On February 17, 2015, a number of America’s most vituperative anti-Israel activists woke up to discover that they had been named and spotlighted by a mysterious new website called Canary Mission. The site boldly aggregates the public statements, videos, and photographs of leading members of the organized movement against Israel in their most telling and often most demonstrative moments.
The profiled individuals span a gamut of track records ranging from those with leadership roles with such intensely anti-Israel groups as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association to unaffiliated campus agitators who regularly advocate for the destruction of Israel and even the murder of Jews. All its profiles are compiled from public Internet sources such as social media, YouTube, Twitter, press releases, news clips, and interviews.
In essence, Canary Mission took a card from the New Israel Fund, which some years ago helped finance the Coalition of Women for Peace that created the Who-Profits database that acted as a global compass of Israeli commercial activity for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions strategies. Canary Mission flipped the card and blacklisted the blacklisters.
Because Canary Mission works beneath a complete shroud of secrecy, it has been called “shadowy.” It is commonly labelled as McCarthy-like in its actions within the pages of leading Jewish and mainstream media, as well as political websites, even though its modus operendi is obviously the opposite of McCarthyism. Even sources as tenuous as Wikipedia define McCarthyism as “the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence,” as was done during the anti-Communist scare of the 1950s. Canary Mission relies on vetted, publicly visible pictures, protest placards, open statements, and video clips that speak for themselves and are primarily drawn from previously well-publicized activities. In other words, Canary Mission aggregates publically verifiable information into a single place. It is not clear why media outlets have not made the historical distinction or provided context.
At press time, more than 120 individuals and six leading anti-Israel organizations are pictured in the Canary Mission alphabetized gallery, with more being added daily. The site’s database is searchable by name, organization, college, or “other.” For example, when “UCLA” is searched, the results show news, developments, and pictured individuals associated with UCLA in one combined list.
Canary Mission does not hide its intent of ensuring that the virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic protest actions, disruptions, defamation campaigns, and intimidation tactics follow the perpetrators beyond the campus into their settled-down jobs and career years. A Canary Mission YouTube video invites prospective employers to consider the past record of demonstrative anti-Semitic and anti-Israel conduct. For example at 00:23, the Canary Mission YouTube video screens a 2009 hijab-wearing Ft. Lauderdale protestor chanting at pro-Israel supporters: “Go back to the ovens. You need a big oven, that’s what you need.”
It wasn’t long before Canary Mission became the target of extreme obscenity-laced anti-Semitic comments as well as open threats of violence. The hacker group Anonymous publicly vowed to retaliate against the website and even opened an attack Twitter account, #opcanarymission. Quickly, Canary Mission became even more reticent about revealing its identity or even any information about its physical location. “Many of our detractors just want to know who we are so they can physically harm us,” Canary Mission wrote on its blog, justifying its secrecy.
With threats of violence and intimidation, Canary Mission vastly restricted its communication with all journalists and inquiring souls to email and social media. Voice contact became strictly verboten. Typical was an article in one prominent Jewish newspaper which related, “A person named Joanna responded via email to a request for comment from the group, agreeing to an interview but then not calling this reporter over two days. Joanna also did not respond to a list of questions submitted about the group.” A few moments after this writer read that newspaper article, I sent a four-word email “contact me back thanks” submitted at the Canary Mission website contact link.
Within a half hour, the same Joanna emailed back: “Would love to be in touch.”
That began a months-long stream of continuous almost daily journalistic communications involving emails long and short, Skype sessions long and short, as well as file downloads and text exchanges getting many answers to many questions. During that time, I was able to verify Canary Mission’s location, the size and shape of its operation, as well as its mindset. The effort yielded an inside look into the Jewish community’s most opaque and hidden public activist group.
Who is Canary Mission? The group of students, ex-students, and others that comprise the Canary Mission movement works out of a single, nondescript, medium-sized office located in an American city identified by this reporter. Numerous computer workstations are sprinkled around the office, using certain specialized web-based software, identified by this reporter, to do its work. The entire operation is headed by one main individual, James, referred to as “the CEO,” but under the coordination of Tom, referred to as “the general manager.” Work is done mainly from its office, which people visit from time to time as they review and add profiles of anti-Israel agitators and bullies, and engage a roaring constellation of social media. However, remote participation is also common by some of the small group of Canary Mission warriors.
