At 8 am on a recent Thursday morning, a paper cup of coffee was nudged near an open laptop, beginning a twelve-hour day of mind-numbing monitoring by a Canary Mission (CM) staffer at one of the organization’s several locations. In endless social media searches, refreshes, clicks, video reviews, forwards and saves, the staffer will capture the worst of white nationalist, anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel agitation erupting across America’s campuses.
BDS advocates often spew venomous hate speech on the Internet, which Canary Mission captures and re-publishes. For example, the tweet by a Chicago activist with Students for Justice in Palestine who tweeted: “Why did Hitler commit suicide? … He saw the gas bill.” Or the UCLA protestor whose Twitter account was captured with this remark: “[Man,] what’s with all this peaceful approaches!?? … I want terrorism and another intifada.” The same student reportedly added a photo close-up of a gun and bullets.
After the massacre at Pittsburgh, calls went out to monitor and report hate speech, since acts of violence are often preceded by hate speech. Canary Mission tracks social media and videos, capturing anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic expressions, triangulating them into individual profiles that expose and create permanent records of the words and images BDS and SJP leaders use.
The profiles are almost always incontestable — CM links to actual videos, tweets and other open documentation. The intent is to create a negative incentive, or at least a consequence, for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate speech.
Canary Mission began in 2015 with just 50 profiles. By December 2018, about 2500 profiles had been listed. CM has received about 80 requests for removal; very few have been made.
“Even small errors are exceptionally rare due to our strict internal protocols,” one staffer said. “On the handful of occasions that we found an error, we made an immediate correction.”
Canary Mission has proven itself an effective effort against BDS and hate speech. A CM program called “Ex-Canary” features remorseful hate speech purveyors. Thirteen individuals formerly featured “have since rejected the latent anti-Semitism prevalent among anti-Israel organizations and activists,” a staffer explained. “These individuals have displayed the intellectual honesty to 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. They have shown moral courage to recognize their earlier mistakes.”\
A recent article in the pro-BDS publication The Intercept was headlined: “It’s Killing the Student Movement: Canary Mission’s Blacklist of Pro-Palestine Activists Is Taking a Toll.” The article cited BDS activists who have shut down their social media, fearing a Canary Mission profile.
The Intercept reported, “A survey of over 60 people profiled on Canary Mission, conducted by the group Against Canary Mission, found that 43 percent of respondents said they toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website.”
Ironically, at a time when its monitoring is most needed, Canary Mission is fighting a public relations war in the media.
To me, it’s confusing. Canary Mission is doing the very same thing that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and many other newspapers asked me to do in 2013, when I documented the intersection of NGOs and hate speech at a UN conference in Durban. That international hate fest was replete with Jewish caricatures, Nazi emblems and Hitler adulation, in large part funded by the Ford Foundation. As a consequence, the Ford Foundation revamped its funding.
Early twentieth-century media defenders of Jewish rights, such as Forverts, Der Tog, and the Jewish Daily Bulletin laid the groundwork with their fearless coverage of both Jew-haters and those in the Jewish community who failed to stand up to them.
Despite generations of precedent, a confusing picture of Canary Mission now exists in the Jewish and larger media. The admittedly press-shy organization is often called “shadowy.” But when it first emerged in late 2015, it took only 34 minutes for me to get an interview for a syndicated publication, and eventually a photograph taken in their office. My first request was only three words: “contact me back.”
Since then, I have monitored the group, especially as ominous news stories appeared in the Jewish media. Canary Mission replies at the same speed as most other Jewish organizations, and, like them, Canary Mission is selective in its media contacts. For this article, more than two dozen routine written and verbal exchanges transpired — as would be routine for any Jewish organization.
Similarly confusing is a common assertion that Canary Mission’s tactics violate core “Jewish values.” One typical article cited a list of student groups complaining the tactics are “antithetical to our democratic and Jewish values” and “morally reprehensible.”
To check that, I asked the Coalition of Jewish Values, which represents a significant number of rabbis. CJV President Pesach Lerner responded, “Everything Canary Mission reports is public information, based upon statements at demonstrations and in social media. So on the contrary, it is a mitzvah to protect the reputations, safety and lives of innocent Israeli Jews against those who have, in their public statements and actions, embraced anti-Semitic boycotts and demonization.”
Canary Mission is funded through tax-deductible entities. The media campaign to undermine it also includes seeking out CM’s donors, trying to stigmatize those who financially support the documenting of hate speech.
It reminds me of the acrimonious divisions in the American Jewish community that arose during the Hitler regime. Today, historians recognize that such defense-minded entities as The Jewish War Veterans, the American Jewish Congress, Forverts and the Jewish Daily Bulletin stood up for Jewish rights. The silent leaders of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee have been skewered in the lens of history for their lack of courage in the face of Nazi oppression, and for attacking or demonizing other leaders who did dare to speak up.
A generation from now, when the chronicle of our era is written, how will historians judge those who acted to defend against anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bigotry — and those who did all they could to frustrate those efforts?
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, The Transfer Agreement, Financing the Flames, and the Funding Hate series.