Graham and Suster square off over Gaza as tech industry starts paying attention to the real world

By Michael Carney , written on August 5, 2014

From The News Desk

“In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” - Autobiography of Mark Twain 
Conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to avoid talking politics or religion in polite company. The topics are simply too divisive and personal for many people to engage in civil discourse. But at what point does suppressing these often crucial discussions become tantamount to an ostrich burying its head in the sand and hoping no one sees it?

Over the last week, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – or as it might be more appropriately described, the Israel-Palestine-Gaza-Hamas-US-Saudi Arabia-Iran-Jewish-Arab-Christian conflict – has raged on, two high profile figures in the startup ecosystem, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham and Upfront Ventures partner Mark Suster, have engaged very publicly around these issues.

Before diving into the debate, let me say that my point is not to take sides. But I do think it’s important to ask the question of how, if at all, we as an industry should engage around geopolitics, and subsequently, what we should expect of our industry leaders in this regard? It’s a more vital question than before, as venture capitalists invest more in tumultuous emerging markets, so much of a consumer startup’s audience is overseas, and companies like Tencent and Alibaba are becoming as powerful funders and acquirers as Google and Facebook. This industry increasingly can’t operate in a geopolitical vacuum, can it?

Graham has been tweeting prolifically on the conflict, mostly in concern for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. His tweets have been aimed at no one in particular, as far as I’ve seen. Suster, on the other hand is an avid supporter of Israel, and has taken direct issue with Graham’s position – namely what he views as the inconsistency of actively advocating with regard to this crisis while ignoring other, arguably larger crises around the world.

A sample of Graham’s recent tweets include:

— Paul Graham (@paulg) July 26, 2014

— Paul Graham (@paulg) July 27, 2014

(More, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Suster’s posts have appeared mostly on his personal Facebook wall, but are publicly visible. I first became aware of them in an email sent to me by a mutual friend, as Suster and I weren’t yet friends on Facebook at the time – we are now. That is to say, Suster – who is obviously technically savvy – makes no effort to contain his criticism behind privacy protections.

On July 30, Suster wrote:

So, so well written. I'm guessing Paul Graham won't be Tweeting this. Sigh. “Who is the real enemy?
Yesterday, he wrote:
The saddest part of modern media spin is that people believe what they want to believe regardless of facts or logic. To see people like Paul Graham so manipulated by this media and become a tool of the terrorists makes it that much more disappointing and inspires me to speak up more loudly.
It was the culmination of a series of similar posts that either mention Graham by name or reference the reaction of Silicon Valley more generally, to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. Earlier today, Suster explained his reasoning for pointing to Graham in particular, writing:
Somebody asked me why I was willing to call out Paul Graham in my Facebook feed. He said he supported my positions on Israel but didn't understand why I would specifically call out Paul. Here is what I wrote back typing on my iPhone from vacation ...

"Listen. Paul Graham has never tweeted about any world conflict. Not Syria where 175,000 people were killed. Not Egypt who brutally cracked down on the Muslim brotherhood. Not about ISIS terror in Iraq. Nothing about Bahrain, Somalia or Chinese cracking down on dissidents. Nothing about Russia killing innocents in Ukraine. So when a tech leader decides to Tweet hostile posts about one and only one country - Israel - the most ethical (yet flawed, too) military country in the world one can only conclude it comes from a place of double-standards rooted in sub-conscious anti Semitism. The problem is this gives air cover for others. And I am not religious nor particularly politically active. But for the first time in my life I had a connection back to how anti Semitism started the Holocaust.” The comments sections of these posts include a number of high profile investors and entrepreneurs – most offering praise and support – among them, most notably ff Ventures founder John Frankel, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure, Homebrew founder Hunter Walk, Bottom Line Law Group founder Antone Johnson, SparkLabs founder Net Jacobsson, and Billguard founder Yaron Samid.

Suster is not someone who's usually described as shy or unopinionated. It’s a style that has won him as many critics as it has friends. But he’s also someone with whom you always know how you stand. I can respect anyone who’s as honest and consistent. I have never personally discussed politics or religion with Suster, but from anecdotal experience, I take him at his word that he’s not typically actively engaged in either. As he describes above, however, this issue and the reaction of many thought leaders in his community leaves him compelled to speak out.

It’s obvious that Graham, who likewise is frequently outspoken, feels similarly passionate about this issue, with a recent tweet citing the need to speak publicly rather than remain quiet:

— Paul Graham (@paulg) August 1, 2014 So back to the original question, what should we expect of our industry when it comes to geopolitics, and how specifically should our leaders engage? Is it fair to expect people to remain silent or impartial simply for the risk of offending others within the community? I think the answer is clearly no.

Suster links to a recent post by Clearstone Venture Partners' David Stern that I found illuminating on the subject. It reads, in part:

Last week, I removed a post from Facebook. A Christian friend of mine had reminded me that he supported the Jews and Israel in their fight against Hamas, because once the extremists finished with the Jews, the Christians were next. I thought his comments were interesting, so I posted them. Unfortunately, he asked that I remove his name from the post, saying something to the effect that he had a lot of business dealings with the general public and didn't want to be political on Facebook. Because I like him, I did. But it did get me thinking. This is exactly the time where sitting silently because of political, social, or economic expediency, isn't acceptable. It is exactly the time where moral clarity should be on display. And it is exactly the time, if you are a right thinking and right feeling human being, to stand up and support Israel.
I include the above not to say that everyone should support Israel, but rather simply to say that voicing one’s (hopefully informed) opinion on matters of such global significance should never be condemned, regardless of which side you choose. While it’s risky to characterize one conflict as more important or more relevant than another, I’ll say, simply, that I think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that relevant to as many people in our industry as nearly any other. As such, both Suster and Graham deserve credit for weighing in. That the disagree is simply details.

