A Shadowy Political Organization That Targets College Students
Their controversial tactics threaten free speech for everyone
BEFORE THE FACEBOOK THREATS, before the Twitter trolls, before the aggressive online shaming and accusations of terrorism, there were posters. They first appeared at the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles on a February day in 2015. The enlarged black and white photographs depicted a horrific scene: two men in black ski masks standing over another man—appearing to be a hostage—with a sack over his head. “Students For Justice In Palestine” read the text across the top of the poster, followed by the hashtag #JewHaters.
The jarring images were pasted up along the busiest areas of UCLA, ensuring thousands of passing students, faculty, and visitors would see them. University administrators quickly took them down, deeming the material inappropriate for a “healthy” campus climate. Over the following year, however, new posters would mysteriously appear, each one as inflammatory as the last. “SJP: Regardless of How They Picture Themselves, This Is Who They Really Are” read one such poster, featuring a photo of a young Palestinian child dressed in combat gear and holding a rifle. The hashtag #StopTheJihadOnCampus appeared at the bottom.
The campaign’s targets, members of Students for Justice in Palestine, are known among the campus community simply as SJP. “They were just really nasty, inciteful images trying to demonize SJP,” says Rahim Kurwa, a 30-year-old graduate student in the sociology department and a member of the UCLA student group, which formed in 2005 and describes itself as a “solidarity organization” that was “organized to support the Palestinian struggle for justice and equal rights. “ With several dozen chapters in various schools around the country, SJP is far from fringe. But as the organization—which opened its first chapter in 1993—has become influential in campus debates on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it has also aroused the censure of right-wing and pro-Israel groups who characterize pro-Palestine activism as inherently anti-Semitic.
The posters cropped up shortly after UCLA’s undergraduate student government passed a “Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions” resolution in 2014 that proposed the school, along with the UC system, withdraw economic investment from American companies supporting the exploitation or occupation of Palestinian resources. The UCLA resolution’s text singles out construction giant Caterpillar, tech behemoth Hewlett-Packard, and the aviation arm of General Electric, among others. This “win” was largely symbolic, representing a larger trend in college campuses across California. In the past six years, more than 40 similar proposals have been approved by student governments. But victory for SJP at UCLA didn’t come easily. Before the divestment resolution passed, members dedicated a two-year-long campaign to promoting a previous failed divestment resolution, and to fending off a separate anti-divestment resolution, which also failed. Frequent discursive battles played out in the op-ed section of the campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin.
Then came a now-legendary Undergraduate Students Association Council meeting that lasted 12 hours, in which they passed the resolution. The contentious vote left at least one impassioned anti-divestment student council member in frantic tears. Her hysteria documented on YouTube has generated 116,000-plus views.
It was within this tense political climate that the anti-SJP posters began appearing on campus. A few days after the first ones went up, the creator of the poster campaign came forward. David Horowitz, the 77-year-old founder of a conservative think tank and website called the David Horowitz Freedom Center, took credit in a February 2015 interview with the Jewish Journal. He conceived his organization as a “School of Political Warfare,” whose mission is “to defend free societies which are under attack from enemies within and without, both secular and religious,” according to its website. The organization’s founder and namesake is a leftist-turned-conservative writer based in Southern California. Under the auspices of the Freedom Center, Horowitz operates a number of other sites, including FrontPage Magazine, Jihad Watch, and Stop the Jihad On Campus.
“I know the university security there is of course investigating [the posters],” he said in the Jewish Journal interview. “Instead of investigating SJP, they are investigating us. This is a clear, absolutely indisputable free speech issue. … We have the right to express ourselves the way every other group has a right to express itself.”
This new campaign, organized under Stop the Jihad on Campus, was made possible by a grant of an undisclosed amount from the Maccabee Task Force, a pro-Israel organization founded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, according to a Los Angeles Times report, though the Maccabee Task Force later issued a denial of the report. The same report found that the task force has disbursed millions of dollars to pro-Israel projects, and has even allocated funds to UCLA’s Hillel, a Jewish student organization, to send students to Israel. Using the donation, the Horowitz Freedom Center promised even more posters on campuses across the country. But this kind of outside interference has not been welcomed by all pro-Israel advocates at UCLA. At least two major Jewish student groups—Bruins for Israel and J Street U—made statements to the Journal condemning the Freedom Center’s campaign. “The David Horowitz Freedom Center, which coordinated these posters, acted with no consultation from the UCLA Jewish or pro-Israel community,” said J Street U. “Their actions, and especially Horowitz’s statements in a recent interview, lead us to seriously question their commitment to the health of our community.”
