It’s not everyday that student and blogger Omar Zahzah stumbles across profiles of himself plastered on obscure websites, but that’s exactly what happened in mid May.
“I wasn’t too surprised,” Zahzah told teleSUR.
On the website Canarymission.org, Zahzah’s personal details such as his occupation and notable acquaintances are listed alongside a collection of his photographs. The profile is complete with screenshots of some of his social media posts, and can be downloaded by anyone who wants a succinct summary of Zahzah’s life on their hard-drive.
For some people, discovering an unsolicited online profile stitched together by someone trawling through personal history could seem a little troubling. Yet to Zahzah, it wasn’t unnerving, or even unexpected.
Instead, he explained the website would be “more surprising or shocking for people uninvolved in Palestine solidarity activism.”
“For those of us who’ve been doing this sort of the work for the past few years, it’s only the latest attempt at what’s proven to be a favorite tactic for anti-BDS forces: scaring Palestine solidarity activists into silence through spying and ‘exposure,’” he said.
Zahzah is one of over 50 pro-Palestinian activists who have been profiled by a pro-Israel, self-described “clandestine” organization called Canary Mission. The activists are targeted by the website in an effort to impact their future job prospects.
A promotional video on the website states employers have a “duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
The group says it collates information from publicly available sources to build profiles of student activists to “expose” their involvement in the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS). Modeled on the boycott against apartheid South Africa, the campaign was launched in 2005 by Palestinian social organizations who called on the international community to boycott Israel for its human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although the movement has had little impact on the Israeli economy, President Reuven Rivlin recently described BDS “as a strategic threat of the highest degree” to Israel.
BDS-affiliated activists now have a prominent presence in many universities across the United States; including University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) where in 2014-2015, Zahzah headed the UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group. SJP is one of the largest national student groups that supports BDS.
While BDS supporters say the campaign seeks to pressure Israel to end its human rights abuses against Palestinians, Canary Mission claims the boycott movement is “dangerous.”
On its website, Canary Mission claims BDS “seeks to demonize and destroy Israel via economic, academic and social boycotts. These acts lead to a divide between students on campus, and an atmosphere of fear and distrust.”
Speaking to teleSUR, a spokesperson from Canary Mission only identified as Tom said they launched their website in May to “answer” a “growing need” for pushback against pro-Palestinian activists in U.S. universities.
“The situation in North America has reached a stage where a dire need exists for new approaches to the explosion of hate fomentation on campus, due largely to certain organizations such as BDS and SJP and their activities,” Tom claimed.
While some of the faces that appear on Canarymission.org are well known activists such as BDS founding member Omar Barghouti, others appear to be university students with relatively scant political backgrounds. For some, their appearance on the website came as a shock.
“This is clearly a website driven by deep hatred and prejudice, masquerading as some sort of ‘canary in the coalmine’ on antisemitism,” Film-maker Rebecca Pierce told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper after she discovered her profile. Pierce said the website is “filled with racist stereotypes about our activism,” and uses “McCarthyist tactics” in an attempt to dissuade activists from taking up BDS.
Canary Mission has disputed the characterization of their project as “McCarthyist.”
Zahzah explained he is proud of his activism, but that the Canary Mission’s description of him and SJP was far from even-handed.
“For me what makes the Canary Mission questionable isn’t so much the attempt to ‘out’ people for being pro-Palestine, but the way that it does so while spreading so many demonizing lies and misinformation about the work and nature of the movement as a whole,” he said.
Tom from the Canary Mission hit back at criticism of the project, arguing that in articles like the one that appeared in the Guardian, their side of the story had been left out.
“For example, Rebecca Pierce was able to express herself in a way that would elicit true concern and sympathy for being featured. She claimed it was “scary” to be featured, when just a week before, she alerted all her Twitter followers to her inclusion on the site,” Tom argued.
He added, “The truth is that Canary Mission is basically just an aggregator. Aside from our blog, we have no original content. Every picture, web link, quote and video is easily accessible to anyone with access to Google. It is doubtful that most people who oppose Canary Mission have even visited the website.”
Yet another key criticism of Canary Mission stems from a statement presented to visitors on the site’s donation portal.
“Canary Mission is a non-profit organization. In order that we continue our highly important mission we need your support,” the website states.
However, an investigation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz found “no group called Canary Mission is currently registered with the IRS as eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.”
During the interview with teleSUR, Tom said Canary Mission isn’t a registered non-profit, but emphasized that the project isn’t out to make any money either.
“Though we are most certainly a not-for-profit venture, we are not yet a registered non-profit,” he said.
