This is the first story in a series on covert tactics targeting Israel’s critics.
Strange things started happening at George Washington University this April, as their student government prepared to vote on a resolution supported by pro-Palestinian campus activists.
Anonymous fliers, websites, and social media campaigns appeared out of nowhere to attack the student activists. And, on the day of the vote, two adult men dressed as canaries showed up to do a weird dance in the lobby of the college building where the student government was set to vote.
It was the canaries that really freaked out Abby Brook, a Jewish GW student active in pro-Palestinian campus groups. “I honestly didn’t believe it at first,” said Brook, who arrived at the building where the canaries were dancing a few minutes after they left. Friends showed her pictures of the two men. One had worn a full-body Tweety Bird costume, his face painted yellow; the other a yellow plague doctor mask with a long, curved beak.
The men’s presence seemed to be a threat from an anonymous website called Canary Mission, a blacklist of U.S.-based students who criticize Israel, some of them harshly. Student senators who voted for the resolution would be punished, the dancing canaries seemed to be saying,
“Pretty unbelievably terrifying,” Brook said of the masked men. “These two fully grown, muscular men in these bird costumes, strutting.” She said she watched her back as she walked home that night.
No one knew who the men were, or exactly who had sent them. Only one thing was clear: Someone was trying very hard to the scare the student senators who were preparing to vote on the resolution, which called on the university to divest its endowment from certain companies, mostly military contractors, that the students said were profiting from Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.
The efforts to scare the students out of supporting the resolution failed. The resolution passed by secret ballot on April 23. But the effort against it seems to have marked a turning point in the eternal fights over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on U.S. college campuses. After three years of development, shadowy pro-Israel actors are rolling out a suite of new tactics to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that are more aggressive, more sophisticated, and more secretive than anything before.
At GW, they were on display all at once, for what appears to have been the first time.
The people behind these new tactics are going to great lengths to hide their identities, though they seem to be working in concert with each other. They are conducting surveillance on BDS activists. They are creating anonymous pop-up websites that attack activists and student government representatives. They are hiring top-level political strategists and opposition researchers. And in Canary Mission, they are running a long-term campaign to blacklist student activists.
The executive director of the local Hillel serving Jewish students at GW, Adena Kirstein, is still puzzling over the barrage of covert operations that hit her campus three months ago. Kirstein counted five or six anonymous anti-BDS websites that interceded to oppose the GW student government resolution.
“I have never learned who was behind those websites,” she told the Forward. Officials at Hillel International, the umbrella group for local campus Hillels organizations, don’t know either.
But someone does know. Someone is ramping up a secret, sophisticated campaign against college activists. What’s more, they appear to be doing it from somewhere deep inside the American Jewish pro-Israel apparatus.
Early 2015 was a rough moment for the official and self-appointed guardians of Israel’s image abroad.
In the Gaza war the previous summer, Israeli troops killed over 500 children, according to a United Nations count. One July day in 2014, the international media watched as an Israeli shell exploded on a Gaza beach, killing four boys playing soccer there. (A year later, an Israeli investigation termed the strike a “tragic accident.”) At the same time, bolstered by outrage over the Gaza carnage, the BDS movement was shifting slowly into the mainstream, gaining name recognition and even some victories, including the decision by the Israeli firm SodaStream to close its West Bank factory.
In response, American Jewish donors and Israeli officials began to lay the groundwork for a new way to fight BDS. In the early months of 2015, three things happened that set in motion the covert anti-BDS efforts that bombarded GW this spring.
In February, someone anonymously registered the domain canarymission.org, the site that would grow into the most controversial and visible arm of the new anti-BDS effort.
In March, a quiet little pro-Israel campus group called the Israel on Campus Coalition hired a professional political consultant to run a campaign against a student-run Israel divestment referendum at Ohio State University.
And in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Gilad Erdan, a onetime Likud up-and-comer, to lead the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Israeli government department that has leveraged the tools of Israel’s intelligence community and become the hub of the Israeli government’s covert and overt anti-BDS efforts, in the United States and around the world.
As the new anti-BDS forces began to get organized, Netanyahu sent a clear signal about how they should fight their battles. Weeks before appointing Erdan to the MSA, Netanyahu traveled to Washington, D.C., to address the U.S. Congress. On the floor of the House, Netanyahu launched a vigorous attack on President Obama and his party over the pending Iran nuclear deal. It was a departure from tradition and protocol, and a sign to Israel’s new defenders: Take the gloves off and swing.
Air Traffic Control
When a BDS vote comes to a U.S. college campus today, a pro-Israel cavalry arrives, whether or not they’re called.
