Companies from Starbucks to McDonald's face controversy amid Israel-Hamas war

Over 150 companies have released statements condemning the initial Hamas attack.

October 23, 2023, 3:16 PM

Starbucks, McDonald's and other major companies have touched off controversy tied to the Israel-Hamas war, exemplifying the corporate challenges posed by the high-stakes and politically charged conflict.

Starbucks sued its union, Starbucks Workers United, earlier this month after the labor organization posted a since-deleted message on X, formerly known as Twitter, expressing solidarity with Palestinians. The message from the union triggered calls to boycott Starbucks, when some appeared to mistake the union's position for that of the company.

At McDonald's, an Israel-based franchise announced free food for members of the Israeli military, prompting a consumer backlash and messages from other franchises distancing themselves from the move.

Hundreds of Google employees, meanwhile, circulated a petition taking issue with a public letter released by CEO Sundar Pichai that they deemed was in favor of Israel, The Washington Post reported.

In response to ABC News' request, Starbucks pointed to a statement on the company's website.

"We strongly disagree with the views expressed by Workers United, including its local affiliates, union organizers and those who identify as members of 'Starbucks Workers United' -- none of these groups speak for Starbucks Coffee Company and do not represent our company's views, positions, or beliefs," Sara Kelly, executive vice president and chief partner officer at Starbucks, said in the statement.

A spokesperson for McDonald's told ABC News that the company is primarily focused on ensuring the safety of employees. To support people in the region, McDonald's made a $1 million donation split evenly between Red Cross and The World Food Program, the spokesperson added.

Google did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Sharp disagreement nationwide over the Israel-Hamas war has manifested in the response to statements made by the large, often high-profile companies. Corporations have faced blowback from advocates on both sides for stances considered either insufficiently sympathetic toward Israelis or Palestinians. Meanwhile, some executives have resigned amid backlash and some prospective employees have had job offers rescinded over their remarks.

The militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Oct. 7 that has left at least 1,400 people dead and 4,600 injured in Israel, according to Israeli authorities.

In Gaza, more than 5,000 people have died and 15,200 have been wounded, according to the Palestinian Health Authority.

Over the days immediately after the Hamas attack, the response from some major companies was swift. "The attacks against civilians in Israel are shocking and painful to watch," Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said Oct. 9 in a post on X. "Hoping that peace arrives as soon as possible."

Some advocates, however, reprimanded companies that remained silent in the days immediately after the attack.

"Speaking out doesn't require companies to take a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to sit for a seminar on Middle Eastern politics," Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said on X.

PHOTO: A branch of McDonald's is reflected in a puddle, on Oct 18, 2023 in Bristol.
A branch of McDonald's is reflected in a puddle, on Oct 18, 2023 in Bristol.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In all, more than 150 corporations have released statements condemning the initial attack by Hamas, according to a collection of public statements assembled by Yale University Professor of Management Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.

The list of companies includes top firms such as Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, Verizon and Tesla.

Further, some executives made pointed remarks that highlight a personal connection with Israel.

"I am heartbroken by the atrocities we have witnessed, and over the last few days, I have been on the phone constantly with friends and relatives in Israel," Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla wrote in a LinkedIn post. "I know I am not alone when I express my shock and grief about the ongoing situation."

Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, told ABC News the companies "less scathed" by public backlash have condemned the Hamas attack and acknowledged the long history of conflict in the region.

But, she added, the corporate response to the Israel-Hamas war raises questions about the impact of such statements.

"What problem is being solved by issuing these statements?" Soule said.

Some of the corporate statements condemning Hamas have drawn criticism from advocates who say they fall short of offering sympathy for the suffering and oppression endured by Palestinian civilians.

"The lack of any statement of condemnation of Israeli military tactics or of support for Palestinian rights is particularly concerning, given that many of these corporate leaders and their companies have adopted stances promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace," Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said earlier this month.

Starbucks Workers United, a union representing roughly 9,000 workers, took down an initial tweet expressing solidarity with Palestinians. Last week, the union posted an additional statement on X standing with Palestinians while condemning the deaths of innocent civilians.

"We are opposed to violence, and each death occurring as the result of violence is a tragedy," the statement said. "We absolutely condemn antisemitism and Islamophobia."

The union filed a countersuit against Starbucks, calling its lawsuit an attempt to damage the union and undermine its organizing efforts.

Sonnenfeld told ABC News the relative strength of public trust in CEOs grants them an opportunity to speak out on important and divisive issues. Companies, however, should weigh the relevance and potential impact of a statement on any given issue, he argued.

"CEOs have a distinctive role in society as trusted voices," Sonnenfeld said. "Some companies, such as fast food franchises and maybe aerospace defense companies, maybe this isn't the ideal issue for them. Companies need to decide that."