The following March, Horowitz appeared in person at the Freedom Center’s annual West Coast retreat to deliver the keynote address. “It’s kind of obvious the Jews are the canaries in the mine,” he said to the audience, which had congregated at a resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. “The canaries were taken by miners, as you know, into the mines, and when the canary died you knew there was gas in the mine and you better get out. So the Jews are there to identify the threat.”
Less than two months later, in May of 2015, CanaryMission.org went live. The goal of the site was to target pro-Palestine students on American campuses, publicly labeling them as anti-Semitic. Its anonymous founders and organizers identify themselves on the website only as “students and concerned citizens” and describe the site as a database “to document people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and the Jewish people, particularly on college campuses in North America.”
The site profiles individuals around the country who have been involved in pro-Palestine activism on campus, including campaigns to cut economic and political ties to Israel. According to its ethics policy, the site’s administrators select individuals to highlight based on broad criteria of what they consider to be anti-Semitic—including “promoting [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] in any of its forms” and “using language or speech that demonizes Jews, Israel or supporters of Israel.” This language effectively blurs the line between what is considered to be legitimate criticism of the Israeli state and anti-Jewish hate speech.
Canary Mission’s SEO is powerful, which means that mentions appear very high in search rankings, essentially “outing” students to anyone Googling their names and possibly inciting discrimination by potential employers or admissions officers. It also encourages its supporters to submit individuals to the site. In its early days the Canary Mission featured only a couple dozen profiles of students and faculty members, an overwhelming number of them from UCLA. But over the course of the year, new profiles were being added at an alarming rate—with equally alarming consequences.
ON A JANUARY DAY in 2016, Sumaya Awad, then a religion and politics major at Williams College in Massachusetts, received an unnerving Facebook message that read: “ur on canary mission… More like **we’re on canary mission. All of us.” The message was from a friend at Columbia University. Awad had heard of the site. Since its appearance in 2015, it had become notorious within pro-Palestine organizing circles.
A link directed Awad to her Canary Mission profile. The page included links to her Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Facebook profiles, along with photos and screenshots of social media posts. Most disturbing to Awad was her “biography,” a haphazard Wikipedia-style entry detailing her work as one of the founders and leaders of SJP at Williams College. In the sidebar, Canary Mission invited visitors to download her profile as a printable PDF.
Soon after Awad’s profile was published, Canary Mission’s official Twitter account—which is updated on an almost hourly schedule every day—began trolling her. “Sumaya Awad @sumayaawad demonizes Israel w/ lies. Welcome to @CanaryMission.” A photo of Awad’s face was attached. Canary Mission’s followers respond with vitriol: “is part of the attraction getting to wear all those hijabs & keffiyehs? just like little kids playing dress-up,” mocked one user, referring to Awad’s headscarf.
Awad was unfazed. “My initial reaction was pride,” she says. “I was even making jokes about how they had missed a few things here and there that they needed to add. But I was a graduating senior, and as the semester came to a close, the reality of unemployment and immigration conflicts that I was beginning to face set in.”
Awad is Palestinian, but was raised in Jordan and is attending school in the United States as an international student. She graduated not long after the profile went up, and as she began looking for work and preparing to apply to law school, she worried that potential employers, admissions officers, and even immigration officials performing a perfunctory search would discover her Canary Mission profile. Type in her name and the site is the first result that appears. Worse, she worried it would affect her ability to travel back and forth between the United States and Jordan to visit her family. “That was very unsettling and alarming, the psychological stress of knowing that this exists,” she says. “It’s calling me anti-Semitic, and distorting and manipulating all the work that I’ve done, basically taking all this advocacy for Palestinian human rights, taking my right to free speech.”
Leah Muskin-Pierret, a graduate of Tufts University and a former member of SJP who recently popped up on Canary Mission, sees the site as “pretty much an Islamophobic and racist hate speech site.”
