A shadowy website that posts dossiers on pro-Palestinian student activists has grown rapidly in recent months, while continuing to zealously guard the identity of its own staff and backers.
Since a Forward report drew international attention to the Canary Mission this past May, the number of students and other pro-Palestinian activists on whom it has posted lengthy dossiers had jumped to 140 from slightly less than 50. The site includes photographs, and encourages employers to shun the students profiled on its pages.
The identity of the activists behind the site is still unknown. In recent days, however, the Forward has gathered some clues about their connections.
In late August, the Forward learned of links on the Canary Mission’s homepage that seemed meant to direct visitors to the Twitter profile maintained by the Canary Mission, but instead they led to the personal Twitter page of a South African-born resident of Israel named Warren Betzalel Lapidus. Lapidus identified himself on Facebook as the editorial director of an online Israel advocacy operation called Free Middle East. He also works as a freelancer for an online Israel advocacy training group called VideoActivism.
A YouTube video posted by VideoActivism in 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. VideoActivism’s CEO, Jonathan Bash, said that VideoActivism has “no connection to the Canary Mission” and that VideoActivism found the narrator for the July video through the freelance website fiverr.com. He did not respond to an email asking for documentation of the fiverr.com arrangement.
Lapidus did not respond to emails from the Forward. Shortly after the Forward emailed Lapidus and Bash, the Canary Mission website went offline. The site was back online the next morning, but the link to Lapidus’s personal Twitter account had disappeared. The Canary Mission’s Facebook page also went offline the day after the Forward contacted Lapidus and Bash. As of this writing, it was still inaccessible.
The Canary Mission has waged an active social media campaign over the summer, including an aggressive Twitter presence. On September 1, the Twitter account tweeted a picture of a college junior serving as a student senator at the University of California, calling her a “#BDSthug.”
Lapidus’s group, Free Middle East, has little in the way of a public Web footprint. The group’s website does not appear to be active. Its Facebook page has not been updated since June. Free Middle East appears to have shared staff with VideoActivism, and a person who worked for VideoActivism last year told the Forward that Bash ran both groups. Bash told the Forward that he was “involved with [Free Middle East] a while back,” but he did not respond to an inquiry asking for further information on his relationship with the group. Bash was also a co-founder of HonestReporting.com, a hawkish pro-Israel media watchdog group, according to an online biography.
VideoActivism trains students in Israel advocacy and posts pro-Israel videos through a number of accounts. VideoActivism hosted American student interns in July and August through a Jewish Agency for Israel-funded program called Onward Israel. The program’s VideoActivism course was also funded in part by the Israeli-American Council.
In August, Lapidus posted a job listing on Facebook seeking “a social media manager to run our rapidly up-and-coming Jerusalem-based Israel Advocacy organization’s campaign.” The posting listed a VideoActivism email address as his contact information. Bash said that Lapidus was “a freelancer” for VideoActivism.
“I find it sad and unfortunate that the Forward would think about running a smear piece like this targeting Video Activism, which is based on no facts — and entirely on absurd conjecture,” Bash wrote in an email.
This story "Who is Behind Canary Mission Website Targeting Pro-BDS Activists?" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.