Does the Boss Need to Weigh In on the War in the Middle East?

After reading the details of Hamas’s attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, Brad Karp, who runs the law firm Paul, Weiss, sat at his computer and wrote a memo to his roughly 2,000 employees.

He didn’t ask the firm’s spokesman to draft it; he channeled his grief into a companywide email and hit send, just as he was moved to do after the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the killing of George Floyd. But as an American business leader condemning Hamas’s attacks, he said, he felt surprisingly lonely.

“I was disappointed that fewer leaders than I anticipated spoke out emphatically, clearly and with moral clarity on this issue,” Mr. Karp said. “If you asked any of these leaders whether they were horrified by the slaughter of innocent civilians by Hamas, they would tell you privately that they were horrified.”

Company executives have, over the past month, faced a dilemma that they’re by now well practiced in confronting: whether to engage with a large humanitarian or social issue, in this case the war between Israel and Hamas. This time, many say, responding — with a public statement, internal discussion, a donation or even social media parameters for staff members — presents complexities that they have not experienced when wading into other recent social crises.

“If you release a statement about the damage of a hurricane, there’s nobody who will say, ‘Actually that area of the country deserved a hurricane,’” said Iliya Rybchin, a partner at the consultancy Elixirr, who has advised dozens of Fortune 500 chief executives.

More than 200 American businesses have issued statements condemning the Hamas attacks in Israel that killed roughly 1,400 people, according to a tracker from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management. Some business leaders made donations to humanitarian organizations and pointed their employees to company-sponsored mental health resources. A smaller number said they also communicated to their staff about the rising death toll of civilians in Gaza.

Adding to the complexities that executives are weighing, many American companies have financial ties to Israel but few have business interests to consider in Gaza, Mr. Sonnenfeld noted.

“No company does business in Gaza — as opposed to, say, in Russia, where there are 1,500 major companies doing business,” he said, comparing this war with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It’s zero in Gaza.”

Still, there is clear pressure to say something, partly because of the precedent set over the last several years, when many executives established a pattern of weighing in on social and political upheaval. In a Morning Consult poll of more than 2,000 Americans, conducted in mid-October, 58 percent said businesses should make a statement “condemning violence and loss of life” resulting from Hamas’s attacks, and 62 percent said companies should make humanitarian donations.

“It’s unlike any other topic I’ve seen in a decade of advising companies on these themes,” said Joelle Emerson, founder of Paradigm, a firm that has worked with more than 1,000 companies on diversity, equity and inclusion. “A lot of companies might not feel they have the context to comment intelligently on what’s happening.”

Even as the pressure for companies to comment on social issues accelerates, reasons for them to be reticent are also increasingly clear. Andrew Ward, a management professor at Lehigh University’s College of Business, noted that chief executives who were politically vocal sometimes drew negative attention to their businesses, which could affect workers. There are also financial considerations to wading in.

Gabe Zichermann, who runs workshops for companies on discussing contentious issues, said the protest against Bud Light this year after it hired a transgender influencer was “a watershed moment in corporate activism.” He added: “The boycott was able to really impact the company’s earnings very quickly. That’s steering people toward public neutrality.”

A handful of executives who condemned Hamas’s violence did so immediately and forcefully. David Solomon, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, wrote to his staff in Tel Aviv on Oct. 8, the day after the attack. “The dynamics in the Middle East have always been difficult and complex,” he wrote. “But, these attacks are terrorism and violate our most fundamental of values.”

At Warner Bros. Discover, David Zaslav, the chief executive, told his staff that he was “shocked and saddened” by the attacks, which he cited as “the deadliest in Jewish history since the Holocaust.” JPMorgan Chase’s statement called the war “a terrible tragedy.”

David Barrett, who runs the software company Expensify, which has roughly 140 employees, explained that before he issued an internal response to the war, he called meetings for his human resources leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and review its historical and geopolitical context.

“We’re not historians,” Mr. Barrett said. “A lot of us didn’t understand the issue very well, didn’t understand the history, didn’t understand the kind of impact it was having on people.”