“They’re trying to say, ‘You will pay a price for doing this activism,’” she says. As an American Jew, Muskin-Pierret says, she finds herself “much less vulnerable to the kind of hatred the Canary Mission spreads.” The information on the site is often inaccurate or out of date, she says, because the data collection is culled from whatever can be found online. The photos and quotes included in each profile are selectively edited. Biographies often note ominously if a student is also part of the Muslim Student Association, an organization unaffiliated with SJP, a practice that exploits anti-Muslim sentiments and draws a connection between “terrorism,” “Palestine,” and “Islam.”
The site’s use of these kinds of tactics and discourse has primed it for criticism from all sides of the Palestinian-Israeli debate. Jonathan Paul Katz, a writer with the American Jewish publication The Forward, called the site a “blacklist” that constituted a “moral failure” for the Jewish community. The Jewish digital magazine Tablet characterized it as “anti-anti-Semitic fundamentalism.” The leftist site Alternet published a four-part investigative series by writer Max Blumenthal linking Canary Mission to David Horowitz as well as conservative writer Daniel Pipes, whom he called the site’s “de-facto spokesman.” In response to a request to be interviewed for this article, Pipes wrote: “I fear that, as with nearly everything he says or writes, Max Blumenthal is inaccurate about this too. I am not a spokesman, de jure or de facto, for Canary Mission.” Pipes says his relationship to the organization is that he “tweeted about it.”
It remains unclear who runs the site—reports vary, and Horowitz has not taken credit. He also did not respond to requests for an interview. But this past fall, the Freedom Center began printing new posters, which again showed up on the UCLA campus, again in the school’s most well-trafficked areas. This time, his organization took things a step further, listing names, including several students and faculty who were affiliated with or had expressed support for SJP, on the posters. It called the divestment effort a “Hamas-inspired genocidal campaign to destroy Israel.” Every name listed also had a Canary Mission profile. The Canary Mission Twitter account later tweeted a photo of the posters, commending the Freedom Center for its work.
“I could see the possibility of someone seeing one of those posters and deciding to take matters into their own hands,” says Rahim Kurwa, a longtime SJP activist who was named. “That was a definite escalation and something we were actually concerned about, in terms of physical safety of students.”
In response, Jerry Kang, a professor of law and the vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion, sent an email to the campus community rebuking the stunt, writing that the materials were in clear violation of campus policy. Kang wrote: “The chilling psychological harm cast by such blacklist campaigns … cannot be dismissed as over-sensitivity. If you don’t find these posters repulsive, consider your own name on them with whatever ludicrous stigmas that outsiders could conjure up. And if this isn’t enough, consider what might follow.”
The Horowitz Freedom Center soon responded by posting up caricatures of Kang’s face around campus: “Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang: Advocate of Campus Terrorist Sympathizers,” the new images read.
For the targeted students, the consequences of the poster campaign manifested in different ways. When Agata Palma, a 29-year-old graduate student and former divestment director for UCLA SJP, first noticed her name on the new Freedom Center posters, she worried the exposure would damage her fledgling career as a teacher. “I had this fear that my students would just walk by and see it,” she says. When she Googles herself, her profile on Canary Mission tops search results. The threat of notoriety has made her wary of discussing Palestine in the classroom. “I always avoid it now,” says Palma, whose focus of study includes colonialism. “Because my name’s already up there, I feel like there’s things I can and can’t say.”
She felt intimidated by whoever had cobbled together her Canary Mission bio. “Somebody is spending their hours going through somebody else’s Facebook and screenshotting things,” says Palma. “The creepiest thing, though, was the messages. It makes you feel like the website is doing its job.” After her profile went up last year, she began receiving strange comments on Facebook. “This one guy had gone through every single picture of mine, and he kept writing the same comment about how I support terrorism.”
Other students who were named were also afraid to speak out about Canary Mission, worrying their complaints would further publicize the site and improve its rankings. This past summer, the situation reached a fever pitch, as hundreds of names—students, faculty, and individuals from all over the country—were added to the database. Canary Mission had cast a wide, improbable net of anti-Semitic conspiracy, potentially ruining lives in the process. Several of the accused decided it was time to take action.