As much as Suster and Graham stepped out on a limb by publicly stating their polarizing opinions, it’s equally striking how many more leaders in our industry have remained altogether silent as the war in Israel and Gaza rages on (as they have with other conflicts elsewhere in the past). The question, which I’ll leave open ended, is, is this the way we want our leaders to behave – by remaining silent for fear of saying the wrong, or unpopular thing? Or should we embrace the inherently messy and ugly realities of the world we live in?

With technology, and with it Silicon Valley growing increasingly central to the modern way of life, these are questions we can’t ignore for very much longer.


Pando contacted Paul Graham for comment on this article (~3 hours before press time) but has yet to receive a response. We will update this article with additional comments if we receive them. 

Mark Suster responded to Pando’s request for comment with the following email, published in full with his permission:

It is hard as a tech industry leader to speak out against other tech industry leaders because I don't believe any of us truly want to fight with each other. I never take speaking up on any politically charged issue lightly because it inevitably leads to hurt feelings, anger and also attacks against the person (me) speaking up by people who don't agree.

Still, there are issues too important not to speak up. So in the past when Paul Graham intentionally or inadvertently used words that I believed were hostile to the interests of immigrants I spoke up in this much read blog post.  

I will not sit idly while one group is marginalized publicly - whether intentional or not. At the time I asked several other high-profile people to speak out and few wanted to. If I could summarize what they told me it would be, “Mark, I agree 100% with your position but I can’t afford to have bad relations with YC and Paul has personally invited me to look at many of his deals and it would be bad for me if he cut that off.”

I found this reaction disappointing but understandable. It's hard to stand up to somebody who is so influential, successful, powerful and who has many, many vocal friends in the tech community.

I remember similarly in 2010 when I, as a heterosexual male, spoke up against intolerance and the need for equal rights for the LGBT community. I believe I was one of the earlier VC leaders to speak publicly on this issue as I believe equal rights matter. Some friends told me not to speak out on the issue as it was too politically charged. I believe history has already begun to side with this decision.

I spoke public about one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley, Secret, when few else were doing so because I worried about bullying and its consequences on individuals in light of industry suicides and bouts of depression leading to the same. Speaking out against a company who many others are competing to fund is also a hard but necessary stand.

I have chosen not to blog about the conflict between Israel and Hamas to date because it is a very sensitive public issue in which parties feel very strongly and has even led to personal threats to me for any comments I have been willing to make. For the first time since I signed up for Twitter I have had to block a large number of people who were blatantly hostile and threatening.

Yet in the words of Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

So I could no longer sit idly while Paul Graham continues to Tweet posts that are so one-sided and completely ignore the context of the current conflict with Hamas or why so many innocent people in Gaza have died and whom is really responsible for these deaths. I could no longer tolerate the hypocrisy as I know all too clearly the US or any other sovereign nation would have responded to missiles being fired at its civilians.

The situation is complicated - no doubt. I don't claim Israel has been 100% faultless in its past dealings to create a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And of course the Palestinian leadership hasn't been faultless either. In short - it's complicated.

But it doesn't need to be inflamed by our tech leaders through biased anti-Israel Tweets or public commentary trying to liken the situation to the Vietnam War as Paul has done.

Many, many friend have been messaging me privately about their disgust and frustration with Paul's comments including people intimately involved with YC. Many have told me "they wish they could speak up but they fear reprisal," which I understand just as I did when I spoke up against anti-immigration comments. Even as a vocal public leader I don't relish speaking up. It is never fun being attacked publicly as I undoubtedly will be for these mere words standing up for Israel and for Jews around the world.

I chose Facebook - not Twitter or blogging - as the place to express my views because I felt it was a more private way for friends outraged at the rise of anti-Semitism globally to become unified in our fears at become the perennial scapegoats of world history. I chose not to blog it to date because I knew this would lead to personal threats to me, which I take seriously.

Yet words matter. And championing an anti-Israel position without ever mentioning Hamas rockets, without ever mentioning the tools the Hamas cynically uses to allow innocent people to become their propaganda tool, without ever caring about innocent people being terrorized or killed all over the world can only come from a place of sub-conscious bias.

As a secular Jew I am keenly aware of my heritage being scapegoated across the millennia. I am a product of the East-European pogroms that drove my family to South America and to the United States. I am a student of how quickly Jews who are leaders, thinkers and contributors in their respective home countries can quickly become the target of nationalistic movements to vilify us.

To many young people it feels like WWII was something ancient from the history books yet survivors from the Holocaust are still amongst the living. Israel has every right to exist as a Jewish nation and until groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or the radicals in Iran choose to accept that right I fear Israel will continue to have to protect itself vigorously. And I assure you each time Israel defends itself anti-Israel cries will be heard around the world. Must our tech leaders join this chorus? Do the tragic events in Gaza really amount to the worst conflict or the most cruelty in the world in your eyes? Do you not at least acknowledge that it is a complicated situation when one country is trying to kill your people and your need to respond as a sovereign nation whatever your views of the origins of this frustration?

I ask that you at least familiarize yourself with the broader context of the current conflict that isn't simply an Israeli / Hamas issue but a wider regional competition for the future fueled by much bigger forces and captured so eloquently here by David Brooks. [Image via Millennial Magazine]