In the spring of 2015 an anonymous group of people established a website announcing the formation of an organization they called Canary Mission. They began posting photos of college student activists working on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, along with brief accounts of their activities. They described the website as a database “created to document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America.” A smaller number of pro-BDS faculty were also documented on the site. From about 50 dossiers in the spring, the site grew to 150 by fall 2015. Canary Mission also began tweeting notices about BDS advocacy and organizing, along with tweets about the people the site was highlighting. As of mid-October 2016, there are 63 faculty members and 602 “individuals,” mostly students, identified on the site.
The purpose behind the large student database, it is clear, is not merely documentation. The introductory video on the Canary Mission website concludes with a call to action based on the organization’s mission. It fills the screen in capital letters: ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees. The video details a series of claims and warnings:
The canary in the coal mine has long been a metaphor for the persecution of a minority that subsequently spreads to the general populace. Today college campuses are filled with anti-Semitic and anti-American radicals waving Palestinian flags and placards and screaming “Apartheid” and “Murderer.” A few years later these individuals are applying for jobs within your company. There’s no record of their membership of [sic] radical organizations. No one remembers their yelling profanities on campus or attending Jew-hating conferences and anti-American rallies. All evidence has been eradicated, and soon they will be part of your team. We are Canary Mission, an organization dedicated to documenting these acts of hate, exposing them, and holding these individuals accountable.
After a collage of campus demonstrations, including one of an anti-war rally, it continues: “Join us to combat this wave of hatred, protect freedom, and make campus life safe for everyone. It is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”
As part of its fear-mongering agenda, the video tracks slowly across a Holocaust photograph. Whether this allusion is more absurd or despicable may depend on your perspective. But one thing is clear: few will recognize the uncompromisingly alarmist portrait Canary Mission paints of the American campus itself. The McCarthyite tenor of Canary Mission’s claims is enhanced by its crude equation of anti-American and pro-Palestinian sentiment, a link that certainly can exist on campus but is hardly universal.
Some supporters of Israel will be tempted to sympathize with the impulses behind Canary Mission, since anti-Semitic actions or outbursts at colleges and universities have at times been linked to anti-Israel organizing. Are some departments offering demonstrably anti-Israel courses that cross the line into anti-Semitism? Yes. Does the BDS movement assault academic freedom by disrupting lectures by Israeli speakers and blacklisting Israeli academics? Yes. Have BDS protesters sometimes taken over public spaces on American campuses or so dominated campus programming and debate that pro-Israeli students are left feeling marginalized or unwelcome? Yes.
In the current campus environment, there is, appropriately, empathy and solicitude for black, Latino/a, or Muslim students who are targeted by hostile groups or suffer from significant bias in their institutions. But pro-Israel Jewish students are typically extended far less empathy and concern, even though they, too, have grounds for unease in the face of a highly organized, often-virulent political movement that often denigrates their religion, their ethnicity, or their attachment to a nation that is intimately linked to Jewish identity.
Yet while the impact of the BDS movement is real, perspective is still needed. We cannot endorse Canary Mission’s hyperbolic claim that a “wave of hatred” is sweeping over our campuses. Few Jewish students are in peril from the rise of campus anti-Israel activity. Nor, despite Canary Mission’s Holocaust analogy, does the campus climate herald the spread of anti-Semitic persecution “to the general populace.” The alarmist rhetoric seems designed to justify the extremist tactics the website employs.
Those tactics must be condemned. Above all, the project of holding students permanently accountable for their campus politics and the campaign to undermine their employment opportunities takes Canary Mission’s McCarthyism from metaphor to reality. Unlike the faculty members profiled, many of whom already have national recognition for their books and essays supporting BDS or fundamentally denying Israel’s right to exist, most student activists have merely local reputations—if they have anything like a reputation at all. Many are new to political issues, and some will change their minds about things several times even before they graduate. Many adults look back on their student views with bemusement or regret. The moral urgency we felt decades earlier may not survive unchanged. Immortalizing ephemeral student opinion carries a high risk of misrepresentation. Indeed, Canary Mission produces scant evidence for the student attitudes it purports to identify. Canary Mission wants both to give BDS student activists national name recognition and to tether them to the positions they take as youth.
Lists alone, it should be clear, are not in themselves blacklists. The BDS movement itself generates lists of its self-identified supporters in the form of signed public petitions or faculty-endorsed boycott or divestment resolutions in professional associations. Reprinting those lists exercises a First Amendment right. Canary Mission, however, is not simply creating lists. It urges action to punish the students it targets, including the call to private organizations to shun them when hiring. But private organizations with a political mission are better off interviewing and inquiring to make sure they are making appropriate hires, rather than relying on Canary Mission’s dubious lists. They don’t need and should not turn to any blacklist to help them screen applicants. Canary Mission’s efforts enhance the potential for the unethical political screening of job applicants.
Canary Mission’s blacklisting of students based on their political activities is a direct threat to free expression and academic freedom on campus and deserves to be condemned. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the effort to boycott Israeli academics and/or academic institutions also constitutes a blacklisting project. For nearly fifteen years we have seen that purported boycotts of Israeli universities inevitably generate sanctions against individual students and faculty. Such discrimination against individuals based on religion and nationality violates not only academic freedom but, more profoundly, fundamental democratic and humane principles. We therefore invite those who condemn the academic boycott of Israelis and their universities to join the Alliance for Academic Freedom in condemning Canary Mission’s efforts, and we likewise ask those others who condemn Canary Mission to raise their voices against the blacklisting of Israeli academics and their universities. Though both blacklisting campaigns grow out of the debates over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, they employ different strategies and embody different political aims. Yet each undermines academic freedom and does harm to members of the academy. We think both are fundamentally misguided.
The faculty authors named above constitute the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), a group of faculty members who are opposed to academic boycotts and who believe that empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, and respect for their national narratives, are essential if there is to be a peaceful solution to the conflict.
David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. Rebecca Lesses is associate professor of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College and is the author of a book and many articles on early Jewish magic and mysticism. Jeffry V. Mallow is Professor Emeritus of Physics, Loyola University Chicago, and is the author of numerous articles and books, among them Zionist Diarist and Other Polemics. Deborah Dash Moore is Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and the author, most recently, of Urban Origins of American Judaism. Sharon Ann Musher is Associate Professor of Historical Studies at Stockton University and the author of Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture. Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an Affiliated Faculty member at the University of Haifa, and the author, most recently, of Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel. Kenneth S. Stern is the Executive Director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, Visiting Assistant Professor of Human Rights at Bard College, and the author of Loud Hawk: The United States vs. The American Indian Movement. Irene Tucker is Professor of English at University of California, Irvine, and is the author, most recently, of The Moment of Racial Sight: A History.