The list of Jewish groups that do anti-BDS work on campuses is bafflingly long. A partial tally includes StandWithUs, AEPi, CAMERA, the David Project, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Jerusalem U, AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson’s Maccabee Task Force, and the Zionist Organization of America. The total amount of American Jewish and Israeli government funds flooding the anti-BDS effort is easily in the tens of millions of dollars each year.
The Israel on Campus Coalition, once a branch of Hillel and now an independent entity, plays air traffic control among anti-BDS groups. When a BDS resolution crops up, the ICC convenes conference calls, coordinates efforts, and offers support to Hillel professionals.
Between BDS votes, it also runs a large-scale political intelligence operation, surveilling BDS activity on campuses and spending over a million dollars per year on top-notch political consultants. Though it has roots in the staid Hillel mainstream, over the past three years it appears to have become a bridge between the mainline Jewish establishment and the groups pursuing more hard-nosed tactics against BDS activists. The ICC’s board includes representatives of the largest and most powerful mainstream Jewish charitable foundations, including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, both major donors to Hillel and a swath of other Jewish causes. It also includes Adam Milstein, one of the most influential figures on the pro-Israel right and a close ally of Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Jacob Baime, a savvy veteran of AIPAC’s campus political operation, took over as the ICC’s executive director in 2013. A 2008 graduate of Brandeis University, Baime stands out in the D.C. Jewish professional crowd for his relative youth and his polish. In late 2014 or early 2015, just a year into his role, Baime put the ICC on steroids.
The ICC’s annual budget, which had hovered around $2 to $3 million, leapt to almost $8 million, far more than higher-profile groups, like the ZOA. And in the spring of 2015, according to a Jewish communal official who asked not to be named, Baime hired a political consulting firm to work on an Ohio State divestment referendum as it would a campaign for a state representative.
It appears to be the first time that professional political operators were hired to run a campus anti-BDS campaign. The referendum, which would have called on Ohio State to divest from companies that were “complicit in Israeli human rights violations and the occupation of the Palestinian Territories,” never made it on the ballot, due to an obscure pagination issue with the pro-divestment group’s petition. Whatever the reason for the referendum’s defeat, it had a major impact on ICC’s strategy, according to the Jewish communal official.
Over the past three years, the ICC has transformed into a highly sophisticated political operation, with some of Washington’s top Republican operatives on its payroll. In the 2016-2017 academic year, the ICC paid more than 11% of its budget, over $1 million, to FP1, a Washington political consulting firm run by leading Republican political consultants, including the campaign manager of Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. The ICC also paid $171,000 that year to Jeff Berkowitz, former research director for the Republican National Committee and one of Washington’s most proficient opposition researchers, a renowned expert in the dark art of digging dirt on political opponents.
It’s unclear what the ICC paid Berkowitz or FP1 to do. Neither Berkowitz, FP1, or Baime responded to inquiries from the Forward. But since 2016, in coordination with its political work, the ICC has built out a flashy intelligence apparatus, complete with a D.C. “war room” with walls covered in computer screens. The Jewish communal official said that it is supposed to seem like a FEMA command center. The ICC, in its public materials, boasts of “up-to-the-minute tracking of Israel-related activity at colleges and universities.”
The ICC also has operatives on the ground on campuses across the country in the form of student fellows, who receive a stipend for their work. A former local Hillel staffer said that the ICC’s student fellow on their campus was tasked with gathering information about their fellow students and reporting back about who the influential players are in the campus BDS scene.
The work the ICC-paid political operatives do on campus is difficult, if not impossible, to track. But the four websites opposing divestment at GW that popped up in mid-April may give some indication as to how they operate.
All four of the websites were registered through a website secrecy service called Domains by Proxy. None of the websites identified the groups or individuals behind them. Though the sites did not publicly collaborate, they seemed to work in concert with each other and with Canary Mission; playing out a sort of good cop/bad cop routine as three of the sites rallied supporters against the divestment resolution, while the fourth and Canary Mission threatened its sponsors.
The first site, gw-against-antisemitism.com, was registered April 15, and asked users to contact their student senators to oppose the resolution. The second, nosecretballot.com, was registered April 16. It attacked the student government’s decision to hold the vote in secret, and it posted photos of student senators with the word “SHAME” superimposed across their faces while threatening to out those who voted for the resolution. Canary Mission came back to campus on April 22, posting fliers that echoed nosecretballot.com’s messages: “THERE ARE NO SECRETS. WE WILL KNOW YOUR VOTE AND WILL ACT ACCORDINGLY.”
