This July, a group of over 150 artists and intellectuals issued a public letter in Harper’s Magazine warning of what they called a growing atmosphere of coerced ideological conformity in the U.S. Decrying an “intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism,” the letter went on to add that “restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
One of the people who found themselves agreeing with these noble sentiments was Hammam Farah. A Palestinian Canadian born in the Gaza Strip and raised between the United Arab Emirates and Canada, Farah spent years studying to become licensed as a therapist in Toronto. The letter resonated with him because he has had very intimate experience with what it feels like to have one’s free speech stifled: attacks on his student pro-Palestinian activism have dogged Farah into adulthood, leading to recurring problems in his professional life.
“When it comes to Palestinians standing up for our own rights, it’s very difficult. Our free speech and freedom of expression has been attacked over and over.”
“People are against cancel culture, and that’s great. I’m also very against it,” Farah said. “But the most outrageous cases of people getting canceled are Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with us. When it comes to Palestinians standing up for our own rights, it’s very difficult. Our free speech and freedom of expression has been attacked over and over.”
Amid the heated debate about free speech and censorship in the United States, the attacks against pro-Palestine activism stand as a less remarked upon yet much more ruthless type of silencing. Few of the high-profile public intellectuals who have staked claims on the militantly free speech side of the national debate have highlighted the incredible degree of suppression on speech supportive of Palestinian rights — particularly among ordinary people lacking access to elite platforms. It’s a blind spot not lost on people like Farah, who have experienced blacklists and other forms of suppression firsthand.
“We have to be consistent,” he said. “We have to recognize that there is a clear double standard here. And that is not right.”
Firings and censorship relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict long ago became common in both academia and politics. Just this month, a prominent academic, Valentina Azarova, had a job offer rescinded by the University of Toronto Faculty of Law after a major donor reportedly “expressed concerns in private over Azarova’s past work on the issue of Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine.”
Instead of taking up a defense of pro-Palestine speech, the debate among journalists and intellectuals has mostly focused on their own discomfort as a class. Yet, when it comes to this blind spot, the suppression of free speech targeting ordinary people has been fierce: threats to immigration status, personal lives, careers, restrictions on foreign travel, and more. And, unlike high-profile public figures able to call on magazines and newspapers for support when they feel silenced, Farah and other ordinary people targeted for their speech generally lack the ability to get their stories told. Lacking powerful platforms, they generally suffer their “cancellations” in mute anonymity.
“It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google my name, the claim that I’m a terrorist supporter and an extremist,” said A.H., a former activist working on Palestinian issues, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of suffering further consequences from speaking out.
Speaking nervously by phone, A.H. told me she had been peripherally involved in pro-Palestinian activism, including commenting online and attending protests. Her relatively low-level involvement in the cause had still gotten her listed on Canary Mission, a site maintained by anonymous pro-Israel activists to track activists, scholars, and students supportive of Palestinian nationalism. Canary Mission is difficult to describe as anything other than a blacklist. As with Farah and others, A.H.’s profile on the site became the most prominent online trace of her life. It had taken a toll not just on her career but on her personal life and mental health.
While some conservatives warn that a “soft-totalitarianism” of progressive intolerance is growing in the U.S., when it comes to Israel-Palestine, full-blown authoritarian coercion, like the blacklisting carried out by Canary Mission, is already well entrenched.
Even after ceasing all of her pro-Palestinian activism — no longer so much as posting on social media about the Middle East conflict, for instance — A.H. remains haunted by her place on the list.
“I’m afraid to apply for a new job or even update my LinkedIn to show where I’m working now,” she said. “Sometimes I meet people and then later they just disappear. I’m always left wondering if it’s because of what they saw when they searched my name online.”
“At first we can kind of joked about being listed on Canary Mission as a good way to see who you can date or be friends with by describing them as having good politics,” said Sumaya Awad, a former student activist at Columbia University. Awad, too, is listed on the Canary Mission site. She has also been involved in attempts to push back against it, including by helping found the website Against Canary Mission to raise awareness about the blacklist.
Though the site’s operators remain cloaked in anonymity, previous investigations into Canary Mission have pointed to a network of wealthy backers, including Israeli American real estate investor Adam Milstein. Unlike the version of “cancel culture” presently being debated by U.S. intellectuals, the version supported by Canary Mission is more dangerous for influencing government actions. The site is believed to be employed by Israeli government authorities for intelligence-gathering purposes. Chillingly, for the question of free speech in America, the blacklist has reportedly also been used by the FBI to question individuals over their activism. (Canary Mission did not respond to a request for comment.)
The percolation of Canary Mission’s content into official files is a massive cause of concern for those listed on its pages. Awad, a Palestinian from Jordan who lives in the U.S., worries that her immigration status puts her at particular risk from the type of blacklisting practiced by the site. Like many other Palestinians, being listed on the site can allow the Israeli military, which controls access to the Palestinian Territories, to physically bar entry to the territories — even for innocuous reasons like family visits. In 2018, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli authorities had internally cited Canary Mission profiles when making the decision to reject people for entry into Israel and, by extension, the Palestinian territories.
