Mondoweiss / December 8, 2021
Software engineers at Google and Amazon have objected to providing services to the Israeli government because of the harm it would bring to Palestinians, yet these companies are already contributing to Israel’s colonial project in many ways.
In October, software engineers at Google and Amazon wrote an anonymous open letter objecting to Project Nimbus – a $1.2 billion contract that would provide these companies’ services to the Israeli state – because of the harm it would bring to Palestinians. The letter also called for a rejection of “future contracts that will harm our users,” including contracts with “any and all militarized organizations in the US and beyond.”
Yet these companies’ complicity with Israel – rooted in their commitment to US empire – goes far beyond direct contracts with the Israeli state. US computing companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook contribute to Israel’s colonial project through multiple avenues.
I have previously examined Microsoft’s commitments to Israel, and I now turn to Google’s.
Google invests in and acquires Israeli startup companies that were built on efforts to terrorize and dispossess Palestinians. More than a service provider to the Israeli state, Google actively advances Israel’s agenda and promotes Zionist propaganda.
Google also occupies physical space in colonized Palestine, where the company’s existence facilitates further destruction of the land. Google’s products – which in some cases are Israel’s products – even reflect a racist, Zionist view of space.
Google profits from the US-Israeli alliance
It’s no secret that Google is aligned with US empire. The company has serviced the US military and police forces (including ICE). Google has also been a partner to the CIA and FBI, and complicit in the NSA’s mass surveillance program. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, was the founding chair of the Defense Innovation Board, a group of scientists, corporate elites, and government officials that works to ensure the Pentagon has the latest technologies of oppression – technologies that are often co-developed with Israel.
Google opened its first facilities in Israel in 2006. It currently has offices in both Tel Aviv and Haifa, employing over 1600 Israelis, and is planning to build additional facilities in colonized Palestine. In a 2012 visit with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Eric Schmidt declared that the “decision to invest in Israel was one of the best that Google has ever made.” Always courting imperialists, Netanyahu added: “This is Israel – science, sun, and Google.”
Google’s CEO explained one thing the company gets out of the alliance: a trained workforce. “Your people,” Schmidt told Netanyahu, “show up a lot more organized in life” after serving in the Israeli army, which is also where they get their impressive “data analytics capabilities.” Schmidt has since put his money where his mouth is, investing $18 million in 2015 in a “cybersecurity” initiative created by the former chief of Unit 8200 – the Israeli army’s notorious counterinsurgency and surveillance unit. When Schmidt visited Israel the following year, Israeli troops assembled on their base to spell “Google” in his honor.
Israel’s efforts to terrorize, surveil, and displace Palestinians produce technologies that Google feeds on. Google has acquired several Israeli companies emerging from this colonial pipeline, including Waze for $1.1 billion (in 2013), SlickLogin for an undisclosed sum (in 2014), Elastifile for $200 million and Alooma for $150 million (in 2019), among others. Google’s investment wing, Gradient Ventures, meanwhile pours millions of dollars into Israeli companies. All these companies capitalize on the Israeli state’s tools for surveillance and control, which they now sell to the world as “cybersecurity.”
Google also profits from continued theft of Palestinian lands. The company has recently agreed to integrate Google Pay into Bank Leumi – an Israeli bank that is notorious for financing Jewish-only settlements such as Pisgat Zee’v, built on lands confiscated from Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and other Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Bank Leumi has also offered mortgages to Jewish settlers. As the Israeli bank’s customers get more “digital,” Google will profit.
Google, in turn, uses its resources to advance Israel’s agenda and disseminate Zionist propaganda – while continuing to occupy Palestine.
In 2008, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin visited the Zionist colony known as Israel for the third time. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Brin gushed about Israel’s achievements. “It’s just incredible,” Brin said. “I was generally familiar with the history of Israel, but really seeing… what’s been really accomplished… out of nothing, just dirt.” For Brin, Palestine doesn’t exist, but whatever was there prior to Zionist colonization was “just dirt.” European settlers, as the Zionist myth goes, made the desert bloom.
This racist narrative is reflected in how Google occupies space. Each part of Google’s Tel Aviv headquarters, located in the “Electra” skyscraper, was designed “based on a scene found somewhere in Israel.” In one area, a desert scene; in another, fake orange trees and wooden crates. Here, Google regurgitates the Zionist myth of the Jaffa orange as an “Israeli” product. Palestinians have grown and exported oranges, sometimes in partnership with Jewish growers, for generations prior to Israel’s formation.
Israel appropriated the Jaffa orange and used land stolen in the Nakba to grow and profit from these fruits. Thus, the very design of Google’s headquarters screams Zionism.
This alignment with Zionism comes with material support: Google even reserved one of its skyscraper floors for “Campus TLV,” an initiative created by then Prime Minister Netanyahu through which the company helps Israeli startups flourish.
Google has also served as a general consultant to the Israeli state. This was made clear in Google’s “E-nnovate Israel” project – a kind of precursor to Project Nimbus.
