Pro-Palestinian activism—including the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that works to peacefully pressure Israel to obey international law and respect Palestinians’ human rights—has become a contentious testing ground for activists’ rights and free-speech policies, especially on US college and university campuses.
For an October 2020 article published by the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain interviewed a handful of pro-Palestinian activists who have been targeted by Canary Mission, an anonymously-run website, established in 2015, that seeks to publicly discredit critics of Israel as “terrorists” and “anti-Semites.” As Hussain wrote, “Canary Mission is difficult to describe as anything other than a blacklist.” One activist told the Intercept that Canary Mission has proven “very powerful in silencing people and making them think free speech is not their right. It instills a powerful sense of fear and paranoia.”
Although conservatives decry the development of “cancel culture” and alleged progressive intolerance, “when it comes to Israel-Palestine, full-blown authoritarian coercion, like the blacklisting carried out by Canary Mission, is already well entrenched,” Hussain wrote. Both US and Israeli government agencies have used information from Canary Mission to question pro-Palestinian student activists, according to previous reports (see, e.g., Alex Kane, “The FBI is Using Unvetted, Right-Wing Blacklists to Question Activists about Their Support for Palestine,” The Intercept, June 24, 2018; and Noa Landau, “Official Documents Prove: Israel Bans Young Americans Based on Canary Mission Website,” Haaretz, October 4, 2018, updated October 18, 2018).
For many otherwise unknown activists, a Canary Mission profile is their most visible online presence. “It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google my name, the claim that I’m a terrorist supporter and an extremist,” one former activist on Palestinian issues told the Intercept. The activists Hussain interviewed—some of whom asked to remain anonymous “for fear of suffering further consequences from speaking out”—described how Canary Mission’s blacklist affected their employment opportunities, immigration status, freedom to travel, and mental health.
Beyond Canary Mission, a variety of pro-Israel organizations that seek to suppress pro-Palestinian activism have pursued litigation against chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Massachusetts Amherst, Columbia University, San Francisco State University, and the City University of New York, Lexi McMenamin reported in March 2021 for The Nation.
McMenamin’s article spotlighted a complaint filed by David Abrams, director of the Zionist Advocacy Center, against UCLA, demanding that the university release the names of speakers who participated in the 2018 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference, which UCLA’s SJP chapter hosted. The student organizers of the UCLA event had coordinated with university officials “to preserve the anonymity of speakers, in order to prevent them from being put on no-fly-lists, potentially denied entry to other countries, or contacted by the FBI over their organizing work,” The Nation reported. For his part, Abrams sought release of the anonymous speaker’s names, which he claimed as information that should be available to him under the California Public Records Act, so that he could use them to “investigate terrorism.”
In March 2021 a California judge denied Abrams’s petition, noting that disclosure of the SJP speakers’ names “would violate their rights to freedom of association, anonymous speech, and privacy.”
Furthermore, in May 2021 a federal judge ruled that the state of Georgia cannot compel groups or individuals who contract with public entities to disavow support for the BDS movement against Israel. As Project Censored has previously reported, Abby Martin, a journalist and an advocate of BDS, brought suit against the state of Georgia and officials at Georgia Southern University after she was barred from speaking at a critical media literacy conference hosted by the university, for refusing to pledge that she would not boycott Israel. In his ruling, US District Court Judge Mark Cohen wrote that the state law “places an unconstitutional incidental burden on speech” and was “more offensive to the First Amendment” than comparable statutes previously ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, because the Georgia statute “burdens speech exclusively for those who hold particular political beliefs.” [However, the judge also ruled that specific individual defendants named in Martin’s lawsuit could not be held liable for their enforcement of the law.]
Heightened violence in Israel/Palestine in May 2021 has focused attention on powerful pro-Israel media biases in US news coverage (e.g., Gregory Shupak, “Israel/Palestine Coverage Presents False Equivalency between Occupied and Occupier,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), May 18, 2021), but Canary Mission and legal efforts to suppress pro-Palestinian activism have nonetheless received minimal corporate news coverage. In January 2019 the New York Times featured an opinion piece by Michelle Alexander that compared Canary Mission to the McCarthyite tactics used during the Cold War against suspected Communists; and two news articles in the Times, dating back to 2018, made passing mention of Canary Mission, as a “shadowy organization.” In February 2019 the Washington Post published an opinion article, by Mairav Zonszein, which mentioned Canary Mission, alongside the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), StandWithUs, and Christians United for Israel, as “parts of the pro-Israel lobby” asserting that support for the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Aside from this coverage, major establishment news outlets have provided no substantive reports on the role played by Canary Mission and other pro-Israel organizations in stifling the First Amendment rights of pro-Palestinian activists.
Murtaza Hussain, “The Real Cancel Culture: Pro-Israel Blacklists,” The Intercept, October 4, 2020.
Lexi McMenamin, “Protecting Pro-Palestine Activists Can Feel Almost Impossible—but These Students Succeeded,” The Nation, March 16, 2021.
Student Researcher: Miranda Morgan (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Ford (Sonoma State University)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.