From Oct. 2 to Oct. 18, Lara Alqasem, a student accepted to a human rights program at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was detained at Ben-Gurion airport in Israel. Why? Because she was a member and president of the University of Florida branch of the Students for Justice for Palestine, which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The legal foundation for denying her entry comes from an Israeli law passed by the Knesset on March 17, 2017 that gave Israeli authorities the right to bar from entering Israel those accused of participating in BDS activities. She appealed—with support from Israeli lawyers, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and several American Jewish organizations—and her case made it to the Israeli Supreme Court. The high court ruled against her detention on the grounds that: The Israeli authorities were setting a very low bar for deciding who was a threat to Israel; Alqasem was in fact hoping to develop a connection to Israel, and not boycott it; and she pledged to avoid any pro-Palestinian activism while in Israel. Interestingly, when the Israeli government initially passed its anti-BDS legislation in March 2017, it insisted that it would be used only against top activists. Critics of the law feared that the scope would broaden. Alqasem’s detention suggests that the critics were right to worry about an expansion. In any event, she arrived at Hebrew University on Oct. 21, received by some students circulating posters protesting her presence and added security.
The U.S.-based Canary Mission played a critical role in this episode. In response to the perception of growing anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic activity on college campuses, this watchdog group formed, according to its home-page, to document “people and groups that promoted hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews on North American college campuses.” The organization has been headed by Jonathan Bash through a charity named Megamot Shalom, which states as its mission the use of digital media to protect Israel. Canary Mission’s activities have been funded by, among other groups, the Helen Diller Family Foundation, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation (all three have ceased their funding since their involvement came to light).
Fanning to college campuses across the country, Canary Mission assembles dossiers on individuals accused of spewing anti-Semitism. What does it take to end up on Canary Mission’s blacklist? The group’s homepage reassures that anyone who ends up on the list has been “carefully researched and sourced” and found to “promote hatred of the USA, Israel Jews.” The group then posts the names of the accused, accompanied by a personal photo (where available) and supporting documentation. “If you’re a racist,” Canary Mission asserts, “the world should know.”
The presumption is that this act of “naming and shaming” will fight those who encourage the hatred of Jews and the destruction of Israel. How? Those who are outed might pay a price for their views. More importantly, others will think twice, and self-censor, before speaking out. The presumption is that ending up on the list will have consequences. For instance, it might be harder to get a job, work for the U.S. government, or get a security clearance. And, it turns out, Canary Mission has been working with the Israeli government to provide the names of those who should be questioned, detained or turned back at the border.
Because of her work with the Students for Justice in Palestine and other pro-Palestinian activism, Lara Alqasem ended up on Canary Mission’s list. According to the Times of Israel, an Israeli government document confirms that Canary Mission formed part of the basis, along with four Facebook posts, for the government’s decision to detain Alqasem. Her arrest and subsequent legal appeal provided evidence in support of those who worried that Israel’s new entry laws would expand from the “most wanted” to include any activity that Israeli authorities deemed critical of Israel. It also reinforced the fears of critics of Canary Mission that the organization’s burden of proof was not much of a burden, and that those working on behalf of Israel were often doing more harm than good.
Alqasem’s case is not unusual: Two of my students are on the list—and how they got there indicates the wide net cast by Canary Mission and how Canary Mission might be fighting the “fire” of anti-Israel activity with petrol.
For the last few years I have served as the faculty adviser for the student organization “No Lost Generation,” which began at George Washington University in 2015 with the aim to support the education needs of young Syrian refugees. This entrepreneurial and dedicated student group worked to raise money and awareness in the United States and assist programs that directly helped Syrian youth. In part because of their energies, there are now over 50 chapters on college campuses around the United States working for Syrian and other refugee youths.
At the beginning of the fall 2018 semester I met with two NLG leaders to discuss plans for the coming year. One student, who I will call Nancy, informed me that she and the other leader, who I will call Tamar, had been listed on Canary Mission because of their campus activities in Spring 2018. At that time the GWU student government debated a highly controversial resolution supporting the university’s divestment from companies that are directly or indirectly involved in economic activities in the occupied territories. As a student organization concerned with humanitarian issues, NLG was put into a situation in which had to vote, and no comment was not an option.
