Early last week, an unidentified group launched a shadowy website identifying New Yorkers believed to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights—placing their photos, social media links and email addresses on a “blacklist” located at OutlawBDS.com. The list features ninety-seven individuals divided into the categories Campuses, Public & NPOs and Private Sector Activists.
Among those who appear on the so-called blacklist are professors, journalists, students, non-profit staff-members and executives.
Project OutlawBDS claims it was established by a group who “consider themselves to be analytical in their approach to the BDS movement,” whose stated intention is to “provide support for New York State Senate Bill S2492,” the latest attempt to pass anti-BDS legislation in the state.
Though bill S2492 has already failed to pass the New York State legislature—not to mention a handful of other anti-BDS bills introduced over the past three years—the project apparently anticipates that given time, New York will outlaw support for BDS.
And though Palestine solidarity activists have stifled each attempt, there is reason to believe New York legislators will continue trying to outlaw the boycott of Israel.
Anti-BDS sentiment has gained traction among lawmakers nationally and as it stands now, 21 states have anti-BDS laws on the books. The legal stipulations vary somewhat between states, but their common goal is punishment of those who express support for or participate in boycotts against Israel through divestment of state funding and benefits from those individuals.
Project OutlawBDS wants the same for New York, stating on its “About” page that upon passage of such a law, the entire list of indiviuals compiled by the project “will be immediately delivered to state authorities, to ensure nothing is hidden from those who wish a better hope for this country.”
Peter Moscowitz, a New York City-raised journalist, writer and activist who appears on the so-called blacklist, said they weren’t surprised by the tactics of Project OutlawBDS.
“A lot of these sites are linked to shady nonprofits and either directly involved with or at least influenced by the tactics of the Israeli government and its military,” Moscowitz told Mondoweiss. “What’s funny is how wrong all the information on the page is about me. To me this shows how desperate they are. [Opponents of BDS] cannot win on public opinion grounds so they turn to smear tactics.”
Despite their fervor, lawmakers who actually outlaw BDS are entering a civil liberties fight they are unlikely to win, as political boycott is considered free speech and protected under the First Amendment. But the issue would take years to wind its way through the court system.
Nevertheless, many of New York’s lawmakers have aggressively pursued anti-BDS measures, cowing to Israel-lobby pressure.
In June 2016, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a controversial, first-in-the-nation anti-BDS executive order. Although the order has proven mostly toothless since its passage over a year ago, Cuomo’s decision was simply part of pattern that sees elected representatives forever trying to prove their allegiance to Israel.
As Palestine Legal noted in the wake of this latest attack, Congress is presently considering passage of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, with intense lobbying from AIPAC and bipartisan support.
But to both those behind Project OutlawBDS, or the more prominent Canary Mission, the legality of BDS is something of an afterthought says Raja Abdulhaq, a Palestinian activist and cofounder of the Palestinian media company Quds Network.
As support for Palestinian liberation blossoms, “Israel and its Zionist allies in the US have been involved in tougher campaigns that make activists face threats of public shaming and character assassination,” Abdulhaq, whose photo and information appears on the site, told Mondoweiss. “The goal is to scare these activists before the beginning of their professional careers so they can drop activism for Palestine.”
The message is clear, Abdulhaq added: “if you would like to find a job, you should quit the Palestinian cause—or we will make it impossible for you.”
The as yet unidentified group responsible for Project OutlawBDS has gone to great lengths to remain anonymous. The site employs above-average security measures including the use of multiple proxies and scrubbed image files—images with their metadata manually removed.
When I queried Project OutlawBDS about this, an administrator responded, rather ironically, saying “we believe that our identity is not an issue.”
And an initial investigation reveals only a few, but potentially idenfiying vulnerabilities.
Before going live as OutlawBDS.com, for instance, the original name was Project Sugar Maple, a reference to the state tree of New York. The Project Sugar Maple site was created on June 1, nearly two months prior to the July 26 launch of OutlawBDS.
Project Sugar Maple is still accessible as of today, replete with errors that may yet expose whoever is behind it.
Since September 4, the site administrator has been emailing each blacklisted individual the same faux legal threat.
With the subject “You have been Black Listed!,” the identical emails state that each recipient has been identified as a supporter of BDS and warns that their business relationship with New York State will end—pending new legislation of course.
The text of the email appears below with names omitted:
From: <[email protected]>
Date: Wed, Sep 6, 2017
Subject: [Recipient] – You have been Black Listed as a BDS member!
To: [Recipient email]
[Recipient], Be aware that you have been identified as a BDS promoter.
According to new legislation in New York State, individuals and organizations that engage in or promote BDS activities with US allies will no longer receive public funding or support.
Moreover, the state and its agencies will no longer engage in business or hire these organizations and individuals as they have been deemed problematic and anti-American.
You have been marked.
You have been identified.
You have a limited window of opportunity to cease and desist or face the consequences of your actions in legal proceedings. In case you have ceased your past wrong-doing, please contact us at [email protected] for your profile to be removed from the Blacklist.
For your profile, visit us here:
“You have been marked. You have been identified” each message states, in an end-of-days kind of tone, before offering an unspecified “window of opportunity to cease and desist” or face “legal proceedings.”
But the threats are legally illegitimate, not least because the law cited does not exist, said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a Chicago-based legal resource and advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the legal rights of Palestine solidarity activists.
“The sender uses legalese as a scare tactic — but the threat is completely without merit,” Sainath told Mondoweiss. “They’re trying to bully principled New Yorkers advocating for Palestinian rights.”
Likening the tactics to McCarthyism, Moscowitz noted that such threats do indeed have “a chilling effect” even if the law in question has no direct bearing on an individual.
“These kinds of laws make me feel constantly under surveillance,” Moscowitz admitted, “and make me question my ability as a journalist to operate independently.”