In Awad’s case, the concerns aren’t only centered on Israeli-controlled borders: She has also become concerned about the potential impact of being blacklisted even on her own ongoing U.S. immigration process. For many people from minority backgrounds already harshly scrutinized by law enforcement, or who do not have U.S. citizenship, inclusion on the blacklist can be a terrifying threat to their ability to live in the United States.
“Later on, when I was applying for immigration, I noticed that this page about me on Canary Mission — using these scare-words that had nothing to do with me like ‘terrorist-sympathizer’, ‘Hamas,’ and ‘anti-Semitism’ — was the first thing that came up when you Googled me,” Awad said. “I became really anxious about the blacklist after that and was scared if they’d reject my immigration status at some point without even telling me that that was the reason.”
Nothing on Awad’s profile, which includes accusations of supporting the Palestinian-led movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel and “demonizing Israel,” indicates that she has ever engaged in illegal activity or even espoused views that could be considered violent, extremist, or anti-Semitic. (The same holds for the several other people The Intercept spoke to for this story who had Canary Mission profiles.) Yet the site uses an astounding guilt-by-association logic that attempts to tie her to international terrorist groups.
To be removed from the list, individuals have to submit to a process with Canary Mission, whereby they write a testimonial apologizing for and disowning their previous activism. A number of these anonymous testimonies are included on the site on a page listing so-called ex-Canaries. The Intercept viewed an email chain showing the negotiation of one such confessional with Canary Mission site administrators, in which the prospective ex-Canary was forced to go back and delete several years of “anti-Israel” social media posts before submitting a genuflecting statement disowning their former views and promising to never engage in pro-Palestinian activism again.
Despite her concerns about being blacklisted, Awad has not taken up this unsettling offer. Her Canary Mission profile remains online.
“The Canary Mission blacklist has been very powerful in silencing people and making them think free speech is not their right. It instills a powerful sense of fear and paranoia.”
In addition to its effects on her, the fear of blacklisting, she said, has had a significant impact in silencing the speech of those around her.
“The Canary Mission blacklist has been very powerful in silencing people and making them think free speech is not their right,” she said. “It instills a powerful sense of fear and paranoia: You’re always left wondering if it’s going to be the reason a job doesn’t call back, a landlord declines you, or you have trouble going through airport security.”
Hammam Farah has faced years of difficulty thanks to his profile on Canary Mission’s website. In large part, these problems have emerged because of a moral imperative he had felt to become an activist.
During family visits to the occupied Palestinian territories in his youth, Farah developed an emotional attachment to the cause of Palestinian nationalism after witnessing the suffering of friends and family living under Israeli military occupation. “My grandparents passed away in Gaza, and I was not able to go back and see them beforehand because of the Israeli blockade,” Farah told me. “That had a big impact on me emotionally as a young man, as did seeing how painful life was for people living in Palestine during family visits.”
Feeling a duty to speak out for them, he became involved in campus activism related to Israel-Palestine as a university student in Toronto. That was what landed him on the notorious Canary Mission blacklist. Farah is now listed on a site with a profile that attempts to connect him to terrorist groups, anti-Semitism, and violence — effectively “canceling” him and encouraging others to do so as well.
The listing and other attacks on his character caused him serious problems as a student. But even after his graduation, it has continued to dog him in his professional career as a therapist. On numerous occasions, Farah has had regulatory applications related to his work delayed or prospective patients raise concerns about allegations made in his Canary Mission profile that he supported terrorism.
This summer, the same week the now-famous Harper’s letter was issued, Farah was informed that his application for licensing from the College of Registered Psychotherapy of Ontario had been held up after his presence on the Canary Mission blacklist was discovered during a Google search. After he reached out for support, an organization called the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network, issued a letter on Farah’s behalf stating that he had been “the victim of malicious targeting by a political organization devoted to blacklisting persons with whom it does not agree.”
“There’s a fear, every time that there’s a delay processing something, every time that something is flagged in connection to my name, this listing is the first thing that comes to my mind.”
After that intervention, Farah’s licensing application was pushed through. As a well-connected activist able to draw on a network of supporters, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. But the anxiety that future problems related to his blacklisting may come up always lingers. “There’s a fear, every time that there’s a delay processing something, every time that something is flagged in connection to my name, this listing is the first thing that comes to my mind,” he said.
As someone who has personally felt the cold fear that comes from being targeted for their political speech, Farah said that he also feels genuine sympathy for those from different backgrounds, like the signatories of the Harper’s letter, now expressing similar sentiments. Yet, as he noted, for years, and up to the present day, he and others have been viciously “canceled” without benefiting from an outcry by liberal civil society on their behalf.
Farah added that the same sort of language many of the Harper’s letter’s signatories object to — like the invocation of “safe spaces” at the expense of freewheeling and open debate — have also been used against advocates of Palestine. “There have been cases where arguments that were used to shut down right-wing campus speech were then used by pro-Israel advocates to shut down speech on Palestine,” Farah told me, adding that pro-Israel campus organizations had often claimed to university administrators that they “felt unsafe” due to the work of Palestinian activist organizations on campus.
“I agreed with the letter,” Farah told me of the Harper’s missive, “and had this view for many years, since I saw and experienced censorship and reprisal against Palestinian rights advocacy.” He just wishes some of the intellectuals behind the free-speech push might also take a look at the chilling threats to free speech that ordinary people like him have faced for years.