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University of California Regents: Distance yourself from Canary Mission


This statement was jointly written by Lisa Rofel, Margaret Ferguson, Sang Hea Kil, Brooke Lober, and David Palumbo-Liu, all members of The California Scholars for Academic Freedom. 

U.S. campuses are sites of political controversy and, at their best, spaces for debate and engagement across different perspectives. At universities across the U.S., the question of whether and how professors and students can exercise free speech has emerged as the most salient of our time. Often ignored in the discussion of academic freedom is the power dynamic inherent to the space of communication. On campuses, both funding and political influence privilege certain actors to exercise “free speech,” while others are censored and even vilified. In this climate, exposure of power is in itself a political act. The California Scholars for Academic Freedom has decided to be pro-active in challenging the online website the Canary Mission, because of the serious harm it has caused to students and faculty in California institutions of higher learning and, more broadly, to academic freedom in the United States. One of our first actions was to attend a University of California Regents meeting, held on January 16-17, 2019 to demand that they distance themselves publicly from the Canary Mission and also from UC donors who have contributed to supporting the Canary Mission. 

Statement at January 16, 2019 UC Regents Meeting:

We are the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 academics and intellectuals with a commitment to defend academic freedom and first amendment rights of faculty and students in California’s institutions of higher education, and we wish to speak to the question of the relationship between funding, fundraising and academic freedom at the University of California.  

We are concerned in general with how the University of California has increasingly bowed to the wishes of donors even when that means overriding the academic freedom of our own students and faculty.

The specific example of this problem we wish to focus on today concerns the Canary Mission. We have two actions we urge the UC Regents to take: one is to publicly distance itself from the Canary Mission. The second is to distance itself from one of the main funders of the Canary Mission: the Diller Foundation.

We wrote to UC President Napolitano in October 2018 about our deep concern that the University of California has been linked to a group, the Diller Foundation, that has provided financial support for an organization that is infamous for its suppression of free speech and academic freedom on US American campuses—the Canary Mission.

The Canary Mission, in operation for the last 3 and a half years, is an online blacklist that tries to smear the reputation of students and faculty who are critical of the policies of the state of Israel.  They do so by writing grossly distorted descriptions of these students and faculty on their website. Then they contact prospective employers to tell them not to hire our students; and they manipulate the internet to make sure their website comes up first when prospective employers examine students they might hire.

Besides employing a dangerously broad sense of “hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews,” Canary Mission’s “documentation” has proven to be seriously faulty and distortive.  It selectively picks out bits of information and repackages them to create a purposefully misleading portrait of the individual or organization it is targeting.  It has done so under the cover of anonymity, unable or unwilling to support and debate its accusations in public. Those who run this website have gone to great lengths to hide the digital and financial trail connecting it to its donors and staff. The website is registered through a secrecy service and, until recently, the site was untraceable.

It has smeared its targets and actively sought to defame them to prospective employers. This is a very real threat that has a devastating effect on students’ and professors’ free speech and academic freedom. Already we are aware of students whose job searches have been hampered or whose plans for study or travel to Palestine and Israel have been denied because of the defamation they received on Canary Mission’s website. Professors have been denied speaking engagements or grants and other opportunities to forward their research.

We have clear evidence of our undergraduates and graduate students losing out on jobs at universities all over the country, including in the UC system, because deans, provosts and chancellors do not want to have people on their campus who might upset donors. 

The Canary Mission expansively exploits the recent adoption of the US State Department’s definition of “anti-Semitism,” which includes speech critical of Israel. This definition has been robustly challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.  Even the author of this definition has made it clear that it was invented for entirely different purposes and has urged that it not be applied on university campuses, saying that it will cause more harm than good.

It was the Jewish periodical, The Forward, which, in October 2018, exposed the funding behind the Canary Mission.  Their uncovering of the Canary Mission emphasized their concern with the McCarthyite tactics of the Canary Mission that do not reflect well on Jewish constituencies.  Pro-Israel Jewish students and local Hillel professionals say it is damaging to their own work.  They accuse the Canary Mission of being counterproductive and morally reprehensible. The Forward is concerned that this blacklisting website has had blowback effects on Jewish students who are viewed suspiciously as the informers for the website.  

