BDS won’t be silenced by their blacklist

September 28, 2016

Sofia Arias and Sumaya Awad investigate the website at the center of a new campus attack on BDS--and explain the backdrop to this new offensive by Israel supporters.

THIS SUMMER presented Palestine solidarity activists with the urgent task of confronting the latest incarnation of McCarthyite attacks on their movement: the Canary Mission online blacklist.

Launched in 2015, the Canary Mission website slanders students and scholars who voice support for Palestinian human rights, labeling them as extremist, anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorism. The site has constructed a blacklist of nearly 500 students, who are harassed as often as hourly via social media.

On its home page, Canary Mission site claims its purpose is to "document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America."

In fact, its goal is to malign, harass and threaten the livelihood of those who advocate for an end to Israeli apartheid and the oppression of Palestinians. Canary Mission is threatening the right to free speech of any Palestine solidarity activist.

This week, a group of students, scholars, and organizers working together as a taskforce to challenge Canary Mission launched a petition urging graduate admissions faculty to condemn Canary Mission as an "effort to intimidate and blacklist students and faculty who stand for justice for Palestinians."

A Students for Justice in Palestine conference underway at Columbia University
A Students for Justice in Palestine conference underway at Columbia University (Columbia SJP)

The reason for the specific focus of the petition on graduate admissions is because Canary Mission has contacted multiple graduate schools about prospective students who have been profiled by the site.

Within a short time, the petition had gathered more than 1,000 signatures from scholars all around the country, including Richard Falk, Robin D.G. Kelley, Marc Lamont Hill, Jasbir Puar, Moustafa Bayoumi, Sarah Schulman and Steven Salaita. The petition states:

Although, as individual faculty, we hold a range of viewpoints on Israel-Palestine, we recognize that student advocacy for Palestinian human rights is not inherently anti-Semitic, and that such advocacy represents a cherished and protected form of free speech that is welcome on college campuses. We reject the McCarthyist tactics used by Canary Mission. Canary Mission's aim is to damage these students' futures, and to punish them for their principled human rights activism.

ONLINE BLACKLISTS against Palestine activism aren't new. For example, there is the Campus Watch campaign directed at pro-Palestine sentiment among faculty. What makes Canary Mission stand out is that its primary target is students--and its method is threatening their future employment and scholarship.

As left-wing journalist Max Blumenthal reported, the main players of both slander campaigns likely overlap. Longtime neocon stalwart and Campus Watch founder Daniel Pipes, while claiming not to be connected with the website, has endorsed Canary Mission's goal of "collecting information on students has particular value because it signals [to] them that calumnying [sic] Israel is serious business, not some inconsequential collegiate prank; and that their actions can damage both Israel and their future careers."

As Blumenthal writes:

Unlike Campus Watch, which Pipes freely acknowledges as his own, Canary Mission's administrators have gone to extreme lengths to keep the site's funders and orchestrators a top secret.

And it appears to be with good reason: Not only does Canary Mission seek to deny future employment opportunities to students who participate in Palestine solidarity activities, it also seems intent on cultivating an atmosphere of intimidation in which activists, academics and journalists are fair game for threats that include rape and violence and insults that are often racist."

Having failed to stem the tide of student activism for justice for Palestine with their destructive campaigns against the hiring and tenure of Palestinian and leftist professors like Joseph Massad and Norman Finkelstein, Canary Mission is a sign that Israel supporters have become more deliberate in targeting students--and in recognizing that these students are vulnerable because they emerge from college with a mountain of debt and face a precarious future.

THIS LATEST escalation by defenders of Israel is clearly a response to the successes of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid.

The BDS movement has been called a "strategic threat" by the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former CIA Director David Petraeus. Netanyahu created a special ministerial post to deal with the growing momentum of BDS, and his office works with the National Union of Israeli Students to defend Israel on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Last May, at a conference in New York sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan made the case in his speech that Palestinians resisting occupation and university professors advocating BDS were both terrorists:

I would like you to imagine two people. On the one side, picture a sophisticated university professor, who believes that Israel is the root of all evil. On the other, a young man from Hebron, taught to hate from a young age, and motivated by Islamic extremism. At first glance, they have little in common. Sure, neither is too keen on Israel. But they come from different backgrounds, move in different circles, and express themselves in different ways...Friends, BDS and terror are two sides of the same coin.

Meanwhile, American Zionist casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson recently poured millions of dollars into a new program to combat BDS on college campuses. Known as the Maccabee Task Force (MTF), it is spearheaded by David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel. Brog states that MTF is "a long-term project. BDS won't be going away anytime soon--and neither will we."

MTF is planning to expand to 20 campuses and is trying more deliberately to bring onboard non-Jewish students, particularly Black students, through classes and tactics like subsidized trips to Israel. The task force has toured South African Zionists on campus to explain how they traveled to Israel and can disprove the argument that it is an apartheid state.

Meanwhile, Israel supporters can rely on both the Republicans and Democrats to adopt the same attitude of hostility toward BDS.

During this election year, much of the discussion on the left has revolved around fear of a Trump presidency. But the threat that Hillary Clinton represents is significant for both Palestinians and activists working to build solidarity with Palestine.

In particular, Clinton has signaled that she considers fighting the BDS movement a priority. "I've been sounding the alarm for a while now," she said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this year. "As I wrote last year in a letter to the heads of major American Jewish organizations, we have to be united in fighting back against BDS."

THIS IS the backdrop from which Canary Mission emerged.

Its website is administered by an Israeli settler organization know as the Aish World Center. The blacklist has grown over the last year, from 140 individuals one year ago to more than 500 people today.

