Exposed: Pro-Israel Modern Day McCarthyites Going to Extremes to Slime Human Rights Activists
This article is part one of a four-part investigation. Read part two here.
The Israel lobby is redirecting resources to a new project after its failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal despite spending an estimated $30 million to halt it. Following the defeat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a campaign against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement that is spreading on American college campuses. The funding is flowing from donors closely linked to Netanyahu’s government. But the effort has almost instantly run into trouble. It is inspiring an atmosphere of incitement and intimidation, and the FBI is now investigating violent threats made against BDS activists.
The BDS movement has gathered momentum at a staggering pace since it was devised by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. With its call for grassroots level boycotts to pressure Israel into respecting the human rights of Palestinians, the movement has spread across European capitals and found fertile soil on American college campuses. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace now boast chapters at almost every major university, and student governments at most University of California campuses have passed resolutions to divest from occupation-linked corporations. The trend is sending shockwaves through pro-Israel circles, prompting a desperate multi-million dollar campaign to crush it.
The anti-BDS effort is a new wrinkle in the old culture war. It involves old actors and new activists. The old ones consist of neoconservative operators who have learned how to create causes to benefit from millions of dollars given by right-wing donors. Infused with new millions from the likes of billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, they are recruiting from a new generation of conservative activists gathered around right-wing organizations and social networks. The sensibility of these activists is virulently Islamophobic, anti-Arab and conditioned by the cultural resentments of the far right. Those attracted to this crusade are typically Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians enraptured by Israel’s settlement enterprise, the militarized occupation and the Republican Party. They also feel that they are just as threatened by Black Lives Matter as they are by the BDS movement. With encouragement from veteran right-wing operatives, these heavily funded and promoted young zealots have turned to surveillance of their opponents, engaged in monitoring Palestine solidarity activists on social media and at public events and are compiling selective dossiers to smear activists as anti-Semites and even terrorist sympathizers.
The directive for the anti-BDS movement comes from Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has also provided an example, introducing measures to defund human rights NGOs and approving sanctions against Israeli citizens who support BDS. Netanyahu has created a special ministerial post for countering BDS, and the Israeli army recently announced its intention to monitor groups involved in boycott campaigns across the globe. Ofir Akunis, a rising star of the Likud Party and member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, distilled the government’s mindset when he insisted that Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Communist witch-hunter of the early 1950s, “was right in every word he said.”
In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s failed campaign against the Iran deal, his American front groups and funders are still holding the reins of the pro-Israel lobby and riding it further toward the far fringes of the right wing. Its new efforts are driving a polarizing atmosphere at every institution where its presence is felt.
One of its main expressions can be found on the website of a semi-secret organization, created, as Akunis suggested, in the spirit of Joe McCarthy. This website attempts to stigmatize college students for their political views and deprive them of future jobs as punishment.
Neoconservative ideologue Daniel Pipes acted as a go-between for Canary Mission
Canary Mission made its debut in April as a website tarring students with derogatory labels — “fake Jew” was how the site labeled one leading Students for Justice in Palestine activist. Even more disturbingly, its anonymous operators published bits and pieces of information with the stated aim of denying future employment opportunities to the students they had targeted.
Claiming to be operated by “students and concerned citizens,” who were not identified, Canary Mission is essentially a blacklist of students, academics and activists involved with pro-Palestine solidarity activities on campus. “It is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees,” the anonymous female narrator of a promotional video posted on Canary Mission’s website declared. In their campaign against supporters of the BDS movement, Canary Mission’s masked staffers have vilified more than 140 activists, many of whom are current or recent students enrolled in the University of California system.
Canary Mission does not list the names of any of its staff members, financial backers or affiliated organizations. It is an anonymous venture; those involved have taken extensive steps to conceal their identities. No reporter has yet been able to connect Canary Mission to any single funder or organization, despite the fact that the organization solicits tax-deductible donations via its website and mailing list. However, according to our review of IRS 990 tax filings, Canary Mission is not currently registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, suggesting that the group’s donations are instead channeled through an unknown pro-Israel parent organization that is registered. (Any organization that solicits tax deductible donations without maintaining valid IRS status is in violation of multiple federal laws).
