Co-reporting by Bastiaan Phair
Earlier this month, some members of the Swarthmore community discovered they had been added to the anonymous website Canary Mission for their activism on the Israeli occupation of Palestine — including the push for the Student Government Organization to pass a resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement last spring.
Canary Mission, according to their website, “documents individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” They compile dossiers of students, professors, and organizations, providing paragraphs of information collected from social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The profiles include personal information, photos, videos, details on the individual’s activism, as well as links to their social media sites.
Gabrielle Rubinstein ’20, a member of Jewish Voices for Peace, was recently added to Canary Mission. She expressed discomfort at how invasive the profile was.
“[It’s] gross that Canary Mission is surveilling us. I was super uncomfortable with the fact that they have photos of me and a link to my personal Instagram and Twitter,” said Rubinstein.
While Canary Mission claims to expose hatred and “combat the rise in anti-Semitism on college campuses,” it is criticized for using intimidation and fear tactics to silence and misrepresent activists.
Zaina Dana ’21, recently listed on the website, commented on how the website targets individuals based on misconstruing criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.
“Right off the bat, the website clearly has a conflation [of] anything that is anti-Israel with anti-Semitism, and it’s stated on their website,” said Dana.
Sa’ed Atshan, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies, is similarly listed on the website. He has found that being on Canary Mission has not affected him because most people have been able to recognize the problematic nature of the site. According to Atshan, the website functions as a smear tactic targeting Palestinians, as well as allies, by taking information out of context.
“Canary Mission is a shadowy, McCarthyist project that is based on lies and decontextualizations and is explicit about its mission to destroy the lives and careers of thousands of Palestinian solidarity students and faculty, mainly people of color, from across the U.S.,” wrote Atshan.
Lara Cohen, associate professor of English literature, is also on Canary Mission. She has received mail sent to her Swarthmore office and has dealt with Twitter trolls as a result of having her profile on the website. Cohen, however, expressed that the effects she experienced because of her profile is not as intense as it might be for others.
“I’m more insulated than many people Canary Mission targets, since I have a job and tenure. I also have an obviously Jewish name, so most of the comments I receive are the usual accusations of being a self-hating Jew or a traitor,” wrote Cohen. “Other people I know, especially Muslim students and faculty, and students and faculty of color, have been targeted with much more vile slurs and threats.”
In addition to representing activists in a particular way and creating a database that facilitates harassment, Canary Mission can also be used to affect employment opportunities for the people they profile.
“The point of the website seems to be to shame activists and put their activism in misleading terms and in a misleading light for the sake of employers to search up anyone who’s applying for a job and come across [Canary Mission],” Dana said. “The goal, from what I’ve gathered, is to make it so that people who are on it have a harder time getting jobs or getting into grad school.”
Cohen explained that if employers look up an individual online, the Canary Mission profile might be one of the top Google search results for students.
“There’s the bullying nature of the website’s profiling, and then there’s the bullying that often follows from being profiled … [T]here are the consequences of that bullying for students’ job searches,” wrote Cohen. “It’s so common now for employers to [G]oogle job candidates, and Canary Mission is very effective at boosting its search results (if you google my name, their listing is the third one). So an employer’s first impression of a job candidate may be their Canary Mission profile, which can be especially detrimental if the employer doesn’t know who Canary Mission is and therefore isn’t attuned to the profile’s misrepresentations.”
Atshan expressed how students are more susceptible to this since they might not have other links to different websites to show up on a google search.
“Students are less established so they can be more vulnerable, especially when they do not have many other items appearing as a result of a [G]oogle search,” wrote Atshan.
Fouad Dakwar ’22, a core member of Students for Justice in Palestine who was recently listed on the website, is concerned that he will not only face troubles with future employers who look him up, but also have problems with travelling.
“Time and time again, we’ve seen the impact of Canary Mission’s nasty targeted smear campaign against students and academics for their legitimate speech and activism. The ultimate results are the jeopardization of one’s career or denial of entry to Israel, for example,” said Dakwar. “I’m worried as a Palestinian, as an immigrant, how that could affect me.”
Dana, a dual citizen of Palestine and the U.S., also anticipates travel becoming more of a challenge because of her profile on Canary Mission.
