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Canary Mission: Blacklists Target Academics Who Criticize Israel

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
6th January 2024
Canary Mission: Blacklists Target Academics Who Criticize Israel
Gay resigned as Harvard University president due to external pressure (Getty)

After only six months as president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay resigned from her position following allegations of plagiarism. This was in reaction to what was described as an "inadequate response to growing anti-Semitism on campus." In her resignation letter, she referred to personal attacks “fueled by racial animosity," stating her wish to act in the “best interests” of the Harvard community and enable it to overcome the current tensions raised by the Israeli war on Gaza.

Jay's resignation came amid increasing pressure on her to step down after a congressional hearing into campus anti-Semitism on December 4 of last year. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik accused Gay of not enforcing code of conduct procedures on students to stop what she described as anti-Semitic speech on campus.

Claudine Gay resigned from her position following allegations of plagiarism

Stefanik claimed that in the name of freedom of expression, Harvard enabled hateful language and threats against the Jewish people. She focused on phrases such as “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” that were chanted at pro-Palestine marches on Harvard’s campus, suggesting these statements incited violence against Jewish people. However, advocate of these phrases stress that support for Palestine should not be confused with anti-Semitism.

However, Jay's colleagues at Harvard defended her. On December 11, more than 700 Harvard faculty members signed a letter urging to resist external pressure to remove Jay. But that did not work, and Jay wrote in her resignation letter, "It has become clear that it is in Harvard's best interest for me to resign, so that our community can navigate this extraordinarily challenging moment with a focus on the institution rather than any individual."

This comes as part of increasing pressure on academics in general, and Harvard University in particular, who express sympathy with Palestinians or criticize Israel's policies and practices. An organization called “Canary Mission” is behind these efforts, creating blacklists for students and professors sympathetic to Palestinians, publishing their statements, and accusing them of anti-Semitism to undermine their professional futures, similar to what the “CAMERA” organization does with journalists.

The organization maintains a blacklist divided into four sections: students, professors, and professionals across various fields and institutions. The latter list includes media sites such as “Mondoweiss” and “Electronic Intifada,” and organizations like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and the “Jewish Voice for Peace.” Each name on Canary's mission lists, which continue to expand daily, includes a file containing professional and several private details.

What Is Canary Mission?

On the organization's home page on its website, it claims to document "individuals and organizations promoting hatred of Jews in the United States and Israel on North American college campuses and beyond across the entire political spectrum, including far-right, far-left, and anti-Israel activists." Additionally, it aims to combat the activities of organizations involved in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which it describes as “anti-Semitic.”

Since mid-October 2023, a digital banner has been noticed at the top of the organization’s website stating, “Harvard and Pennsylvania students justify the Hamas massacre.” Clicking on the banner leads to a page where the organization says, “Harvard University is under scrutiny because of its response to a statement it issued.” The university's Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), which accused Israel of committing acts of violence and that the October 7 attacks did not come out of nowhere. The organization adds that the university's decision to form a working group to support the signatories instead of addressing the content of the statement raised serious questions about "the administration's priorities."

Canary Mission
Canary Mission

The organization also addresses the university president, Claudine Gay, saying that her condemnation of anti-Semitism and the establishment of an advisory council to combat anti-Semitism on campus are “long overdue” measures and that they did not enter into force until after causing great harm to the Jewish community and the university’s reputation, “which highlights the need for proactive, not reactive, leadership in protecting Jewish students.” The university president’s contact information, including phone number and email, was published publicly “for anyone who wants to contact her,” in addition to the names of the student bodies that signed the Palestine Solidarity Committee statement.

How Does Canary Mission Harass Those on Its Lists?

Journalist Owen Ray, as mentioned in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, highlighted, “The task does not stop at creating profiles of student leaders critical of Israel.” Concerning the Palestine Solidarity Committee's statement, those affiliated with Canary Mission documented anyone remotely involved in disseminating the message. For instance, one student blacklisted by the organization was a member of the Pakistan Students Association, having endorsed the statement. Ray noted that this action implied "membership in a cultural club was enough to classify them as anti-Semites who hate Jews."

Another student faced blacklisting for being a member of the South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA), which also signed the statement.

Canary Mission agents not only engaged in online defamation and blacklisting but also resorted to physical intimidation. In 2018, at George Washington University, on the eve of a vote regarding a student government resolution calling for the university to divest from companies profiting from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, two robust men dressed in canary yellow suddenly appeared in the university lobby – the designated voting venue.

