Israel’s war with Hamas comes to corporate America

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From ESG investing (Blackrock), to gay rights (Disney), to Donald Trump after the Capitol riots (mainstream corporate America), companies routinely take a stand. Sometimes, as with Nike and Colin Kaepernick, it helps their bottom line. Sometimes, it does the opposite — think Bud Light’s support of transgender rights.

Perhaps sensibly, most companies avoid wading into the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when the barbarous scale of Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel became clear, staying silent ceased to be an option.

“Saying nothing speaks to cowardice,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who focuses on corporate leadership among other issues. “They’ll have a hard time celebrating their corporate character and what they stand for if they sit mutely on the sidelines.”

With that in mind, many companies have rallied in support of Israel. Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Satya Nadella said he was “heartbroken by the horrific terrorist attacks on Israel.” Sundar Pichai, his counterpart at Google, was “deeply saddened.” Disney (DIS) donated $2 million for humanitarian relief in Israel, and banks have contributed millions too, as Reuters reported. All in, around 80 household-name companies in America have condemned the Hamas attacks, as tracked by Sonnenfeld who maintains a list.

Many organizations, though, have opted for a more cautious approach, especially those outside of the United States. In the United Kingdom, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, traditionally associated with its Jewish supporters, came under fire after saying it was “​​shocked and saddened by the escalating crisis in Israel and Gaza.”

“Don’t ever call yourself a Jewish club again,” replied one fan, in an apparent response to the mention of Gaza. “You guys are absolutely pathetic,” railed another.

Paddy Cosgrove, CEO of the Web Summit, which describes itself as the biggest tech conference in the world, was forced to apologize after accusing Israel of war crimes.

Simply staying under the radar or equivocating are not viable responses, in the view of Lior Susan, founding partner of venture capital firm Eclipse.

“Not taking a stand is taking a stand,” Susan, who served in the Israeli special forces, told CNN. “Companies need to show moral clarity and leadership in the face of the Israel-Hamas war.”

Richard Griffiths, managing director at London-based strategic communications consultancy Citigate Dewe Rogerson, makes a similar point. “We saw with the Russian attacks on Ukraine that there is now a much greater expectation that companies should be seen to do the right thing and speak out,” he said.

However, with the Israel-Hamas war, he cautions, the situation is more complex. “This is a conflict between Israel and an internationally recognised terrorist organization,” he told CNN. “The wisest action for businesses now is to show solidarity with all those caught up in this, with a focus on easing the humanitarian aspect.”

Any stand a company takes “has to relate to what will resonate with your employees, customers and investors,” Griffiths added. “It is important to understand what stakeholder expectations are before you wade in.”

And once that stand has been taken, companies should stick to their guns.

“A company has to have the courage of its convictions,” said Sonnenfeld, whose list of foreign companies still doing business in Russia has been credited with speeding up a corporate stampede from the country, “whatever they are.”

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