IN SEPTEMBER, the website Against Canary Mission went live. The site included a letter signed by more than 1,000 faculty across the country—supporters of both Palestine and Israel—condemning Canary Mission. “We recognize that student advocacy for Palestinian human rights is not inherently anti-Semitic, and that such advocacy represents a cherished and protected form of free speech that is welcome on college campuses,” the letter reads. “We reject the McCarthyist tactics used by Canary Mission.”
The petition includes the signatures of professors like UCLA’s Robin D.G. Kelley and Sarah Haley, both of whom were targeted by the Freedom Center posters, as well as Cynthia Franklin, an English professor at the University of Hawaii who is a member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. “If, in fact, Canary Mission was an outlier, unique phenomenon, I think that I would not be that interested in working against it,” says Franklin. “But I think it’s a somewhat uglier version of what we are seeing a lot of, which are well-funded efforts to cast any criticism of Israel’s human rights violations as anti-Semitism.” Several hours after this site went live, Franklin, who is Jewish, discovered someone had created a Canary Mission page for her, complete with a 2,700-word bio. A link to it was quickly tweeted out to Canary Mission’s 12,000 or so followers and included her photo.
Franklin argues this isn’t just a matter of politics. “I think this is something that everybody, whether or not they care about Palestine, should be very concerned with,” says Franklin. She places part of the blame on external influences using donations to back pro-Israel initiatives, which exacerbates campus conflict. A Los Angeles-based real estate investor named Adam Milstein was recently accused of earmarking special funds for UCLA Hillel. According to leaked emails obtained by two independent, student-run newspapers, he allegedly used donations to support student government candidates who demonstrated pro-Israel views. Jewish organizations like the AMCHA Initiative, Horowitz’s Freedom Center, and the Maccabee Task Force have a reputation for shutting out pro-Palestine views from the university. This past October, more posters by the Freedom Center went up at UCLA
These institutions say they’re protecting Jewish students from bigotry. But funding from outside forces potentially upsets the balance of grassroots college activism, inappropriately influencing campus politics and creating a chilling effect on otherwise robust political debates among peers. Universities are often the frontlines of changing attitudes and progressive politics. As pro-divestment resolutions become increasingly popular on college campuses, there appears to be a growing effort to thwart a broader cultural conversation supporting Palestine. A recent Pew Research poll revealed that millennial Americans are more likely than older Americans to sympathize with the Palestinian cause. Efforts like Canary Mission and the Freedom Center’s poster campaign are part of an attempt to stem the tide of pro-divestment sentiment so it doesn’t overflow into mainstream channels.
The Against Canary Mission petition and website represents, at least, a rhetorical protest to Canary Mission’s secretive founders. Currently, the page bears only the letter and its signatories. But the coalition of students and faculty behind Against Canary Mission say they’re also considering creating new profiles for the students and faculty featured on the site—profiles that, instead, celebrate their activism. “They’re not succeeding at what they aim to do,” says Muskin-Pierret, a member of Against Canary Mission. “I think of them more as your everyday internet trolls.”
Meanwhile, Canary Mission continues churning out profiles, but critics predict it will flame out—the more names, the less credible the assertion that everyone it targets is an anti-Semite. These accusations, however, continue to potentially threaten the livelihoods of people like Sumaya Awad, who fears her pro-BDS work might affect her employment or immigration status. But she won’t let it stop her from organizing. “What this means is that our tactics are working. That [the divestment campaign] is working. That’s what’s pushing the other side to create things like Canary Mission,” she says. “It’s showing that activism works.”
The Origin of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)
Modeled after South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian groups as a form of non-violent activism against the state of Israel. There are three demands: a removal of the wall separating the West Bank and an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories; the abolition of discriminatory laws that marginalize Arab citizens of Israel; and Israeli recognition of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes in what is now Israel, a right recognized by the United Nations. Eleven years ago, a handful of activists with the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) began pushing their colleges to back BDS, lobbying for student body resolutions calling on their schools to divest from Israeli firms. There are critics of the BDS movement, however, who argue that activists are singling out the Israeli state.
Art by Mike McQuade