Company bosses and workers grapple with the fallout of speaking up about the Israel-Hamas war

Oct 21, 2023, 4:19 AM | Updated: 11:40 am

NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks accused a union representing thousands of its baristas of damaging the brand and endangering co-workers with a pro-Palestinian tweet. The CEO of a prominent tech conference resigned amid backlash for his public statements suggesting that Israel was committing war crimes. Company bosses vowed never to hire members of a university’s student groups that condemned Israel.

Meanwhile, Islamic rights advocates say much of the corporate response has minimized the suffering in Gaza, where thousands have died in Israeli airstrikes, and created an atmosphere of fear for workers who want to express support for Palestinians. Jewish groups have criticized tepid responses or slow reactions to the Oct. 7 Hamas rampage that killed 1,400 people in Israel and triggered the latest war.

The fallout from the Israel-Hamas war has spilled into workplaces everywhere, as top leaders of prominent companies weigh in with their views while workers complain their voices are not being heard. People from all ranks have been called out for speaking too forcefully — or not forcefully enough — making it nearly impossible to come up with a unifying message when passions run deep on all sides.

Many U.S. corporations have strong ties with Israel, particularly among tech and financial firms that have operations and employees in the country.

Executives at J.P Morgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs, Google and Meta were among dozens who swiftly condemned the Hamas attacks and expressed solidarity with the Israeli people in public statements, social media posts or even corporate earning calls. Many pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and detailed efforts to safeguard employees in Israel.

Some chief executives poured out their personal anguish.

In a LinkedIn post and a letter to employees, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said he has been constantly on the phones with friends and relatives in Israel and expressed his horror at hearing of “civilians of all ages targeted and killed in cold blood, hostages taken and tortured.” He implored employees to check on each other and said Pfizer launched a humanitarian relief campaign.

“It is not enough to condemn these actions — we ourselves must take action,” Bourla wrote.

Backlash against opposing views has been swift, including responses to a tweet from Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave suggesting Israel was committing war crimes.

“I’ll never attend/sponsor/speak at any of your events again,” former Facebook executive David Marcus stated on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Faced with a growing boycott to next month’s Web Summit, a prominent European gathering of thousands of tech leaders, Cosgrave resigned Saturday, saying that his “personal comments have become a distraction from the event, and our team, our sponsors, our startups and the people who attend.”

His resignation came a few days after he released a long message denouncing the Hamas attacks and apologizing for the timing of his initial tweet while defending his overall views on the conflict. But companies continued withdrawing from the conference, including Google, Meta, German tech conglomerate Siemens, and U.S. chipmaker Intel.

Jonathan Neman, CEO of restaurant chain Sweetgreen, was among several company leaders who vowed never to hire Harvard students who belonged to groups that cosigned a statement blaming Israel for the violence.

The international law firm Winston & Strawn rescinded a job offer to a New York University student who wrote a message in the Student Bar Association bulletin saying Israel was entirely to blame for the bloodshed.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Islamic civil rights group, denounced the backlash against the students and statements from U.S. corporate leaders that “lack any meaningful display of sympathy toward Palestinian civilians.”

Those reactions combined, the organization said, are leaving “Palestinians and those in support of Palestinian human rights isolated at their place of work and fearful of possible consequences” for discussing how the conflict has affected them.

Isra Abuhasna, a data scientist in the Chicago area, was among several professionals who expressed similar thoughts on social media, saying in a LinkedIn post that she was “risking her entire career” by expressing her views on the conflict.

Abuhasna, a Palestinian American who has worked for a real estate firm and other companies but recently took a break to stay home with her two young children, said she fears her posts will make it difficult to find a new position. But she said her parents raised her to be proud and vocal about the Palestinian cause.

“It’s my identity,” Abuhasna said. “What good am I in my job if I compromise my own morals and ethics?”

One of the biggest disputes erupted at Starbucks after Starbucks Workers United, a union representing 9,000 workers at more than 360 U.S. stores, tweeted “Solidarity with Palestine” two days after the Hamas attack. The tweet was taken down within 40 minutes, but the company said it led to more than 1,000 complaints, acts of vandalism and angry confrontations in its stores.

Starbucks filed a lawsuit to stop Starbucks Workers United from using its name and a similar logo. Workers United, the parent union of Starbucks Workers United, responded with its own lawsuit saying Starbucks defamed the union by implying it supports terrorism. It wants to continue using the company name.

Starbucks Workers United tweeted a longer message on Friday denouncing Israel’s “occupation” and “threats of genocide Palestinians face” while also condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Angela Berg, founder of workplace consultancy firm Perelaks, said companies with strong opinions about the war should express them, but “the critical thing is that they acknowledge the existence of the experience of the other side.” Those trying to stay on the sidelines, Berg said, need to explain their reasons to employees.

As the humanitarian catastrophe deepened in Gaza, more company leaders addressed the situation, including Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, who said the company was splitting a $3 million donation between the Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency services and the Palestinian Red Crescent.

But companies that have kept a low profile have gotten pushback.

Allison Grinberg-Funes, who is Jewish, wrote in a LinkedIn post that she was disappointed by the failure of her colleagues to reach out immediately after the Hamas attacks.

While they eventually reached out, Grinberg-Funes said in an interview with The Associated Press that she remains disappointed her employer, Liberty Mutual, didn’t publicly condemn the attacks.

The Boston-based content designer for the insurance company said the silence is part of a wider “lack of support” for the Jewish community that she and her friends have observed in the workplace.

“We want to know that our lives matter as much as the other employees that have been shown support,” said Grinberg-Funes, 33, who has family and friends in Israel.

Liberty Mutual did not respond to a request for comment.


Associated Press Business Writer Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story.

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Company bosses and workers grapple with the fallout of speaking up about the Israel-Hamas war