A Google employee protesting the tech giant’s business with the Israeli government was questioned by Google’s human resources department over allegations that he endorsed terrorism, The Intercept has learned. The employee said he was the only Muslim and Middle Easterner who circulated the letter and also the only one who was confronted by HR about it.
The employee was objecting to Project Nimbus, Google’s controversial $1.2 billion contract with the Israeli government and its military to provide state-of-the-art cloud computing and machine learning tools.
Since its announcement two years ago, Project Nimbus has drawn widespread criticism both inside and outside Google, spurring employee-led protests and warnings from human rights groups and surveillance experts that it could bolster state repression of Palestinians.
Mohammad Khatami, a Google software engineer, sent an email to two internal listservs on October 18 saying Project Nimbus was implicated in human rights abuses against Palestinians — abuses that fit a 75-year pattern that had brought the conflict to the October 7 Hamas massacre of some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians. The letter, distributed internally by anti-Nimbus Google workers through company email lists, went on to say that Google could become “complicit in what history will remember as a genocide.”
“Strangely enough, I was the only one of us who was sent to HR over people saying I was supporting terrorism or justifying terrorism.”
Twelve days later, Google HR told Khatami they were scheduling a meeting with him, during which he says he was questioned about whether the letter was “justifying the terrorism on October 7th.”
In an interview, Khatami told The Intercept he was not only disturbed by what he considers an attempt by Google to stifle dissent on Nimbus, but also believes he was left feeling singled out because of his religion and ethnicity. The letter was drafted and internally circulated by a group of anti-Nimbus Google employees, but none of them other than Khatami were called by HR, according to Khatami and Josh Marxen, another anti-Nimbus organizer at Google who helped spread the letter. Though he declined to comment on the outcome of the HR meeting, Khatami said it left him shaken.
“It was very emotionally taxing,” Khatami said. “I was crying by the end of it.”
“I’m the only Muslim or Middle Eastern organizer who sent out that email,” he told The Intercept. “Strangely enough, I was the only one of us who was sent to HR over people saying I was supporting terrorism or justifying terrorism.”
The Intercept reviewed a virtually identical email sent by Marxen, also on October 18. Though there are a few small changes — Marxen’s email refers to “a seige [sic] upon all of Gaza” whereas Khamati’s cites “the complete destitution of Gaza” — both contain verbatim language connecting the October 7 attack to Israel’s past treatment of Palestinians.
Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini told The Intercept, “We follow up on every concern raised, and in this case, dozens of employees reported this individual’s email – not the sharing of the petition itself – for including language that did not follow our workplace policies.” Mencini declined to say which workplace policies Khatami’s email allegedly violated, whether other organizers had gotten HR calls, or if any other company personnel had been approached by Employee Relations for comments made about the war.
The incident comes just one year after former Google employee Ariel Koren said the company attempted to force her to relocate to Brazil in retaliation for her early anti-Nimbus organizing. Koren later quit in protest and remains active in advocating against the contract. Project Nimbus, despite the dissent, remains in place, in part because of contractual terms put in place by Israel forbidding Google from cutting off service in response to political pressure or boycott campaigns.
Dark Clouds Over Nimbus
Dissent at Google is neither rare nor ineffective. Employee opposition to controversial military contracts has previously pushed the company to drop plans to help with the Pentagon’s drone warfare program and a planned Chinese version of Google Search that would filter out results unwanted by the Chinese government. Nimbus, however, has managed to survive.
In the wake of the October 7 Hamas attacks against Israel and resulting Israeli counteroffensive, now in its second month of airstrikes and a more recent ground invasion, Project Nimbus is again a flashpoint within the company.
With the rank and file disturbed by the company’s role as a defense contractor, Google has attempted to downplay the military nature of the contract.
Mencini, the Google spokesperson, said that anti-Nimbus organizers were “misrepresenting” the contract’s military role.
“This is part of a longstanding campaign by a group of organizations and people who largely don’t work at Google,” Mencini said. “We have been very clear that the Nimbus contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education. Our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.”
Nimbus training documents published by The Intercept last year, however, show the company was pitching its use for the Ministry of Defense. Moreover, the Israeli government itself is open about the military applications of Project Nimbus: A 2023 press release by the Israeli Ministry of Finance specifically names the Israel Defense Forces as a beneficiary, while an overview written by the country’s National Digital Agency describes the contract as “a comprehensive and in-depth solution to the provision of public cloud services to the Government, the defense establishment and other public organizations.”
“If we do not speak out now, we are complicit in what history will remember as a genocide.”
