of listener supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next time.

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