S.A. was a high school sophomore when she had her first personal encounter with the post-9/11 surveillance state. It was 2010, and the federal government’s security apparatus had taken a particular interest in New York Muslims like herself. One of her classmates called the FBI to report that S.A. was a threat.
Federal agents responded to the call and questioned S.A about terrorism, after which she grew paranoid about government surveillance and deleted her Facebook. Still, a year later, she felt comfortable enough to get back online.
That comfort didn’t last. Her paranoia and anxiety blew up again in 2015. At the time, she was the head of a campus Students for Justice in Palestine group and advocated for boycotting Israel. S.A. was placed on the website Canary Mission, which compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels them racists, anti-Semites, and supporters of terrorism.
Being placed on Canary Mission led her to close all her social media pages to the public. She stopped posting on Tumblr. She hasn’t created a LinkedIn, even though that could hinder future job searches. And when she contemplates her future, S.A.’s anxiety flares up again because of her profile on Canary Mission, which focused on, among other things, her criticism of her school system’s support for Israel and her participation in protests condemning Israel’s use of force on Palestinians.
“My anxiety is so bad I literally have put off applying to grad school for the past two years because I’m afraid that this will be part of the reason I’m rejected,” she told The Intercept. “[Canary Mission] updates the page, so I know there’s someone who looks for me online and updates every few months, which just feels incredibly scary.”
Canary Mission’s growth coincides with the increasing strength of the Palestinian rights movement in the United States, and S.A. is one of more than 1,000 students, professors, and activists that the website has placed in its crosshairs.
Since it first splashed on the web three years ago, the blacklist has taken a remarkable toll on activists’ mental health and ability to engage in free speech and public advocacy on Palestine. A survey of over 60 people profiled on Canary Mission, conducted by the group Against Canary Mission, found that 43 percent of respondents said they toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website.
Their shared experiences include feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and in some cases, stepping back from Palestinian rights activism.
The Intercept spoke with 13 people, all of them current or former students, who are profiled on Canary Mission. The majority of them, like S.A., requested anonymity because they were afraid that speaking out about the blacklist would result in additional harassment. Their shared experiences include feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and in some cases, stepping back from Palestinian rights activism — mirroring the results of the Against Canary Mission survey. Some reported receiving death threats online when Canary Mission tweets about them, and others said they believe they have had a tough time finding a job because of their inclusion on the list.
The blacklist has become especially frightening, some activists said, because it’s being used by law enforcement in Israel and the United States. Palestinian rights advocates have been interrogated and deported from Israel because of their Canary Mission profiles. Others have been interrogated by the FBI, as The Intercept reported in June.
Canary Mission has grown alongside the explosion of a nationwide panic over campus free speech manufactured by right-wing activists and supported by some leading liberal writers. But in the face of Canary Mission’s actual threat to free speech and activism on college campuses, those supposedly concerned with the silencing of dissenting voices have largely remained mum on how the website deters speech and activism.
While Canary Mission promotes itself as a group working against anti-Semitism, the blacklist’s effective goal is to clamp down on growing support for Palestine in the United States by intimidating and tarnishing Palestinian rights advocates with the brush of bigotry. Many students were added after they got involved in campaigns led by Students for Justice in Palestine to get their universities to divest from corporations that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Some profiles on Canary Mission do highlight actual bigotry, but critics of the blacklist say the profiles are often based on quotes ripped out of context, and wrongly conflate support for Palestinian human rights with support for violence or anti-Semitism. (Canary Mission is a reference to the phrase “canary in the coal mine,” which the group sees as a “metaphor for the persecution of a minority that subsequently spreads to the general populace.”)
“Targets of Canary Mission have been denied entry to Palestine, fired from jobs, interrogated by employers and university administrators, and targeted with death threats and racial, homophobic misogynist harassment from Canary Mission followers,” said Liz Jackson, a founding staff attorney for Palestine Legal, a group that has interviewed over 200 people targeted by Canary Mission. “We know one person who was denied a bank account. People have reported their relationships with parents and business relationships being damaged. And that doesn’t begin to describe the self-censorship and psychological warfare effects.”
Canary Mission perfectly articulated its vision and strategy in its April 2015 debut video. The two-minute clip features images of Jews with yellow stars on their clothes followed by images of hijab-clad women waving Palestinian flags. The video’s female narrator closes by saying, “It is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
Along with the ominous video, Canary Mission’s website went live with dozens of profiles of students and academics who were critical of Israel. The profiles feature students’ names, professions, photos, screenshots of social media posts that included critiques of Israel, and allegations that Students for Justice in Palestine intimidates and assaults Jewish students. Many allegations of anti-Semitism are based on declarations of support for Palestine and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that targets Israel over human rights abuses.
The website was anonymously run, making it even more creepy. But in the three years since Canary Mission went online, journalists — most notably Josh Nathan-Kazis of The Forward — have slowly peeled back the careful veneer of anonymity the site constructed.