James is the boss. He hires and fires. He speaks with the voice of experienced authority describing the organization and its perilous situation. “Most of our staff is American,” he says. “We have a policy of keeping a low profile. We want to keep as many barriers as possible between us and [hacker group] Anonymous, and any of those who are against us. When we find out who they [anti-Israel agitators] are — we just put out the facts. But when they find out who we are — they literally want to kill us. Because that is what they are like.”
A Canary Mission team member says, “People on this project genuinely believe that there a physical risk with doing this. Look around the world. You see ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah. It doesn’t matter if you’re Shiite or Sunni. You see home-grown terrorism in America and in Europe. It’s a real thing. Just look at Charlie Hebdo.” But, he qualifies, Canary Mission differs radically from Charlie Hebdo, “because we are not trying to attack any religion. We are not into that. When a radical says something, we report it. But, we are not religious extremists in any way, we are simply Democrats.”
When one Canary Mission staffer was asked, “Do you harbor any animus toward Islam?” the reply was swift. “Not at all. We do not believe in any form of Islamophobia, any form of racism. We are simply fighting racism. And if you want to be specific, we are fighting anti-Semitism.”
Canary Mission’s gestation began late in 2014. Asked if there was one straw that broke the back, igniting the movement, James replied, “There wasn’t one particular straw. There just seems to be an ongoing demonization of people who support Israel on US and Canadian campuses. That is unacceptable. There is no reason why people who care about democracy or Israel should be physically harmed or abused. Therefore, we have to stand up against the anti-democratic forces and against anti-Semitism. It is our genuine belief that it is us [the Jews] today — and everyone else tomorrow.”
Asked about the veracity of public profiles, James replied, “Everything has to be fact-checked. We are not into making false claims, the kind of stuff the other side does. They deal with lies and we deal with truth. If it was shown that we made a mistake, we would not be very happy. We would correct it as soon as possible. We let the truth speak for itself.”
Amid all the media speculation about big donors lurking behind Canary Mission’s operation, James stressed the grassroots nature of the organization. While some staffers are paid, many volunteer. “It’s amazing what you can do when you care,” quips James. “People can get away with not having vast amounts of money. Everyone’s looking for some huge donor who’s backing us. It’s a silly exercise — looking for things that don’t exist.” Despite that statement, and assurances that tiny donations come via the website’s Donation button, this reporter could not get a clear denial that no major funder has enabled the group.
While James functions as “the boss,” general manager Tom is responsible for vetting all profiles. “As content manager,” says Tom, “before anything goes live, it goes through me. I am the one who hits the button, and from one computer. Normally, minimally, one new profile, often more, is posted every day.” Tom continues, “Then we send out a notification on who is new to approximately 1,000 names on our mailing list and to many on more social media.”
One profile being readied for uploading during our interviews was that of Raja Abdulhaq. His profile is being scheduled to go live in late August. A preview of that profile spotlights Abdulhaq as a computer engineering grad and co-founder of the recently formed Islamic Movement for Justice. The IMJ works closely with BDS groups and rallies the African-American community in anti-police actions, such as those seen in Ferguson. At a boisterous Times Square anti-Israel rally in July 2014, Abdulhaq shouted into the stage microphone that the US was supporting Israel solely “to massacre and mass murder innocent people in Palestine,” this to cheers from a crowd filled with “Apartheid Israel” placards. He added that Israel was a “great monster” and “a terrorist state.” Abdulhaq has also helped organize a protest of a New York City Council session showing solidarity with Israel, according to news reports and a Facebook event page for the demonstration listing him as host. In an interview with this reporter, Abdulhaq quipped, “So far I’m not lucky enough to be on the Canary Mission website. When asked about efforts to create a two-state solution, he objected to “Jewish Zionists sharing any portion of Palestine,” adding that the Palestine Authority did not have the right to finalize such an agreement because the PA was “a traitor serving Israel.”
After finishing the Abdulhaq profile, not yet uploaded, Tom explained that he was motivated to join Canary Mission because “I consider myself a human rights activist and because I identify as Jewish. In college, I was always standing up against racism and anti-Semitism. I saw what was happening on campus. Someone gave me an opportunity to join Canary Mission. I did. Anti-Semitism is something close to me, and there is no one else doing this type of thing. I want a make an impact, make a difference. I did not know what the impact would be when I started. But the results are quite believable.”
Tom is Jewish. But he wasn’t sure about other Canary Mission team members and couldn’t understand a question on the topic. “I think it is rude to ask,” he explained. He has not traveled to Israel since he visited as a child. “This is not about being Jewish,” he explained. “This is about fighting anti-Semitism.”