When we contacted him by email, Middle East Forum founder Daniel Pipes stepped forward to act as a de facto spokesman for Canary Mission. A hardline neoconservative ideologue and former George W. Bush administration appointee to the US Institute for Peace, Pipes has called for razing entire Palestinian villages and urged the US to “help whichever side is losing [in Syria] so as to prolong the conflict.” While Pipes denied that he had any involvement in the Canary Mission venture, he admitted to us that he knew who was behind the site. Claiming to be communicating messages from Canary Mission’s real administrators, Pipes provided us with comments on their behalf.
When we asked why Canary Mission’s creators have insisted on remaining anonymous, Pipes stated, “I was told they do not want to distract from the subject at hand.”
Pipes later explained to us that “[Canary Mission’s goal of] collecting information on students has particular value because it signals [to] them that calumnying [sic] Israel is serious business, not some inconsequential collegiate prank; and that their actions can damage both Israel and their future careers.” He justified the site’s tactics by adding that “anti-Zionist elements frequently engage in exactly this practice of aggregating information.”
Besides Middle East Forum, Pipes is the founder of an online venture called Campus Watch comprised of dossiers on professors he considered “anti-Israel” — a blacklist with a strong resemblance to Canary Mission that targeted some of the very same individuals, and which also encouraged pro-Israel students to surveil their professors. He has accused Arabs and Muslims in the US of hatching a secret plot to “make the United States a Muslim country” and warned that “Middle East Studies has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who bring their views with them.” Many of those who appear on Pipes’ Campus Watch blacklist report being bombarded with violent threats and hostile email campaigns from mostly unnamed sources.
Unlike Campus Watch, which Pipes freely acknowledges as his own, Canary Mission’s administrators have gone to extreme lengths to keep the site’s funders and orchestrators a top secret. And it appears to be with good reason: Not only does Canary Mission seek to deny future employment opportunities to students who participate in Palestine solidarity activities, it also seems intent on cultivating an atmosphere of intimidation in which activists, academics and journalists are fair game for threats that include rape and violence and insults that are often racist.
Just a few weeks after the site’s launch, threats leveled by anonymous Twitter accounts, including several linked to Canary Mission, prompted an active FBI investigation.
FBI investigates hate crimes, domestic terror
As a former law student at Boston’s Northeastern University who has actively campaigned with the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, Max Geller is no stranger to character attacks and threats from pro-Israel activists. When the Boston-based right-wing Zionist donor Charles Jacobs — a possible orchestrator of Canary Mission — began lobbying Northeastern U’s administration to ban the school’s SJP chapter, he set up a Facebook page called “Exposing Islamic Extremism at Northeastern.” Soon, the violent threats came pouring in, with one commenter on the page writing of Geller, “I would seriously introduce that kid to the inside of an ambulance.” When his parents’ home address appeared on the Facebook page, Geller said he began receiving threats targeting his family.
Geller pointed to the website, a defunct anti-Palestinian blacklisting site operated by the violent extremist Jewish Defense League, as the true model for Canary Mission. “The dossiers and the website [of Canary Mission] seem to be primarily concerned with impacting Google search results,” Geller told us. “But the presence of Twitter handles and personal Facebook pages on the dossiers seem to be devoted to getting activists threatened. Canary Mission seems to be specifically designed to give individual students a cost benefit analysis as to whether they work with these activists that appear on the website.”
Noting that he and several other activists who appeared on Canary Mission had already received a renewed torrent of violent warnings, Geller reflected, “If joining a divestment campaign on campus translates into getting rape threats and racial epithets thrown at you, some people might just second guess whether they want to do that. So this website is not just about not getting people employed, it’s about much more, which is why they give people ways of getting in touch with the activists who are profiled. And by getting in touch, I mean bullying and threatening.”