Against this backdrop, Khatami, in coordination with others in the worker-led anti-Nimbus campaign, sent his October 18 note to internal Arab and Middle Eastern affinity groups laying out their argument against the project and asking like-minded colleagues to sign an employee petition.
“Through Project Nimbus, Google is complicit in the mass surveillance and other human rights abuses which Palestinians have been subject to daily for the past 75 years, and which is the root cause of the violence initiated on October 7th,” the letter said. “If we do not speak out now, we are complicit in what history will remember as a genocide.”
On October 30, Khatami received an email from Google’s Employee Relations division informing him that he would soon be questioned by company representatives regarding “a concern about your conduct that has been brought to our attention.”
According to Khatami, in the ensuing phone call, Google HR pressed him about the portion of his email that made a historical connection between the October 7 Hamas attack and the 75 years of Israeli rights abuses that preceded it, claiming some of his co-workers believed he was endorsing violence. Khatami recalled being asked, “Can you see how people are thinking you’re justifying the terrorism on October 7th?”
Khatami said he and his fellow anti-Nimbus organizers were in no way endorsing the violence against Israeli civilians — just as they now oppose the deaths of more than 10,000 Palestinians, according to the latest figures from Gaza’s Ministry of Health. Rather, the Google employees wanted to provide sociopolitical context for Project Nimbus, part of a broader employee-led effort of “demilitarizing our company that was never meant to be militarized.” To point out the relevant background leading to the October 7 attack, he said, is not to approve it.
“We wrote that the root cause of the violence is the occupation,” Khatami explained. “Analysis is not justification.”
Khatami also objects to what he said is a double standard within Google about what speech about the war is tolerated, a source of ongoing turmoil at the company. The day after his original email, a Google employee responded angrily to the email chain: “Accusing Israel of genocide and Google of being complicit is a grave accusation!” This employee, who works at the company’s cloud computing division, itself at the core of Project Nimbus, continued:
To break it down for you, project nimbus contributes to Israel’s security. Therefore, any calls to drop it are meant to weaken Israel’s security. If Israel’s security is weak, then the prospect of more terrorist attacks, like the one we saw on October 7, is high. Terrorist attacks will result in casualties that will affect YOUR Israeli colleagues and their family. Attacks will be retaliated by Israel which will result in casualties that will affect your Palestinian colleagues and their family (because they are used as shields by the terrorists)…bottom line, a secured Israel means less lives lost! Therefore if you have the good intention to preserve human lives then you MUST support project Nimbus!
While Khatami disagrees strongly with the overall argument in the response email, he objected in particular to the co-worker’s claim that Israel is killing Palestinians “because they are used as shields by the terrorists” — a justification of violence far more explicit than the one he was accused of, he said. Khatami questioned whether widespread references to the inviolability of Israeli self-defense by Google employees have provoked treatment from HR similar to what he received after his email about Nimbus.
Internal employee communications viewed by The Intercept show tensions within Google over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict aren’t limited to debates over Project Nimbus. A screenshots viewed by The Intercept shows an Israeli Google employee repeatedly asking Middle Eastern colleagues if they support Hamas, while another shows a Google engineer suggesting Palestinians worried about the welfare of their children should simply stop having kids. Another lamented “friends and family [who] are slaughtered by the Gaza-grown group of bloodthirsty animals.”
According to a recent New York Times report, which found “at least one” instance of “overtly antisemitic” content posted through internal Google channels, “one worker had been fired after writing in an internal company message board that Israelis living near Gaza ‘deserved to be impacted.’”
Another screenshot reviewed by The Intercept, taken from an email group for Israeli Google staff, shows employees discussing a post by a colleague criticizing the Israeli occupation and encouraging donations to a Gaza relief fund.
“During this time we all need to stay strong as a nation and united,” one Google employee replied in the email group. “As if we are not going through enough suffering, we will unfortunately see many emails, comments either internally or on social media that are pro Hamas and clearly anti semitic. report immediately!” Another added: “People like that make me sick. But she is a lost cause.” A third chimed in to say they had internally reported the colleague soliciting donations. A separate post soliciting donations for the same Gaza relief fund was downvoted 139 times on an internal message board, according to another screenshot, while a post stating only “Killing civilians is indefensible” received 51 downvotes.
While Khatami says he was unnerved and disheartened by the HR grilling, he’s still committed to organizing against Project Nimbus.
“It definitely emotionally affected me, it definitely made me significantly more fearful or organizing in this space,” he said. “But I think knowing that people are dying right now and slaughtered in a genocide that’s aided and abetted by my company, remembering that makes the fear go away.”