first published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2020, pp. 12-13
By Dr. Alice Rothchild
IN AN ERA OF MALICIOUS social media campaigns, the Canary Mission stands out as a little known but highly effective organization that is a threat to free speech and political organizing in the U.S. Targeting graduate and undergraduate students, and professors, the website is designed to inhibit political speech regarding Israel on campuses, ruin reputations, and destroy professional careers through publishing malicious lies and unrelenting attacks.
The McCarthyite blacklist has become especially frightening because it’s being used by law enforcement in Israel and the U.S. Palestinian rights advocates have been interrogated and deported from Israel because of their Canary Mission profiles. Others have been grilled by the FBI or denied employment.
Recently, a graduate student with stellar qualifications contacted me when his/her education and future career were severely derailed by this shadowy website. (That graduate student asked to be absolutely anonymous since he/she is so traumatized and frightened by the experience.) As I researched his/her concerns, I discovered that I too was listed, portrayed as an anti-Israel conspiracy theorist and provocateur.
My personal page on the Canary Mission involves a long series of cherry-picked quotes from articles and tweets dating back to 2011, interspersed with erroneous interpretations designed to prove their point that I am a dangerous, lying, self-hating Jew.
The Canary Mission is an anonymous site that identifies and compiles a dossier on Palestinian rights advocates in academia, and harasses them through web and Twitter postings, tagging students, administrators, employers, and alerting the FBI to baseless, unvetted accusations.
The key qualifications for inclusion are public criticism of Israeli policies, support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and sympathy for Palestinian causes. Those listed are accused of racism, anti-Semitism, support for terrorism and worse. The postings, selectively chosen and misinterpreted, are expansive and frequently updated. This constant surveillance and cyber-bullying leads students to feel anxious and paranoid as they find themselves the subjects of online death threats, and racial, homophobic and misogynist slurs. The website focuses disproportionately on students of color and Arabs.
With over 2,300 profiles to date, the Canary Mission is having a chilling impact on campus activism and this intimidation leads to students and professors self-censoring their own speech and community activities out of fear of time-consuming attacks and threats to funding.
Several years ago, that graduate student tweeted hostile comments toward Israel during attacks on Gaza which killed some of his/her relatives. After the Canary Mission contacted the student’s school he/she was called in for a “talk.” He/she expressed regret, explaining the tweets, since deleted, had voiced youthful anger and grief, some of which were also mistranslated. After being “cleared” of suspicion at school, he/she received a call from the FBI who mentioned the Canary Mission, and also “cleared” the student. Next defamatory rumors spread around the school, along with a mass email. The vice chancellor put the student on administrative leave, and removed and investigated all his/her electronic devices.
Advised to come to a meeting with parents present, he/she finally got a lawyer.
After mixed messages from the school, denials, promises, threats of expulsion, and disciplinary hearings, the graduate student was suspended for three months due to a violation of code of conduct, required to take cultural sensitivity training and to issue a public apology. So far judges have ruled in his/her favor, but post graduate school acceptance was retracted and his/her educational and work opportunities are all in limbo.
WHO’S BEHIND THE CANARY PROJECT?
In 2018, the Grayzone Project identified the Canary Mission’s domain owner as Howard Davis Sterling, a lawyer and passionate Israel-right-or-wrong supporter. Subsequently, a censored Al Jazeera film named an Israeli-American real estate investor, Adam Milstein, as the funder of the Canary Mission. Milstein denied involvement, but as a former employee of the recently defunct Israel Project, part of a network of groups that monitor and track Israel related campus events, he has certainly supported this kind of work in the past. The Forward recognized the Helen Diller Family Foundation, controlled by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, as major donors as well.
The Canary Mission is part of a multimillion dollar network of trolling and disinformation organizations including AMCHA, CAMERA, Campus Coalition, David Horowitz Freedom Center, Israel on Campus Coalition, Israellycool, Stand with Us, and Students Supporting Israel, that monitor social and printed media and webzines.
Their purported goal is to provide accurate information about Israel/Palestine and to fight anti-Semitism. Their actual goal is to muzzle and intimidate critics, suppress support for the BDS movement, and distract the general population from the serious human rights violations in Israel/Palestine. They effectively stifle dissent by equating criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, by stating that Jewish students feel “unsafe” on campuses, and by pushing administrators to take disciplinary measures against those who criticize Israel.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs work internationally with front groups and social media trolls in a largely secretive campaign against BDS, ostensibly to “improve” Israel’s image. Using former members of Israeli security industries, the groups monitor and shape online discussions through strategic messaging and black ops techniques. (See Jonathan Cook’s article, pp. 8-11.)
The personal attacks on my Twitter and Facebook pages (like: “I hope you are raped by 10,000 Arabs, but no, you would probably enjoy it”) and the disruptive behaviors in response to essays and during my public speaking, and the death threats on Facebook that originated from Israel, are not clearly from Canary Mission, but are certainly in the tone and behavior of the Canary Mission or one of its sister organizations.
I have had one visit from the FBI (clearly a fishing expedition) and I am not sure what triggered that. I have not been recently professionally attacked as I am retired from my academic and clinical appointments and I am not employed by anyone, although I have certainly been targeted by Israeli hasbara groups (for instance leafleting my lecture on health care in the occupied territories with rabid anti-Palestinian literature for a Grand Rounds presentation), while I was working in clinical medicine.
In the U.S., while we worry about Russian influence, the president and rightwing groups are flooding Facebook and Twitter with deceptive, defaming messaging. At the same time, under the radar, there is an organized multimillion dollar influence campaign by the Israeli government seeking to impact public opinion and elections, hijacking public polls, directing social media messages with trolls that engage in well-organized digital astroturfing.
These practices threaten our free speech and destroy any semblance of civility in political discourse. Students and faculty who find themselves blacklisted have little recourse except to shed light on the organization and its destructive mission, (risking more vicious attacks), and to fight the consequences of blacklisting in our courts, (an expensive, slow process). My graduate student’s case is now creeping through our legal system. The website has been denounced by many in and out of academia, by J Street, a powerful lobbying group that defines itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” and Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization working for “peace, social justice, human rights [and] respect for international law.”