Among those who have been bombarded with violent abuse since appearing on Canary Mission’s website is Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish African-American videographer and recent graduate of University of California-Santa Cruz. On June 2, less than two weeks after Pierce appeared as Canary Mission’s “Radical of the Day,” she began receiving racist attacks and rape threats from @RememberMasada, an anonymous Twitter user followed by Canary Mission’s Twitter account. (Masada may have been a reference to the defunct blacklisting site Masada 2000). “I know all you niggers hate Jews because you’re envious of us,” wrote @RememberMasada. The account went on to call Pierce a “kapo,” or Jewish concentration camp guard, telling her, “Only good kapo is a dead kapo.”
After @RememberMasada threatened to rape Pierce, another Twitter user named @HippyKiller12 suddenly materialized. “I found you on Canary, God bless those people,” the user said. “If SJP is allowed on campus, why not KKK?”
When Pierce protested her inclusion on the Canary Mission blacklist, complaining of racist abuse and violent threats, Canary Mission’s Twitter account addressed her directly with an ominous reply: “[W]e got your request to be off the CM list. If you're able to demonstrate good behavior for a few years it will be considered.”
With regard to this response from their own official Twitter account, Canary Mission’s staffers stated through Pipes, “It is not our responsibility to respond and deal with Twitter trolls who follow either us or Miss Pierce.
“Having said that, we took her complaints seriously and looked into the offending account and noticed it had already been banned by Twitter. We ourselves abhor all forms of physical violence and racism — this is why we started Canary Mission in the first place. Rebecca Pierce allies herself with racists, radicals and bigots.”
Rania Khalek, a journalist and outspoken BDS advocate who has contributed to AlterNet, was also targeted by @RememberMasada: “@RaniaKhalek is an evil Arab supremacist whore who should be raped to death.” Two days later, a Twitter user named @RaniaKhalekRaped and featuring a photo of Khalek and two female relatives as its avatar began bombarding her with death threats: “I’ll tie you up and burn you alive, carve a swastika onto each of your tits,” wrote @RaniaKhalekRaped. “I know you Arabs like swastikas.”
The Canary Mission dismissed any responsibility for these threats, telling us through Pipes, “Rania Khalek is not currently profiled by Canary Mission. It is a stretch of the imagination to blame us for complaints against her.”
Another pro-Israel Twitter user calling themselves @BobbyShaftoe314 fantasized about the Israeli Mossad assassinating one of this article’s authors, Max Blumenthal. The same user has engaged in ongoing friendly Twitter exchanges with the account anonymously maintained by Canary Mission.
When Khalek contacted the FBI about the threats, FBI Agent Keith Pali informed her that his bureau had launched an investigation through its Counter-Terrorism division. On Aug. 12, Khalek received a letter from FBI Victim Specialist Greg Lott informing her that “a criminal investigation can be a lengthy undertaking, and, for several reasons, we cannot tell you about its progress at this time.”
A separate FBI Counter-Terrorism investigation published this May found that right-wing extremists are “expanding their target sets to include Muslims and Islamic religious institutions in the United States.” The investigation cited anti-Muslim bloggers like Pamela Geller (no relation to Max Geller) as inspirations to the militia-oriented radicals seeking to attack Muslim targets in the US. Though the FBI bulletin did not make mention of it, pro-Israel organizations within Geller’s ideological network are adopting tactics previously identified with violent extremist outfits like the Jewish Defense League. Chief among them is the shadowy Canary Mission.
“Canary Mission is the first organized attempt to get [Palestine solidarity] activists in this country threatened,” Max Geller stated. “No good can come of this website existing. It can only legitimize volatile people’s narratives and motivate them to do violent things. And I also think the creators of this project wouldn’t feel that bad if some lone wolf was radicalized by what they read and did something crazy. In fact, it might be what they’re hoping for.”