Earlier this year, The Forward uncovered two sources of funding for the website. The Helen Diller Family Foundation, a charity controlled by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, gave the website $100,000 in late 2016 or early 2017, while the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, between November 2016 and September 2017, sent $250,000 to an Israeli nonprofit thought to operate the website. (Both charities said they would no longer be funding the blacklist.) The Forward also reported that the Israeli nonprofit linked to the site, Megamot Shalom, is run by former employees of Aish HaTorah, a right-wing Orthodox Jewish organization. (Requests for comment sent to Jonathan Bash, an ex-Aish HaTorah employee who The Forward identified as the operator of the website, and Canary Mission were not returned.)
A clip from Al Jazeera’s undercover investigation into the Israel lobby in the United States showed a pro-Israel advocate pointing to another funder of Canary Mission: Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American real estate magnate who funds an alphabet soup of pro-Israel organizations. No hard proof has emerged that Milstein is in fact a funder, though Milstein, who denied he gave the website cash, has praised the blacklist.
The puncturing of Canary Mission’s anonymity has done little to slow it down.
But the puncturing of Canary Mission’s anonymity has done little to slow it down. The website continues to add information on Palestinian rights advocates, and has continued to single out activists on Twitter, which in turn leads Canary Mission’s followers to harass those activists. (Canary Mission has been suspended from Twitter twice, but its account was reinstated both times.)
In its dossiers, Canary Mission also links to the Facebook profiles of the activists it targets. R.G., a member of SJP at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that after Canary Mission added him to its blacklist, he started receiving threatening messages to his Facebook account.
“My first quarter at UCLA, someone said they were going to come to UCLA and kill me. And I had to move out of my dorm,” he told The Intercept.
The harassment happens in the offline world, too. D.G., the president of an SJP chapter at an Illinois university, is a resident adviser in a dorm. She says that two of her fellow resident advisers found her profile on Canary Mission, printed out a dossier on her based on her Canary Mission profile, and gave it to her boss in an unsuccessful effort to get her fired.
Many of those on the blacklist say it has harmed their mental health.
“I had a dissociative panic attack when I was added,” said K.G., a Chicago-based activist who was involved in Palestine solidarity work while in college. “It seemed like my world had changed because all of these hateful and violent things attached with my picture had just been lobbed into the public sphere.”
That Canary Mission mostly goes after people of color, who are often already at a disadvantage in a job market rife with discrimination, makes the blacklist even more harmful. Moreover, Palestinians and Arabs listed on the site say that it reinforces pernicious stereotypes.
“When you’re Arab and you’re on it, you’re automatically guilty. There’s no question that you’re an anti-Semite, or whatever it is they want to accuse you of,” said one woman blacklisted by Canary Mission. She noted that the uniqueness of Arabic names makes it more likely that Arabs on the list will be impacted by the dossiers. “If my name was Mark Smith, you could Google me all you want, you’re not going to find anything on it,” she said. “But for me, when it first happened, it was the first hit when you Google my name.”
Canary Mission has also led people to quiet their support of Palestinian rights. One organizer of a national Students for Justice in Palestine conference held in mid-November said many students decided not to attend because of fear of the blacklist.
“It’s killing the student movement,” said Rani al-Hindi, who was a member of Palestine activist groups at Hunter College in New York. “We’re not able to organize any big actions, have any big events, organize for the divestment campaign that has launched. There is a lot of intimidation.”
Still, some who are listed on the Canary Mission website, particularly those who are more established in their workplace or school program, have not backed down from their advocacy.
“Resistance has to continue no matter how dire the material manifestations are.”
“In my mind, I had to keep going just as strong as and stronger than before,” said Omar Zahzah, who said he was one of the first people placed on the website while organizing with University of California, Los Angeles’s SJP. “From a historic perspective, resistance has to continue no matter how dire the material manifestations are. That kind of spirit, of needing to continue in the struggle no matter what, is my guiding inspiration.”
Online blacklists of advocates for Palestine have existed for more than 15 years. The most notable precursor to Canary Mission was Campus Watch, a website run by Daniel Pipes, an academic known for his hawkish foreign policy views and antipathy to Arabs and Muslims. Pipes’s blacklist, launched in 2002, targeted professors who were critical of Israel and U.S. foreign policy, and encouraged students to report their professors to Campus Watch. While Campus Watch took the original dossiers on professors down, the website still lists “professors to avoid” because of their politics.
But Canary Mission, born in an era of ubiquitous social media use, is of a different breed.
It lists many more people than Campus Watch did at any time. It targets students, rather than well-known professors, and it often appears as the first Google result for a search of a student’s name. It has also leveraged the power of social media, tweeting its dossiers and giving Israel’s most vociferous online warriors a list of targets to harass.
“It is the most significant and effective of pro-Israel groups at intimidating activists,” said Bill Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University and a creator of Against Canary Mission. “This is because it is omnipresent, on the web, 24/7, virile, and constantly reproducing and updating its results.”