During that time, NLG’s executive board had met to discuss whether to take a position and what position that might be. After lengthy debate, the board voted to support the resolution for an array of reasons: It was a way to register disapproval of Israeli settlements; Palestinian justice was connected to social justice; divestment in Palestine was analogous to divestment in South Africa; it provided a way to support Palestinian students on campus and acknowledge their right to have a voice; and, most importantly, these commercial activities potentially perpetuated the refugee crisis.
Nancy and Tamar largely identified with these reasons. Tamar, though, said that she was not prepared to vote for any BDS-related resolution. She was against the boycott of Israeli educational institutions and professors but in favor of a narrower resolution that focused on investment and settlements. Nancy conveyed a similar view, and added that she opposed boycotts of cultural and artistic exchanges as well. And while both supported the cause of Palestinian justice, neither saw themselves as anti-Israel and most certainly not anti-Semitic. But they knew that if they supported Palestinian causes they might be labeled anti-Semitic and anti-Israel by groups like Canary Mission.
As the vote on campus neared, campus politics became more polarized and tense, and both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel organizations engaged in a full-court press, often with the help of professional activists from outside the student community. It is instructive to compare the campaigns of the activists on both sides. The pro-divestment forces appealed to the language of rights and justice. The anti-divestment activists also argued that justice was on their side, but the students said that the resort to intimidation made a much greater impression. One anti-divestment leaflet warned those students who supported the resolution that they would have to pay a price. Those who supported divestment were called anti-Semitic. This bullying might have worked on some, but both of my students said that, for them, it undermined the legitimacy of the anti-divestment position and made them more resolute to support the resolution. Nancy added that she was unnerved by the threats but decided that it was the right thing to do, in part because she was representing NLG and not herself.
The resolution passed. But the administration dismissed it out of hand, the semester ended, and students departed for the summer. Nancy went to a Middle East country to study Arabic for several weeks. Interestingly, the experience made her more sympathetic to Israel’s security fears. She felt that her Arabic teachers lacked sympathy for the plight of the Jews before 1948 and characterized Israel in highly derogatory terms as they insisted that there could never be peace with Israel. While Nancy did not believe that Israel’s security concerns excused its human rights violations, she told me that she could better understand Israel’s fears.
Nancy and Tamar learned that they were on Canary Mission’s list toward the end of the summer. Tamar was shocked and angry at how they characterized her. Yes, she had voted for the resolution, but Canary Mission inaccurately and slanderously described her views. Soon after being listed, Nancy heard from several Jewish friends. They knew about her critical views of Israel, but they had never imagined that she might be blacklisted for opinions that they did not see as radical. Several of her Jewish friends added that it challenged their pro-Israel position; if a pro-Israel organization could make such a baseless accusation of a friend, what else was it lying about? And just as the leaflet had warned of possible consequences, Nancy found herself targeted on social media. A posting on her Facebook page accused her of being cowardly and having Amy Biehl syndrome, a young woman who had marched in protest against South African apartheid and was killed by a mob of young men who did not realize she was on their side. Nancy now began rethinking her summer experience. If she could be so easily accused of being a threat to Israel and anti-Semitic, then maybe Israel was incapable of making peace with its neighbors.
This story about Canary Mission and GW campus politics captures something important about how pro-Israel forces are advancing their cause in the United States at this moment. For quite some time, supporters of Israel have worried that they are losing in the court of public opinion, and with reason. Students are sympathetic to the Palestinians in part because the cause is tied to social justice and human rights. Many defenders of Israel, on the other hand, argue that the situation “is complicated” and struggle to defend settlement expansion, occupation, and violations of human rights. Some pro-Israel organizations also resort to character assassination, smear campaigns, and hardball tactics. Some critics of Israel are against the very idea of Israel and use Israel as a vehicle for anti-Semitism. But this was not true of my students, and, in my experience, it is not true with many critics of Israel. What are the effects of this intimidation? It can be interpreted as a sign of the weakness of the pro-Israel position; only those who do not have rights and justice on their side will resort to power and coercion. Such tactics also can further undermine support for Israel. It can cause many of those who are sympathetic to Israel, including those who defend Palestinian rights, to become less so, including young American Jews. Polls show that this generation of American Jews is more critical of Israel than previous generations, and how pro-Israel forces in the United States defend Israel might contribute to the criticism. It also makes it more difficult for many of those who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to learn more about Israel. Lara Alqasem is an example. And, so, too, is Nancy. When I asked her if she would like to visit Israel, she said she did, sighed, and then added that that this was probably not possible anymore.