Canary’s links to the Israeli government and settlement enterprise
Hasbara Fellows Complete Their First Day of Social Media Training At Aish’s World Center
Overlooking the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem stands a cavernous complex of offices called the Aish World Center. Operating on prime occupied land awarded to it by the Israeli government, Aish is a modern Orthodox, pro-settler organization that exists for the ostensible purpose of educating unaffiliated Jewish students in religious practice. While the group invests some of its energy on Jewish education, it also functions as a nerve center for pro-Israel fundraising and hasbara, or propaganda. Through Aish, an array of pro-Israel and anti-Muslim propaganda vehicles have been produced, from the virulently Islamophobic Third Jihad and Obsession films distributed en masse to American swing state voters on Election Day to Set The Red Line, an astroturfed film project hyping the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. With help from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Aish created a so-called Hasbara Fellowships program to train Jewish college students to propagandize for Israel on campuses in the US.
Our investigation into Canary Mission and its affiliates has identified Aish as an apparent administrator of the blacklisting website.
In August, Canary Mission shut down its Facebook page after a group of Internet sleuths obtained the recovery email for the site, which they then supplied to us. It was a Gmail address belonging to Todd Rosenblatt, a Jewish American photographer and video editor working at Aish’s World Center in Jerusalem. Rosenblatt has promoted and apparently participated in the Onward Israel Video Activism Summer Fellowship that Aish advertises on its website. This program is operated by a former Aish staffer named Jonathan Bash who was recently identified by reporter Joshua Nathan-Kazis as one of the likely administrators of Canary Mission.
Bash identifies as the director of a little-known hasbara operation called Video Activism that appears to be one of the many front groups spun out by Aish. This group coordinates the Video Activism Summer Fellowship through the Jewish Agency, which is funded largely by Israel’s government. Despite denying any role in Canary Mission, a video posted by Bash’s organization this July “features a voiceover by a narrator who sounds identical to the narrator who did a voiceover for a video posted by the Canary Mission in May,” according to Nathan-Kazis. Bash has promoted the Canary Mission’s promotional video on his personal YouTube channel.
In another apparent slip-up, Canary Mission directed website visitors not to its own Twitter profile, but to the Twitter account of a South African resident of Israel named Warren “Betzalel” Lapidus. Though ostensibly employed by Video Activism, Lapidus has listed Aish as his employer on his Facebook page. The mistake prompted Canary Mission to temporarily take down its website, but the damage to its secrecy had already been done.
So who or what exactly is directing Canary Mission? All clues point to Aish, but from there, the trail could lead anywhere. Indeed, Aish is a gargantuan organization that claims to operate “30 branches on six continents.” Canary Mission appears to be a collaborative effort involving a constellation of right-wing pro-Israel groups, most of which are based in the United States. A video promoted by Rosenblatt in May and produced by an obscure Israeli hasbara organization called the Hallelu Foundation outlines how Aish likely administers Canary Mission’s resources.
Declaring that Israel’s propaganda “is as important as its borders,” the video’s narrator explains that “the Hallelu fund plans to become an umbrella organization for all Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad that deal with hasbara. It will support them, coordinate and optimize their abilities, so that for the first time, forces will be integrated and will have strategic, coordinated action in this most important arena.”
According to the narrator, Hallelu “plans to start a series of unprecedented attack campaigns, the likes of which we’ve never seen, both in terms of content and in range, accompanied by first class professionals.”
Whether or not the Canary Mission is one of those campaigns, the Hallelu video offers a fairly clear picture of how hasbara functions. To the extent that Aish has a role in Canary Mission, it likely serves as a general manager while the frontline players do battle on the American field, conducting surveillance of campus organizers and left-wing academics, and compiling information in online dossiers. It is a team effort involving an array of cadres and organizations united by the singular goal of driving Palestine solidarity activism underground.
On the eve of the anticipated launch of Canary Mission earlier this year, key members of this network gathered in California to roll out a new initiative that one of its leaders described as a “guerilla campaign,” which would rely on the McCarthyite tactics that are the hallmark of his career.