The student Senate at UC, Davis has passed a resolution condemning Canary Mission by name. The resolution says that Canary Mission, along with other blacklists, “threatens the security of student activists, as well as creates a toxic atmosphere of fear and paranoia among fellow students, thus infringing upon students’ ability to freely express their opinions.”  

We hope the UC Regents and President Napolitano will make a similar public statement about the Canary Mission.

As the Jewish periodical The Forward report, quote:

Canary Mission has been controversial since it appeared in mid-2015, drawing comparisons to a McCarthyite blacklist. While some of those listed on the site are prominent activists, others are students who attended a single event, or even student government representatives suspected of voting for resolutions that are critical of Israel.

 As The Forward notes quote: “In late 2016 or early 2017, the Helen Diller Family Foundation earmarked $100,000 for Canary Mission. It made the donation to the Central Fund of Israel, a New York-based charity that serves as a conduit for U.S. taxpayers seeking to make tax-exempt donations to right-wing and extremist groups in Israel. In its tax filings, the Diller Foundation listed the purpose of the grant as “CANARY MISSION FOR MEGAMOT SHALOM.”

Given the Diller Foundation’s financial support for an organization whose purpose is to stifle free speech and academic freedom, it should not be associated in any way with the University of California. Yet the president of the board of this Foundation, real estate developer Jaclyn Safier, sits on the Board of Visitors of the University of California, Berkeley, and is a Distinguished Director of the University of California at San Francisco Foundation. There appears to be a stark conflict of interest between Ms. Safier’s leading role in the Diller Foundation and her obligations to be a member of an “impartial” advisory body such as the UCB Visitors’ Board, to which the Regents have devolved substantial responsibility for financial matters and for the development of policy as well. According to the UCB Chancellor’s website, the Board of Visitors’ Board provides: “advice and support to the chancellor, executive vice chancellor and provost, and campus leadership. While the UC Regents have overall fiduciary responsibility for the system’s ten campuses, much responsibility is devolved to the campus level. At Berkeley, the chancellor’s leadership is strengthened by having an impartial, external group of advisors known as the Board of Visitors. The types of activities the board engages in are: considering the opportunities and risks facing the university, advising the campus on long-term strategy, helping to shape and advance key initiatives, reviewing and consulting on Berkeley’s annual operating and capital budgets and plans, and reviewing significant capital projects. Board members also advocate for the university with donors, the public, and policymakers.”   

While the Diller Foundation has recently distanced itself from the Canary Mission, it has made no public statement condemning it; neither have any of the UC Chancellors condemned this McCarthyite entity acting to the detriment of UC faculty and students in ways that allow no debate or critique and that are thus contrary to the public university’s basic principles.

We call on the UC Regents to make a public statement condemning the Canary Mission and to distance itself from the Diller Foundation, one of the major funders of the Canary Mission. To remain silent on this very troubling situation, you risk emboldening this and other well-funded groups that are attempting to harm the increasing numbers of students, faculty, and the broader community of higher education in our state who are taking a stand against injustice. By sending a strong message that you will not allow the university to become complicit in the activities of such groups, you can protect the rights of current and future generations of Californians to academic freedom and free speech.


(Correction: The original statement included a passage one could infer The Forward did not support Palestinian Rights. We regret this and offer our apologies ~ Ed.)

California Scholars for Academic Freedom

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (CS4AF) is a group of scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.

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3 Responses

  1. JWalters on January 24, 2019, 7:28 pm

    My deep thanks to all those involved in this petition to the UC Regents. The UC system is a research and education jewel, with a primary purpose of uncovering and disseminating facts and truth. Any donor who needs a role in decisions about research and teaching should have their donation refused. The sacrifice of intellectual integrity, when the core mission rests on intellectual integrity, is not worth a few bucks. Sacrificing intellectual integrity for money is a Faustian bargain. Any administrators who make such a deal with the devil should be replaced. A new building may be more immediately visible, but the underlying rot to society will become visible, and will far exceed the cost of the building.

