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'Complicit in Apartheid': Google workers speak out against Israel contract

Google workers Ariel Koren and Gabriel Schubiner spoke to MEMO while still employed by the company, criticising the technology giant’s ‘unethical business practices’ regarding military contracts with Israel and the treatment of Palestinian employees 

September 8, 2022 at 11:44 am

Ariel Koren, who has left Google since she spoke to MEMO having handed in her resignation at the end of August, was a marketing manager that worked for Alphabet (Google’s parent company) for seven years. For over a year, Ariel had been mobilising workers to speak out against Project Nimbus – a $1.2 billion contract between Google, Amazon and the Israeli government and military – until her bosses effectively forced her out the company this summer.

After a period of disability leave, Ariel says she returned to work to be given an impossible choice – either move to Sao Paulo from her home in San Francisco in 17 days, or lose her job. Ariel chose to resign.

“Throughout my time at the company, I’ve seen the immense increase of the company’s efforts to stifle any worker organising efforts…Google has retaliated against workers who speak out, in some cases firing workers.”

“When I started, I was told Google has a deep commitment to access to information, and we would have access to all sorts of information about the company. But now Google is creating all sorts of barriers to workers finding out what’s going on, and I think one of the biggest reasons for that is Google’s aggressive pursuit of military contracts.”

Gabriel Schubiner , a researcher at Google and member of the Alphabet Workers Union, was working with Ariel to petition colleagues and lobby executives within Google to scrap Project Nimbus, which they say will provide the Israeli military with powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that aid with settlement expansion, surveillance and enforcing the brutal occupation of Palestine.

Documents leaked to the Intercept show that the Israeli Land Authority, which has been facilitating illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West bank, will be a beneficiary of Nimbus. Transcripts from training sessions held by Google for Israeli officials provided Ariel and Gabriel with a first glimpse into what services Google would actually be providing to the Israeli state.

“One of the Israeli officials asked if it would be possible to create a lie detector test with AI. You could in theory train a model that pretends to be a lie detector but experts agree this idea is basically sci-fi, and it wouldn’t be able to detect lies with any accuracy. But the Google worker taking the training session didn’t really explain this, and so that idea could be used to justify actions against Palestinians and justify further oppression,” Gabriel said.

A previous organising effort by Google workers saw the company drop its contract with the Pentagon to create AI tools to improve their drone warfare capabilities. But when workers started to organise against Nimbus, Ariel says the executives within Google moved quickly to silence them, accusing their motives of being anti-Semitic, despite Ariel and Gabriel both being Jewish.

“A vocal minority within the company, in many cases executives, were complicit in this weaponisation of false narratives of anti-Semitism in order to insulate the company from criticism of its complicity in Israeli apartheid,” Ariel said.

“Over the course of the past week, there’s been a mass mobilisation within Google to normalise speaking out for Palestinian rights and to normalise the idea that Palestinian workers should be able to come and bring their identity to work.”

For Palestinian workers at Google, being part of a company that is creating technology to aid Israel’s occupation has taken its toll, with one anonymous worker remarking: “I feel like I’m making my living off the oppression of my family back home.”

Ariel and Gabriel collected testimonies from Palestinian workers that felt too theatened to speak out, and they reported harrassment and HR warnings for wearing traditional Palestinian clothing to work, or for voicing opinions about Project Nimbus. And for Ariel, it was on behalf of these workers, who were in less privileged positions than herself, that she decided she had to speak out.

Gabriel and I decided to exercise the immense privilege that we hold as Jewish workers within the company. We decided to speak out because the company is denying our Palestinian coworkers, the basic right to feel safe bringing their identities to work and speaking out.

After going public, the two Google workers have been joined by five other employees, and together they organised ‘No Tech for Israeli Apartheid’ protests in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Seattle and New York, yesterday where hundreds of other tech workers waved Palestinian fags and chanted “Google, Google, you can’t hide, we can see your apartheid side”. Ariel hopes these actions will encourage even more workers to speak out, and that Google “will do the right thing and drop project Nimbus.”

“We are calling on Google to do the right thing. You have received our emails. You have received our petitions. You owe us an answer. You owe the general public an answer. You owe your Palestinian workers an answer. Everyone deserves better than this.”

READ: Google, Amazon employees to protest $1.2bn deal with Israel