“I know that, as someone with a West Bank ID, it might actually affect my travel in that I might not be allowed to enter the West Bank, and it’ll probably be more of a cause for me to be denied permits to go to Israel,” said Dana. “I do have dual citizenship, which means I do have more privilege than people who have to apply for visas to come here. But all of us who have West Bank IDs are always skirting the line [of] not wanting to put our faces too far forward.”
While these concerns of harassment, employment, and travel are meant to have a chilling effect on activism regarding the occupation of Palestine, members of the Swarthmore community feel this won’t dissuade student activists from continuing their work.
“Some people become intimidated to engage openly on these issues as a result, but there are still countless courageous individuals who are not deterred,” wrote Atshan.
According to Cohen, Canary Mission’s strategies are only successful to a certain extent and actually highlight the problematic nature of the movement against Palestinian rights.
“Canary Mission has definitely managed to silence some people by terrifying them. But their tactics are so repugnant that in other instances I think they have actually backfired by showing how vicious, intolerant, and deceptive the movement against Palestinian rights is,” wrote Cohen.
Dana similarly feels that she is even more encouraged to continue activist work on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
“I don’t think many of us are very deterred from activism. In fact, I feel this in some ways reinvigorates us and kind of shows us how much people with this really intolerant viewpoint want to defame people who fight for human rights and say the truth” said Dana.
Dakwar explained that SJP’s first response to students getting added to Canary Mission was to take a second to evaluate the situation.
“I think when [SJP] saw that a lot of us were added, it made us think it was probably a result of our successful divestment campaign which passed SGO last spring. But we also worried about the effects this could have on student activism regarding Palestine and social justice work more generally. I think that’s what the point of Canary Mission is, they add people to it as a fear mongering tactic so that they don’t participate in these actions again or so they don’t speak out again,” said Dakwar.
Despite taking a step back, Dakwar expressed SJP’s intention to continue their activism while keeping in mind the safety of their community.
“We want to take care of our community first and foremost, so we want to make sure we’re not letting an illegitimate, right-wing funded website make anyone unsafe or targeted for their activism … But overall, we’re not changing any courses of action, and we have a lot of really powerful events coming up,” Dakwar said.
Rubinstein also expressed no intention of stopping activist work as a result of Canary Mission.
“I don’t think that it needs to overshadow our larger issues of supporting Palestinian Liberation,” said Rubinstein.
While one can request to take their profile off of the Canary Mission website to become an “ex-Canary,” the individual has to submit a letter stating they “acknowledge the problem of anti-Semitism within anti-Israel organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.”
Dana does not feel the need to go through this process as it would be antithetical to what her activism is about.
“To send a letter to Canary Mission saying that my activism does come into conflict with religious equality and anti-discrimination is simply not true and something[s] that I don’t believe are mutually exclusive. So, I have no intention of going through their [ex-Canary] process because that would be to renounce my passion for seeing justice done and basic human rights,” said Dana.
While Dakwar understands if someone would want to take themselves off the website and be willing to go through the “ex-Canary” process, he believes it is an example of the problem with the website and also does not intend to do this.
“I completely understand if someone were to do that because of the risks that I mentioned, but that whole process shows exactly what’s wrong with the website in itself,” said Dakwar. “It’s inherently against free speech and forcing people to … defend themselves when they advocate for human rights … [Canary Mission] is mischaracterizing [activists] and then mobilizing on the internet through this anonymous forum [to] then get people to back off of those just stances.”
Dana hopes that, going forward, this can serve as an opportunity to highlight the struggle of activists for Palestinian human rights on many college campuses.
“I hope that in the future we show people how absurd it is that you can’t talk about certain things on college campuses and why that is. And that’s what I hope we start understanding as a college community: why is it that certain students can’t stand up and say the truth about things that happened, and why is it that this particular issue is something that Palestinian students can’t talk about,” said Dana.
Similarly, Dakwar hopes that this experience with Canary Mission will not draw attention to the website itself, but rather become an opportunity for people to become aware of websites like it.
“I want people to know about Canary Mission and how it’s attacking a lot of our community, but at the same time I don’t want to give [the website] that normalization, and I don’t want the traffic for a lot of our profiles to go up,” said Dakwar. “So, I’m urging people to not visit the website, but also asking them to become aware and educating themselves about what it does, what it’s about … and how it’s in line with a lot of other far-right smear campaigns.”