A survey of those profiled by Canary Mission conducted by activists and organizers challenging the blacklist found that 71 percent of those listed on the website were notified by their friends that they had been profiled. A similar percentage said they could identify a particular event that triggered Canary Mission's interest. In most cases, it was a divestment campaign on campus--other causes included mock evictions, walkout protests and article releases.

The Canary Mission site is particularly threatening to those seeking employment or admission to graduate school, to non-citizens and to those traveling outside the U.S. As one student put it:

As a non-citizen and a recent graduate, I knew my future was threatened by this ominous and libelous website labeling me a "terrorist threat." Work I am proud of was maliciously presented, distorted and maligned. Taking a stand against oppression, violations of international law, inhuman conditions and an end to apartheid was labeled as a sign of sympathy with terrorists.

The setup of the site also allows contributors to help sustain the efforts to suppress Palestinian activists while being guaranteed protection by the anonymity of the site.

Canary Mission posts the personal information of activists--their employers, schools and landlords have gotten calls to "report" them. The message of the website's promotional video is clear: "It's your duty to ensure that today's radicals aren't tomorrow's employees."

At least 30 employers, including Harvard and Bank of America, have been called by Canary Mission supporters, according to activists. They have also frequently tweeted at the FBI. International students in need of visas and work authorization permits face the threat of deportation or being denied entry into the U.S. in the future.

Although the anonymous website emerged two years ago, it has escalated its attacks over the past six months, and has affected the confidence of some Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) activists to organize. In particular, activists, especially Palestinians, say that Canary Mission has made it just about impossible to return to Palestine again.

IT IS impossible to overstate the sea change that has been experienced by a whole generation of young Americans--and especially young American Jews--around the issue of Palestine and Zionism. This has been confirmed by the growth of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an organization composed largely of Arabs and Muslims, with significant numbers of young anti-Zionist Jews.

In organizing alongside others, particularly Black and immigrants rights activists, SJP has created the space for a generation of campus activists to take up the fight against Islamophobia more seriously than any other place in American society.

The increased confidence of its activism over the past decade has been central to the advances made in the number of BDS resolutions passed on college campuses. This has also resulted tangibly in an increase in the number of chapters around the country to around 200.

Likewise, the leftward evolution of Jewish Voice for Peace and its increasingly consistent efforts to organize against Islamophobia is another organizational expression of this trend that has led to growth of its campus chapters and membership as well.

But SJP in particular is facing a backlash. As the Palestine Legal document "The Palestine Exception to Free Speech" demonstrates, campus administrations, under pressure from Zionist donors and foundations, and state and federal government officials, have systematically eroded the rights of SJP activists.

SJP chapters have faced outright bans, withheld funding, canceled events, demands that members attend civility and dialogue trainings, suspensions of student members, confinement of their activities to "free speech zones" and endless bureaucratic measures to impede organizing.

This fall, a public campaign sprang up when administrators at the University of California-Berkeley canceled a student-led course on "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis" after more than 40 pro-Israel organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and campus Hillel, pressed the president to censor a course aimed at providing an understanding of the origins of Zionism.

Among other high-profile campaigns of administrative censorship and repression of Palestine advocacy was an attack on the SJP at Brooklyn College, which was accused of anti-Semitism and its members ordered to face disciplinary hearings led by the City University of New York's Office of Legal Affairs.

The anti-SJP offensive was pushed back when an independent investigation cleared Brooklyn College chapter of the anti-Semitism charge. But activists are aware that they are facing a steady number of attacks on all sides.

The future success or failure of the Palestine solidarity movement hinges in many ways on the ability of SJP to weather this backlash.

ORGANIZING AGAINST Canary Mission presents challenges. The nature of its anonymous online trolling and posting of personal information allows anybody to make harassing calls and death threats. The structure of its administration makes it very difficult to challenge legally.

With a slew of anti-BDS laws passed in more than a dozen states, it is clear that the Palestine solidarity movement must try to increase its reach.

In its policy platform, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) provided unconditional solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, identifying Israel as an apartheid state that needs to be divested from, and condemning U.S. support for the genocide against Palestinians.

In addition, M4BL calls on people to "Fight the expanding number of anti-BDS bills being passed in states around the country. This type of legislation not only harms the movement to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but is a threat to the constitutional right to free speech and protest."

This is a vital expression of support, and Palestine activists must respond in kind by strengthening their contribution to the fight against police violence, mass incarceration and all manifestations of oppression against Black people. What's more, Black activists are among the SJP members targeted by Canary Mission, so organizing against the website is a crucial step in strengthening all our movements against repression.

If this site goes unchallenged, it will wreak havoc on people's lives and create a feeling of embattlement and isolation, while its false reports of anti-Semitism and terrorism could get people fired or rejected from schools. Canary Mission could make Islamophobic campaigns more acceptable and strengthen repression against Muslims and activists, as some New York state politicians are trying to accomplish with the proposed New York State Terrorism Registry Act.

The alternative to this bleak outlook is struggle and solidarity. In the words of a student targeted by the site in March of last year:

Canary Mission was created to make students like me feel atomized and threatened, to push us away from activism, to make it difficult for students to mobilize.

Though I was timid about speaking up, faced with the threat of giving the site more ammunition to use against me, I realized that Canary Mission will continue to grow as more and more people support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian freedom.

Only through activism and continuous, collective struggle against this site and other blacklists, whether they target Muslims or BlackLivesMatter activists, can these tactics of intimidation and harassment be stopped.

Further Reading

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