After the resolution passed on April 23, the strategy seems to have shifted. A fourth site, gwalumniagainsthate.com, was registered anonymously the next day, on April 24, to collect signatures from alumni for a petition to the university president, Thomas LeBlanc, asking him to oppose the resolution. Kirstein, the local Hillel director, said that, as with the other three sites, she didn’t know who was behind the alumni petition. “The president of the university has been, had been, will always be, nothing but supportive,” Kirstein said. “God forbid the president would think [Hillel was] in any way affiliated with that.”
Today, three of the sites and their associated social media pages have been scrubbed from the internet. But traces they left behind suggest that a consulting firm that has done work for the ICC may have been behind at least one of them.
As the pro-Palestinian news site Electronic Intifada first reported in May, at least one email sent to student senators through gw-against-antisemitism.com was routed through an email account belonging to an employee of JVA Campaigns, an Ohio-based political consulting and public relations firm. The Forward has confirmed that JVA Campaigns has done contract work for the ICC. (Another of four sites, gwdemands.com, was set up in Ohio, according to a setting revealed in its source code. GW is in Washington, D.C.)
Neither JVA Campaigns’s founder, Jonathan Varner, nor Baime responded to questions about whether JVA Campaigns had set up gw-against-antisemitism.com or gwdemands.com on behalf of the ICC.
In addition to its political and intelligence operations, the ICC appears to be the friendliest of the mainstream American Jewish groups towards Canary Mission, the most hardline and aggressive of the new anti-BDS campaigns.
Early this year, a University of Michigan senior and pro-Israel activist named Gabrielle Roth got on the phone with the ICC’s Baime to ask for help. The success of a divestment resolution at her campus that fall had led Roth and a group of friends to the conclusion that Canary Mission was actually hurting Jewish students and the pro-Israel cause on campus. Roth and her friends wrote private letters to major American Jewish organizations, asking for help countering Canary Mission. They got supportive hearings from several of the groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hillel.
Baime’s response was different. Baime defended Canary Mission, saying the website wasn’t to blame for the success of the divestment resolution at Michigan earlier that year; that it would be too political for ICC to criticize Canary Mission; and that the students should be expending their efforts elsewhere.
Baime advised Roth that her group “really be focusing our effort on combating BDS,” Roth recalls.
Baime did not respond to a question from the Forward about the conversation with Roth. But that phone call is not the first time that his group has defended the blacklist site. In October 2017, the Forward reported that Baime’s group had endorsed Canary Mission, calling it a “strong deterrent against anti-Semitism and BDS activism” in its annual report, published a month earlier.
In January, when Ari Kaplan was a 19-year-old freshman on winter break from New York University, Canary Mission posted a public dossier about him to its growing online collection.
Kaplan found out about the dossier when he was out on a hike. Under the heading “If you’re a racist, the world should know,” the anonymous website had posted his photo, his name, links to his Facebook and Twitter pages, a screenshot of a two-year-old tweet about how he “might hate slick Jewish dudes with gold chain Star of Davids,” and a litany of charges: “Demonizing Israel at a Jewish Event.” “Condemning Jewish Heritage Tour.”
At the time his dossier went up, Kaplan was not a prominent anti-Israel activist. He had been a member of the NYU chapter of the pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace for just a few months. He had stood up at a Hillel dinner to make an announcement that was critical of President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Now, he says, he’s afraid to talk to friends who are pro-Israel. He thinks they may have named names, and could do it again. “I’ll be in classes with people who are… involved with pro-Israel activism on campus, and I’ll be friends with them, and I’ll want to be open and warm with them,” he said. “How do I know this guy isn’t reporting to Canary Mission?”
Jewish activists like Kaplan make up a fraction of the more than 2,000 dossiers on Canary Mission’s site. Most of those profiled are Muslim; many Palestinian. For those students, the risks can be far greater. One pro-Palestine activist from a California university said that after his profile went up on Canary Mission, his parents wouldn’t let him go visit relatives who live in the West Bank.
An uncle has since died.
“I didn’t get a change to go back and see him,” the activist said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be let in. I didn’t know if I was going to be arrested.”
The Campus Scene
On campus, the net effect of these various efforts is that it can, at times, feel like a disorganized pro-Israel militia is rolling up on the quad. At GW, they ended up hurting the students they purportedly had come to help.
“It made many of our pro-Israel students walk away,” Kirstein said. “Even though we were very clear we had nothing to do with any of these sites, and I do not know who created any of these methods, they didn’t want to risk being affiliated with a version of pro-Israel that looks like that.”
The precise identities of the people and groups behind the new, hard-edged anti-BDS tactics remain hazy, though chinks have begun to appear in the armor. What’s clear is that they don’t much care if they have the support of the students, or the Jewish campus professionals, whose battles they’re trying to win.
“There’s no winning in this. It creates a toxic environment,” Kirstein said. “It makes our work doing Jewish engagement incredibly harder.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.