As the movement for Palestinian rights has grown and broadened worldwide, so too have efforts in the U.S. to silence any criticism of Israeli policies; the anonymously staffed and funded Canary Mission website is one of the most disturbing examples of such censoring efforts.
Dedicated to harassing those critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, the website attacks many professors and many more students for writing, speaking, blogging, or tweeting about Palestinian rights. The numbers of the named (and pictured) have increased exponentially since the site emerged in 2015, rising from an initial group of 54 to more than 370 professors from around the country and more than 1400 students and recent graduates. The latter, presented under the rubric of “individuals,” are the most vulnerable targets of the site, which openly aims to harm young activists’ chances of future employment. Soon after the site went live, the curators posted a YouTube video addressed directly to those who might hire students. It ends by proclaiming that “it is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
Canary Mission operates through cyberbullying, defaming students without giving them any opportunity to explain or defend their views. Normally, this kind of bullying would be promptly addressed and condemned, especially at a time when its harmful effects are taken seriously by journalists, educators, and government officials. Yet university administrators and Congressional representatives have been slow to defend the targets of Canary Mission’s cyber-blacklisting and of other tactics of defamation by similar (and similarly funded) groups.
At six University of California campuses including UC Davis where we teach, students advocating Palestinian rights in 2016 found their names and photos on posters falsely accusing them of terrorism. The posters were part of a multi-million dollar campaign to combat criticism of Israel led by Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
There are many egregious misrepresentations of fact on the Canary Mission site, as we can testify both because we know some of the 19 Davis students currently named and because one of us was recently added to the site after she wrote about resigning from the Modern Language Association, which passed a resolution censoring all future institutional debate of the call from Palestinian civil society groups for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights. The falsehood repeated most often on the Canary Mission site is that all individual and organizational supporters of BDS are racist anti-Semites. The site’s first words purport falsely to divulge a truth: “If you’re racist, the world should know.”
Israel’s Interior Ministry is also now actively and publicly engaged in attacking U.S. students, faculty, and others who support the campaign for BDS in whatever ways come to hand. Those Israelis who take a position against their government are finding themselves increasingly under threat, as we discovered on our own recent visit to Israel-Palestine. Israel’s Finance Ministry is reportedly working to deny tax deductions to citizens who donate to Amnesty International, an organization that has called for boycotting goods made in West Bank settlements. Non-Israeli Jews living elsewhere who dare to oppose the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands and the discriminatory policies Israel applies to its own Palestinian citizens also find themselves more than ever under fire. So it is no surprise to see, at the lower end of the food chain (which indeed gets ever lower), the sorts of activities pursued by Canary Mission’s curators and others who share their views. They are just doing their bit for a vigorous propaganda machine that successfully pushed all ten University of California Chancellors into signing a letter “encouraging” their Anthropology faculty not to support an American Anthropological Association resolution in support of BDS; the letter already lives in infamy, as well it should, and faculty have protested against its threat to academic freedom.
Canary Mission is one of a range of operations seeking to demonize anyone critical of the state of Israel’s current and past policies toward Palestinians. But what is distinctive, and distinctively ugly, about Canary Mission is its strategy of picking on students, all listed alphabetically on the main website page by their full names and with their pictures; if you search by university, you find students’ majors or doctoral programs along with their Facebook pages and twitter handles. Many students, but by no means all, have Arabic names, and Canary Mission’s social media strategy often utilizes anti-Muslim and anti-Arab language.
Though this intimidation impacts professors and their careers, the profiling is clearly worse for students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. These are members of the coming generation, those seeking to carry forward the traditions of free speech and the value of critical debate that professors hold so dear. Most of these students do not yet have jobs, and if Canary Mission gets its way, they will never be employed.
Within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel operates a policy of “administrative detention” that allows it to imprison without charges, for six months, anyone deemed to be a security threat. These charges can be renewed indefinitely, and they often are. They are widely used against Palestinian student council leaders, most of whom have not committed any crime, because the charges provide a way to intimidate anyone in the younger generation who might be imagining a career in civil service or community organizing. They are an attempt to inhibit the flourishing of an educated and engaged civil society. Canary Mission is engaged in a similar task here in the U.S.
Responsible educators must speak out against the smear tactics of Canary Mission. Teachers like us have a particular responsibility to protect students who support Palestinian human rights from being denounced on a website that allows them no opportunity to engage in reasonable debate.