Launched in 2013, E-nnovate Israel’s stated aims were to help Israel increase its GDP and “provide the [Israeli] government with a systematic model for the implementation of information and communication technologies.” The promotional video for the project promises to integrate “internet tools and technologies” into each government wing, including “defense” and “home front defense,” as well as “construction and housing.” The kickoff event for E-nnovate Israel featured Naftali Bennett – current Israeli Prime Minister, then Minister of Economy – infamous for boasting about killing “lots of Arabs.” In his speech, Bennett declared that “if the State of Israel will embrace even some of the innovative principles [presented by Google] that have proven so successful in the private sector, we have a great future ahead of us.”
Google narrates Israel’s future in Zionist terms. Israel isn’t a settler-colonialist regime, but a factory of “innovation” that will benefit everyone (“startup nation”). “Israel,” says Google E-nnovate, “is a nation of independent thinkers whose innovation, creativity, and drive are part of our DNA and collective soul.” This project too repeats the Zionist orange story, explaining that Israel has “progressed from exporting oranges to exporting technologies.”
In Google’s brand of Zionist propaganda, Israel’s “main asset” isn’t the land, labor, or knowledge it has stolen from Palestine’s Indigenous inhabitants, but the Israeli “people, who have the uncanny ability to think creatively and constantly come up with innovative ideas.” These “innovative” ideas made Israel into the largest global exporter of drones, and a supplier of arms and counterinsurgency tactics to oppressive regimes across the world.
Suppressing the resistance
Another way to reaffirm Zionist narratives is to bury the alternatives. Over the years, Google has downranked (to varying degrees) anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist sites on its search results – including CounterPunch, World Socialist Web Site, and Black Agenda Report.
Palestinians have been regularly targeted for both criminalization and censorship on (anti)social media platforms. The Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour was arrested in 2015 and later jailed by Israel for posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist them” on Facebook and Google’s YouTube, while countless Palestinian voices have been expunged from these fascistic platforms. As the Palestinian writer Mariam Barghouti has recently argued, these platforms do more than silence individuals – they are “erasing us [Palestinians] in toto, scrubbing and obscuring the criminal acts by which Israel replaces us with its settlements and settlers, burying us in the abyss of history as a population of ghosts.”
When Google displays the land, Palestinians are indeed treated like ghosts that haunt the landscape – and the settler’s view is again elevated.
Google’s Zionist view of space
Controlling the land is a major aim of settler societies, which is why Israel invests enormous resources into mapping and navigation technologies – tools that also attract companies like Google. As the architect Eyal Weizman has documented, Israel has created detailed 3D computer models of Palestinian areas to facilitate colonization and control. Israel’s war intellectuals have also adopted disturbing spatial metaphors like the idea of “walking through walls” – Israel’s euphemism, lifted from critical theory, for tearing through urban Palestinian homes, which the state put into practice in the West Bank in 2002, during the Second Intifada.
A Palestinian woman who survived the Israeli attacks, identified to a journalist as Aisha, reflected: “You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. Is it possible to even begin to imagine the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight, twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed everywhere, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall?”
Israeli forces, Aisha added, then “blew up the wall and continued to our neighbor’s house.”
Google shares Israel’s ambition to surveil the land – indeed, the earth – and direct all movements from a militarized perspective.
In 2001, Google bought the CIA-sponsored company Keyhole and used the company’s 3D mapping software as the basis for Google Earth. The CIA had used Keyhole’s software during the occupation of Iraq, in the early 2000s, to surveil Iraqi movements, identify targets, and overlay surveillance information (such as intercepted communications) onto geospatial displays. As the US and Israel inflict a similar kind of terror on the people they occupy, Google is there to provide some of the tools.
Google expanded its spatial capabilities by acquiring the Israeli company Waze – which emerged from the Israeli army’s Unit 8200 – for $1.1 billion in 2013. Google not only profits from Waze’s navigation software; it also reproduces the Israeli settler’s perspective imprinted into the technology.
Waze was designed to give an Israeli military-approved view of space. For example, the software doesn’t give directions in the West Bank. After consultation with the Israeli army’s “Judea and Samaria Division” (a Zionist label for the West Bank region), Waze programmed its software to “warn Israeli drivers” when they enter areas populated predominantly by Palestinians (so-called “Area A” in the West Bank) – which Israel portrays as zones of terrorism.
Google Maps similarly gives a Zionist view of the land. For Google Maps, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and the terms “West Bank” and “Gaza” have in the past been replaced with “Israel.” Google Maps has also displayed large swaths of the West Bank as blanks, reminiscent of Google co-founder’s sense that what isn’t Israel is “just dirt.”
As the Palestinian group 7amleh has shown, Google Maps excludes “Palestinian areas that are unrecognized by Israel” but displays Jewish-only settlements, and ignores “all movement restrictions that exist for Palestinians, such as checkpoints and restricted roads, which impede free movement for Palestinians, and, if not taken into consideration can cause severe danger for Palestinians.” And it generally won’t give directions to or from Gaza.
