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How a Reporter’s Curiosity Broke Through a Shadowy Website’s Secrecy

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When Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at the Forward, first noticed the provocative and shadowy website in 2015, he put his journalist’s curiosity to work. The site was called Canary Mission, and on it were less-than-flattering profiles of pro-Palestinian student activists — containing everything from their college majors to their Twitter handles.

The purpose, according to a slick video posted on YouTube, was to “ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”

“By shining a light on hate groups and their members, the public is better informed about bigotry on their campuses and in their communities,” Canary Mission says on its site. But the reverse wasn’t true. The supposed not-for-profit refused to shine that light back on itself. Its funding and operation were carefully layered in secrecy. No one was responsible. No one was accountable.

Until now.

From the time Josh wrote his first story, Canary Mission’s dossiers have dramatically grown in number, its tactics have become more brazen and it has targeted some students and faculty who were barely involved in anti-Israel activities, making pro-Israel students on campus increasingly uncomfortable.

Josh also learned that the information on the website is also now being used by border control agents in Israel to prevent certain activists from entering the country.

Slowly, thanks to Josh’s dogged reporting, a clearer picture of Canary Mission’s funding and operations are coming into view. He initially discovered mistakes in the way the site was set up, allowing him to trace it to two people living in Israel. Then last week, Josh revealed that the Helen Diller Family Foundation earmarked $100,00 to Canary Mission — and that the Diller foundation is controlled by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, one of the largest Jewish charities in the U.S. The impact of that last story was immediate. The very next day, the Diller Foundation and the San Francisco federation said they “will not support Canary Mission in the future.”

But our reporting won’t stop there. The Forward is committed to covering Jewish student life in all its manifestations and, as Josh reminded me, “for people on campus, this is an increasingly big deal.”

The anti-Israel sentiment at some colleges and universities is real and worrying, but it’s the student themselves who should determine how to respond, not aggressive outsiders who won’t even own what they do. Until that changes, Josh will follow his curiosity wherever it takes him.

What else I’m writing. I really enjoyed reading Steven R. Weisman’s new book, “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion” and reviewing it for The Washington Post. Not only does Weisman narrate an inspiring story of how early Jewish immigrants to America forged new and sustainable versions of an ancient faith, he also reminds us that, even back then, the disputes among Jews were so serious that sometimes more than egos were bruised.

There was the Rosh Hashanah slug fest in Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s synagogue in Albany, New York, in 1850, for instance.

Yep, that Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

A little historical perspective can go a long way.

25 years after Oslo. Programs at the Council on Foreign Relations are informative, insightful and these days, often depressing, and the event I attended last week was all three. After watching a heartbreaking documentary about how the Oslo Accords were forged in secrecy by Israelis and Palestinians and how the peace they promised slipped away, three key players in that drama answered questions from CFR president Richard Haass (he of Morning Joe fame.)

All of them — Ghaith al-Omari, involved in the Palestinian negotiations; Joel Singer, on the Israelis side; and Martin Indyk, who was working in the Clinton administration — shared a collective sigh of regret over the flaws in the process that they appreciate in hindsight, and the trust that was obliterated by terror, assassination, and political cowardice.

“This opportunity comes once in a hundred years and we wasted it,” Singer said ruefully. “You need two things to happen at the same time. The Palestinians need a leader that can stand against Hamas and the opposition. The Israelis need a leader that can stand against Israeli opposition and be able to evacuate settlers from the West Bank. Those two leaders must emerge at the same time.”

In other words, Haass responded, “You have to be on the fortunate side of history.”

No one even mentioned the Trump administration’s supposed peace plan.

Why Elaine May is a national treasure. Film critic Carrie Rickey wrote a piece with that title for the Forward a few weeks ago, and after watching May perform on Saturday evening, I absolutely concur.

May is the central character in “The Waverly Gallery,” which opens on Broadway later this month. (We went to a preview.) She plays a grandmother afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; her descent is seen through the eyes of a devoted but confused grandson, brilliantly played by Lucas Hedges.

I’m still processing what I think of the play itself, which veered from hilarity to awkwardness to high drama at a sometimes bumpy pace. But May, at 86 years old, is just extraordinary — sharp and funny and aggravating and sympathetic, all before our eyes.

The story hit home to me — my mother died of Alzheimer’s 13 years ago — and for that reason, I was deeply moved by the grandson’s eloquent attempts to understand what was happening to his family. On that level, the play expressed the real truth of that terrible situation and I am grateful it was portrayed with such anguish and such love.

Looking forward. Tomorrow at 11 am I am scheduled to appear on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC to discuss the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel and the Palestinians. Tune in!

Then in the evening, I’ll moderate a conversation with Peter Beinart, Chloe Valdary and Avi Shilon on nationalism in Israel and the U.S. at the Taub Center at New York University. It begins at 7 pm. Stop by!

Remember to email me at [email protected] with your questions and concerns.

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