Their goal was to promote Canary Mission fliers that had been widely posted around campus advising students to vote against the resolution and to attack student activists by saying, “There are no secrets. We will know your vote and we will act accordingly,” according to eyewitness Abby Brock, a Jewish student who was active in Pro-Palestinian groups at the university, described the event as “very unbelievably terrifying... these two full-grown, muscular men wearing these bird costumes, strutting around.” She said that as she walked home that night, she carefully watched who was behind her.

Similar Stories for Victims of Canary Mission

Canary Mission functions as the primary intelligence source for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Its mission extends beyond silencing anti-Israel opposition; it utilizes its list of names to prevent these individuals from entering Israel and the Palestinian territories, including those attempting to visit their families including Jews, Palestinians, professors, and students.

It is believed that the organization’s website is used by Israeli government authorities for intelligence-gathering information purposes. The impact of its use is not limited to the geographical Israeli borders, as it threatens freedom of expression in the United States as well. According to an investigation conducted by “The Intercept”, the FBI also used the Canary Mission blacklist to interrogate individuals about their activities.

Among those harassed due to their presence on the list was Lara Al-Qassem, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American student planning to study in a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Despite holding a valid visa, she underwent questioning shortly after landing at Tel Aviv airport, as reported by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

Lara Al-Qassem, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American student planning to study in a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

During this process, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs sent a “sensitive” document containing a profile from Canary Mission recounting her crime: “She served as president of the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida. Worse still, her office called for a boycott of some types of Israeli hummus.” She was then detained for weeks awaiting deportation proceedings. However, after a letter of protest signed by more than 300 professors and other academics from the United States and around the world at the time, rejecting all forms of racial profiling, an Israeli court approved her appeal to enter the country.

Another victim was Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a former member of the steering committee of the academic advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, an airport official showed her what appeared to be her Canary Mission profile. After being detained for 14 hours, she was deported and informed that she would be permanently banned from entering the country, according to “The Forward” newspaper.

The leakage of Canary Mission's lists into official files is a major concern for those listed on its pages. Somaya Awad, a Palestinian student activist at Columbia University living in the United States, fears that her inclusion on the Canary Mission blacklist threatens her immigration status. Like many other Palestinians, their inclusion on the site could allow the Israeli military, which controls access to the Palestinian territories, to effectively deny entry into their country, even for innocuous reasons such as family visits, as happened in several stories reported by Haaretz. 2018.

In Awad's case, as recounted to “The Intercept,” concerns extend beyond Israel's controlled borders. She worries about the potential impact of being blacklisted on her immigration status in the United States. For many minorities already under strict scrutiny by authorities or without U.S. citizenship, blacklisting poses a threatening barrier to living in the United States.

For many minorities already under strict scrutiny by authorities or without U.S. citizenship, blacklisting poses a threatening barrier to living in the United States

Awad says “Later, when I was applying for immigration, I noticed that my page on the Canary Mission website used scary words that had nothing to do with me like ‘terrorism sympathizer, Hamas, and ‘anti-Semitism.' That was the first thing that came up when I Googled myself. I became very worried about the blacklist after that, and I was afraid that at some point they would deny my immigration status without even telling me that was the reason."

Nothing in Awad's profile, accused of supporting the Palestinian-led movement for boycotting, divesting, and imposing sanctions on Israel and "demonizing Israel," suggests involvement in illegal activities or adopting views deemed violent, extremist, or anti-Semitic. The same applies to numerous others on the list, who shared their stories with various media outlets. However, the site employs the fallacy of ‘guilt by association,’ attempting to connect them to internationally discredited allegations and charges.

Humiliation for Removal From Canary Mission’s Lists

Once a name is on the Canary Mission blacklist, removing it becomes nearly impossible. Owen Rae writes, “They publish personal information and hold it over people's heads. It's political blackmail, a reprehensible behavior that stifles political discourse.”

According to the testimonies of individuals listed on Canary Mission, getting removed involves an extensive back-and-forth process with the organizers. This process entails writing a certificate in which they apologize for and disavow their previous activities. The organization's website contains several anonymous testimonials on a page named "Ex-Canaries," featuring letters from those initially listed on the mission but later removed.

Humiliation for Removal From Canary Mission’s Lists

These published messages express deep remorse and apology. Emails obtained by “The Intercept” show that a listed individual was coerced into removing “anti-Israel” social media posts spanning several years before submitting a statement disavowing their past views and pledging to refrain from pro-Palestinian activism.

Despite concerns about blacklisting, many individuals blacklisted refused to accept such offers, resulting in their files remaining on the Canary Mission website to this day.

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