Even Israel’s apartheid wall – over 700 kilometers (440 miles) long, constructed in order to grab more land and further fragment Palestinian towns and villages – isn’t displayed by Google Maps. Such Zionist interfaces have prompted Palestinians to create alternative maps through initiatives such as PalMap and Palestine Open Maps.
Google, however, sticks to the colonizers’ view. In October, when the label “Apartheid Wall” somehow made it into Google Maps, the Zionist group Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) alerted Google, which promptly removed it. A Google spokesperson reportedly told JNS that they “have taken swift action to update this inappropriate error.”
Project Nimbus: another phase in colonization
Project Nimbus demonstrates once more that Google is committed to Israel’s agenda. Through this project, Google also continues to colonize Palestine.
Israel has already started building the facility that will house Google’s servers, along with the necessary infrastructure. According to an Israeli news source, the facility will require four on-site fuel tanks with a capacity exceeding 200,000 liters. The facility is being built in Bnei Zion, a Jewish settlement (“moshav”) in central Palestine that was established in 1947 with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel – which, as Joseph Massad puts it, is “the main Zionist organ in charge of advancing Jewish colonization of Palestine.” Beyond advancing Jewish-only settlements and expulsion of Palestinians, the Jewish Agency has also attacked Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) initiatives as “anti-Semitic.”
Bnei Zion’s residents, who live on these stolen lands, have tried to block the construction of Google’s facility through Israeli courts – but not out of concern for Palestinians. The residents are worried that computing servers with government data would open the facility to physical attacks “from Lebanon and Gaza.” They are also concerned about the facility’s environmentally destructive effects, and the opaque state bureaucracy that approves such projects without seeking the residents’ input. Israel, of course, was built through this opaque bureaucracy, which for decades has expropriated lands for Jewish-only settlement and blocked Palestinian development projects. The construction of the computing facility continues this colonial project, with its environmental devastation, while enriching Israel, Google, and partner companies such as Amazon.
It is worth noting the broad set of corporations that feed on colonial ventures like Project Nimbus. While Google and Amazon won the computing services contract, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle were also competing for it.
(Oracle already has an underground server facility in Jerusalem and is planning to open another one, while Facebook and Apple are also expected to build additional Israeli facilities.) Consulting firms also get a piece of the pie: the British-Dutch firm KPMG will help direct the Israeli project, winning the contract that Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), and McKinsey had also competed for.
Dismantling the colonial regime and its corporate tentacles
Beyond facilitating criminalization and state violence, Google and its peers also engage in “progressive” counterinsurgency to protect the US empire’s interests.
These corporations have created the farce of so-called “ethical tech”: the notion that with the right code of “ethics” and proper “partnerships,” these companies and their state partners could work for the common “good.”
Google, Microsoft, and other companies have sponsored academics, policy pundits, government advisors, and journalists who push this “ethics” train, and use progressive propaganda to shield the industry’s investments in incarceration and colonialism.
When the “ethics” train started losing steam, the same forces proceeded to fund academics and anyone else who can promise an “anti-racist,” “feminist,” “abolitionist,” or “decolonial” rebranding of the same industry, without challenging its imperial existence. The result is a spectacle: the appearance of a clash between so-called “big tech” corporations and the critics they bankroll, which are really two sides of the same coin.
On the periphery of this largely US-driven spectacle, there are alternative analyses and organizational forms that aren’t invested in these industries and their oppressive technologies – but rather set the stage for their abolition. Palestinian activist groups such as Stop the Wall, for example, have identified companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook as “colonizers” that are part of the Israeli regime. Abolishing the colonial regime means that these destructive entities will have to go.
Working towards abolition is different from calling for corporations to be “ethical.” This work also isn’t compatible with White House talking points that promise “unbiased” computing systems for the empire’s citizens (since in the US, oppression is apparently “unintentional,” a technical accident, unlike in “autocracies” such as China). It is also different from appeals to a capitalist logic of “free-market competition” and “antitrust” and demands for the neoliberal state to “regulate” those corporations it has always colluded with. Nor does the practice of abolition automatically align with the agenda of computing professionals working at Google or Amazon, whose class interests have been largely erased by the blanket term “tech worker.” Recent efforts to unionize employees at Alphabet/Google, while possibly good for the Googlers in the short-term, can further stabilize this imperial-corporate system – in the same way that unions of CIA analysts, investment bankers, prison guards, or workers at a Raytheon plant can cement oppressive institutions.
Abolitionist alternatives won’t come from corporations, governments, and thought leaders of the non-profit industrial complex who greedily co-opt social uprisings – but from anti-imperial collectives that want to create something liberatory from the ashes of the imperial system in which Google and its partners play key roles.
Yarden Katz is a postdoc at the University of Michigan and the author of Artificial Whiteness: Politics and Ideology in Artificial Intelligence (2020)