For more than two years, a shadowy website called Canary Mission has posted political dossiers on students active in pro-Palestinian groups, saying it hopes to keep them from finding work after college.
Now, a mainstream Jewish pro-Israel organized has endorsed Canary Mission — despite criticism that site uses “McCarthyite” tactics.
In an annual report, the Israel on Campus Coalition cited Canary Mission as an effective model for deterring support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, hailing the website for causing students to drop their support for pro-Palestinian groups out of fear of “repercussions.”
“Through online platforms such as Canary Mission, a database devoted to exposing hatred of Jews and Israel, the pro-Israel community has established a strong deterrent against anti-Semitism and BDS activism,” ICC’s report reads.
ICC sits at the center of the organized Jewish community’s pro-Israel apparatus. Its board includes includes leaders of Hillel International and top Jewish foundations. The organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some Jewish leaders condemned ICC’s support for Canary Mission.
“I was disappointed to see the positive reference to Canary Mission,” said Kenneth S. Stern, who served for over two decades as the American Jewish Committee’s director on anti-Semitism and extremism, and is now executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation. “In my view Canary Mission is a blacklist, like the academic boycott [of Israel] is a blacklist. You don’t oppose one blacklist by another blacklist”
A spokesman for the dovish pro-Israel group J Street, Logan Bayroff, said that ICC’s praise for Canary Mission was a “huge mistake.”
“It shows a total misunderstanding of what effective, principled pro-Israel advocacy on college campuses should look like,” said Bayroff, who is J Street’s director of communications.
One student targeted by Canary Mission, George Washington University senior Kei Pritsker, told the Forward that he was not surprised by ICC’s praise for the site. Canary Mission accused Pritsker, whose father is Jewish, of protesting “alongside anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.”
“I’m definitely not a Holocaust denier,” Pritsker said. “I don’t associate with neo-Nazis in any way. If they bothered to know who I was, they would know my grandfather escaped the Pogroms.”
Pritsker said he and others listed on the site are worried about how the website will impact their lives. “All I can do is really wonder,” he said.
Canary Mission’s published dossier on Pritsker runs to 3,000 words, much of it boilerplate text on Students for Justice in Palestine, of which he is a member. It also notes his support for a failed student government resolution to divest from ten companies that SJP says profit off Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
But the dossier also includes information on Pritsker unrelated to his pro-Palestinian activism. It notes that he was arrested earlier this year at a protest against the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, and that he ran for student government in 2015.
“They also generally just have a problem with activists,” he said. “They went back on my profile two or three years, before I even knew who Yasser Arafat was.”
Canary Mission first appeared in May 2015. From its start, the website went to great lengths to mask the identity of its donors and any staff. The Forward uncovered the names of two people who appeared to be linked to the organization in September 2015, though one denied any connection and the other did not respond to requests for comment.
At the time, it had had no visible ties to the organized pro-Israel community and no prominent Jewish leaders have openly came to its defense.
Since then, Canary Mission has continued to grow its blacklist with little apparent attention from organized Jewish groups. While some of the people it profiles are professional activists, most are college students, and many are Jewish. Dossiers cite social media posts and op-eds written in student publications.
“In many ways blacklisting students is even worse,” Stern said. “Students are 18, 19, 20. These are things that are going to follow them for the rest of their lives. They may change their point of view. And I find it to be a reprehensible practice”
The ICC’s report is the pro-Israel establishment’s first public acknowledgement of Canary Mission. In the document, the group says that SJP held a session on Canary Mission at its annual conference last year, “revealing growing anxiety among leaders of the anti-Israel movement.”
Canary Mission is the only organization whose work ICC highlights for “Exposing and Discouraging Anti-Israel Activism.”
“During the 2016-2017 academic year, pro-Israel efforts raised noticeable concerns among Israel’s detractors, causing activists to downplay their associations with BDS campaigns,” the report reads. “Fearing the repercussions of public exposure, some students withdrew their support for campus divestment, while others severed their ties to anti-Israel causes.”
The ICC report identifies Canary Mission as part of “the pro-Israel community.” It discloses no information about the identity of its backers or staff.
J Street’s Bayroff said that Canary Mission’s work is counterproductive. “The activities and the whole focus of Canary Mission is deeply wrongheaded and mistaken,” he said. “We’ve always said the best way to counter critics of Israel, including supporters of the BDS movement, is to engage in discussion and debate with them, and not to target and ostracize them with blacklists.”
In September 27 fundraising email to supporters, Canary Mission boasted of ICC’s praise for its work.
Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, a left-leaning Jewish foundation, jointly created ICC in 2002. The ICC became independent in 2010, but the chair of Hillel’s board and two top Schusterman officials remain on the ICC board. Neither Hillel nor the Schusterman Foundation would say if their organization has a position on Canary Mission and its tactics.
Other ICC board members include Adam Milstein and Harold Grinspoon, both of whom fund major family foundations that support a broad range of Jewish institutions. Spokespeople for both of the philanthropist’s foundations did not respond to inquiries about their foundations’ positions on Canary Mission.
Pritsker, the student profiled on the Canary Mission site, said that his dossier is now the top Google result for his name. “The website is saturated with desperation,” he said. “It’s a slander.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.