  2. Misterioso on January 25, 2019, 10:31 am

    Bearing in mind the next election and the fact that Sheldon Adelson is a major contributor to Canary Mission, it is timely to revisit an article by Sina Toossi published in “Foreign Policy In Focus,” Dec. 8, 2015 and reposted in If Americans Knew Blog, Jan. 10, 2019

    “The pro-Israel billionaires & neocons behind Marco Rubio”

    “Rubio’s career has been funded from the beginning by multi-billionaire Israel partisans such as Normal Braman, Paul Singer, Sheldon Adelson, and Larry Ellison. Rubio has close ties to the pro-Israel neocons who pushed the U.S. into the disastrous Iraq war, and he advocates positions that would likely lead to still more war and violence.”

    “With pundits and columnists dissecting and critiquing every word uttered by GOP front-runners Ben Carson and Donald Trump, comparatively little attention has been paid to the positions and affiliations of a far more electable Republican presidential candidate: Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

    “Unlike Trump or Carson, Rubio is considered a stalwart member of the party’s establishment wing, standing out in the crowded Republican primary field for his comparatively moderate stances on issues such as immigration reform. While he lags behind Trump and Carson in most polls and runs neck-and-neck with “Tea Party” evangelical Ted Cruz, Rubio is primed to jump to first should the spectacle of the “anti-establishment” candidates finally run its course.

    “Beyond his veneer of reasonableness, however, Rubio has established himself as the most adept of the Republican candidates at regurgitating the militaristic talking points of the party’s neoconservative wing. His competency in this regard has earned him the favor of influential hawkish donors like Sheldon Adelson, as well as an array of neoconservative political operatives.

    “Rubio is in fact a dark horse candidate who, more explicitly than any of his competitors, would usher back into power the Bush-Cheney school of foreign policy.

    “Bolstered by an all-star cast of Bush-era foreign policy ideologues, the Florida senator has echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the ‘conditions’ do not exist for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; vowed to renege on the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on the country, potentially putting the United States on the path to another catastrophic war in the Middle East; and promised to rescind the Obama administration’s diplomatic achievements with Cuba, further alienating the United States in Latin America.”

    “Sheldon Adelson’s ‘Perfect Little Puppet’
    “Perhaps the most consequential relationship Rubio has built for his presidential campaign has been with billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — a major funder of Republican causes and hardline ‘pro-Israel’ initiatives in particular. Rubio’s courtship of the controversial mega-donor has spurred criticism even from Donald Trump, who tweeted in October: ‘Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!’

    “Obsessed with imposing his hawkish worldview on both U.S. and Israeli politics, Adelson has been described by veteran journalist Bill Moyers as the ‘unofficial head of the Republican Party’ and the ‘uncrowned King of Israel.’ Adelson doled out an estimated $100 million —more than anyone else in American history — during the 2012 presidential election, at first in support of Newt Gingrich and then to the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential ticket.

    “The key to Adelson’s wallet is the issue most near and dear to his heart — and the one on which he’s most out of step with decades of mainstream U.S. policy: Israel.

    “Adelson’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Middle East can most charitably be described as Manichaean. Less charitably, it’s racist and reactionary. Adelson has disparaged the two-state solution, denying even the existence of the Palestinians as a distinct people; called for a nuclear bomb to be dropped on Iran; and dismissed concerns that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was undermining its democracy with a ‘So what?’

    “Adelson is to the right of even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — or AIPAC, the famous ‘pro-Israel’ lobby — breaking with the group in 2007 over disagreements on U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. He’s instead propped up a host of uber-hawkish advocacy organizations that have helped make his extremist visions politically viable, such as the Zionist Organization of America, Christians United for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, among others.

    “In April, Politico reported that Rubio has ‘reached out to Adelson more often than any other 2016 candidate’ and ‘provided him with the most detailed plan for how he’d manage America’s foreign policy.’ The piece added that Rubio phones Adelson ‘every two weeks’ and is the ‘clear frontrunner’ to win the ‘Sheldon Adelson primary.’ A follow-up article in October added that a ‘formal endorsement’ is imminent, ‘and with it, the potential for a multimillion dollar contribution.'”

  3. genesto on January 25, 2019, 2:45 pm

    THIS is the kind of push back we need to divide, an ultimately conquer, the Zionist menace! Three cheers for the U.C. academics spearheading this effort!

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