Yet this isn’t the only question mark over the inner workings of Canary Mission. While the organization maintains its mission is simply to provide the public with information on pro-Palestine activists, its own website provides no solid details about who is actually behind the project.
The website appears to have been launched with anonymity in mind. As Haaretz discovered, the domain name is registered in a way to make it almost impossible to figure out who owns it. No information on Canary Mission’s administrators or financial backers are provided, and the only hint to the identity of the people behind Canary Mission is a line on their website that states the project is “run by students and concerned citizens.”
Tom responded to questions from teleSUR by stating, “for a rational person, it should just be patently clear why we are not into publicizing our administrators or backers.”
“Some of the emails, messages and tweets directed toward us would make you physically ill … those who viciously threaten us – just see our Twitter feed or the comments on our YouTube video – and then at the same time demand to know who we are, prove exactly why they do not know,” he said.
Tom added that anyone who wants to provide substantial financial support should “contact us personally.”
“Anybody who would like to develop a relationship with us, we are open to it and welcome it,” he said.
To Zahzah, this level of secrecy didn’t smell right.
“It makes you wonder, if they truly believe in the righteousness of what they’re doing and that they’re providing a public service with this website, what do they have to hide?”
He continued by pointing out many BDS activists face the same kinds of threats Canary Mission says it has experienced.
Palestine Legal, an organization that provides legal aid to BDS activists, says Canary Mission is part of a broader campaign to threaten and intimidate pro-Palestine campaigners.
“Sadly, this online bullying campaign is one of many efforts by Israel advocacy groups to intimidate advocates for Palestinian rights and chill criticism of the status quo on Israel/Palestine by using unfounded claims of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism to malign individuals who speak out,” they said in a statement.
The organization continued by stating it’s considering “avenues of redress” for those targeted.
Tom conceded Canary Mission isn’t the “prettiest or most positive” job, but said, “We believe in our mission.”
“We are taking a more controversial role, but one we feel is necessary in the unrelenting campaign against democracy and Israeli legitimacy,” he said.
BDS on the Front Foot?
For Zahzah, the emergence of groups like Canary Mission are signs BDS is winning hearts and minds.
“Attempts to scare us into silence are the last resort for people who don’t have the facts or moral momentum on their side,” he said.
“Speaking for myself, I have nothing to hide and have no problem with my Palestine solidarity activism being publicly known—as it already was before the Canary Mission. I wouldn’t be involved in this cause if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” he said.
BDS has experienced a boom in support since Israel’s offensive against Gaza in July-August 2014. The air strikes were conducted following the kidnapping of a group of Israeli teenagers by militants accused of being linked to Hamas.
In the nearly two months of fighting, over 2000 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces – almost all were civilians. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians died.
Human rights organizations widely slammed Israel, accusing its forces of widespread atrocities against Gazan civilians. Israeli troops were ordered to fire indiscriminately, and unarmed civilians gunned down by troops were often labeled “terrorists” in official reports, according to non-government organization, Breaking the Silence
In the final days of the invasion, Israeli police admitted Hamas wasn’t linked to the kidnapping that sparked the war. Instead, they concluded the teenagers were kidnapped and killed by rogue militants.
In the wake of the invasion, international public support of Israel took a beating. In the U.K., 41 respondents to an August 2014 Guardian/ICM poll said their opinion of Israel had dropped, while over half said they felt Israeli forces used disproportionate force in Gaza. Then in January 2015, a Chatham House-YouGov survey found British citizens viewed Israel worse than any other non-European nation except for North Korea. In the United States, support for Israel remains strong – except among young people.
Gallup conducted a poll in July 2014 that found young people in the U.S. are increasingly opposed to Israeli actions against Hamas. While public opinion in the U.S. remains overwhelmingly in support of Israel, the poll found more people in the United States aged 18-29 blamed Israel for the recent violence than Hamas.
Meanwhile, 2014 was a year of major successes for the BDS movement. The year started with French multinational firm Veolia losing a US$4.5 billion contract in Boston, after BDS protesters targeted the company for its involvement in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements. Since then Dutch pension fund PGGM has dumped millions of dollars in investment from Israeli banks and South Africa’s ruling ANC has said it plans to bar from public contracts companies that do business in the occupied Palestinian territories.
To Zahzah, these victories and others are signs “popular discourse is shifting more and more towards a stance supporting Palestinian freedom and equality.”
“At the end of the day, the Canary Mission is insignificant in comparison to the very real and powerful victories the BDS movement has made over the past few years,” he said.
Disclosure: Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance, which supports BDS.
First published by teleSUR English.