The Anti-BDS Smear Campaign Escalates

For years, well-funded pro-Israel vigilantes have been harassing Palestine activists. Now they’re enlisting the FBI.

David Horowitz speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

Since 2015, the alt-right’s campaigns to intimidate and harass their critics, particularly those working on college campuses for progressive politics and Palestinian rights, have intensified and gotten deeply personal. Instead of criticizing ideas, they are defaming specific individuals in campaigns that then spread virally across alt-right websites.

Much of this activity is the responsibility of conservative activist David Horowitz and his Freedom Center. It grandly calls itself the “School for Political Warfare,” but its version of “warfare” is more a sleazy version of Nixonian dirty tricks. In November 2015, Horowitz put up posters on the UCLA campus accusing Students for Justice in Palestine members of supporting the murder of Israelis. In this first attack, Horowitz did not name individual students or faculty. But since then attacks on specific individuals have become common, including accusations that supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) have “allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists to perpetuate BDS and Jew hatred.”

This tactic has been criticized even by those who are against BDS. The Jewish Journal reports that Amanda Susskind, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director, “denounced the campaign … calling the posters ‘hateful.’ She said it ‘underscores that the group responsible for their placement is not interested in productive discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’”

Another organization, called Canary Mission, is reaching deep into its targets’ personal lives. In one YouTube video, Canary Mission declares, “Our mission is to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” As I reported in Salon in 2016, Canary Mission has indeed contacted employers and universities to smear activists’ reputations with distorted depictions of their activities and opinions, endangering their careers both inside and outside the academy. One of their targets said at that time:

Canary Mission … launched a Twitter campaign to get me fired from my job. Luckily, my job’s human resources called and were totally supportive. They recognized them as a hate group and were ultimately concerned about my safety… However, the anxiety that doesn’t seem to go away is the fact that I might not be able to enter Palestine. I have family there and my mother especially is worried about what we will endure at the border crossing next time we go. When my profile first got put up, I had trouble eating and sleeping. I would wake up with bad anxiety and start gagging as if I were going to vomit … I can handle grade-school bullying. What bothers me is the constant worry about what’s going to happen to me because of it.

That sense of intense anxiety and fear is what organizations such as Canary Mission and Horowitz’s want to instill — to stop people from engaging in political activism by any means possible.

Besides harassing activists’ private lives, these groups have also taken to reputable media outlets to spread slander. When University of Chicago Professor W.J.T. Mitchell wrote an exposé of Horowitz and Canary Mission in the Los Angeles Review of Books, according to its editor, Tom Lutz, “the attorney for Horowitz’s right-wing think tank wrote with thinly veiled threats of a defamation suit unless we removed Mitchell’s piece. We refused to remove it, and settled instead, after much back and forth, on a ‘Reply’ which we published on February 3, with a head note explaining we could not find any factual basis for many of his claims…”

Palestine Legal noted that Horowitz’s statement in fact “includes several false, defamatory statements, including unsubstantiated allegations accusing students of having links to a group designated as terrorist by the US government. Following the Los Angeles Review of Books’s publication of these statements, at least one student has been contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and questioned about these allegations.”

Jacobin spoke with that individual. “Getting involved in raising awareness about an issue you care about should not result in you getting a visit by federal agents,” the person said. “I am saddened, and deeply concerned by the ways in which the state is being used to intimidate students working to raise awareness about issues they care about on their campus.”

Alarmingly, college administrators and the federal government are now being manipulated into aiding these organizations in their efforts to silence and intimidate activists. Palestine Legal told Jacobin about a case where Canary Mission directly contacted a university, which then called the FBI. Ahmad Aburas, a law student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, had been an organizer for National Students for Justice in Palestine while an undergraduate at Rutgers University. Canary Mission tweeted at Seton Hall, calling Aburas a Hamas supporter. An email thread shows that a Seton Hall administrator then googled Canary Mission and, apparently judging it a credible source of information, reported Aburas’s tweets to fellow administrators: “I am sure the LS [Law School] is aware or (they should be) of Mr. Aburas and his political positions. I googled Aburas and found plenty of info regarding his open support of Palestine, freedom for Palestine and his contempt for Israel.” Seton Hall arranged for the FBI to come to campus. An administrator pulled Aburas out of class and shut him in a room alone with two FBI agents who interrogated him for forty minutes — they had printouts in their hands of his Canary Mission profile.

This battle is not just between David Horowitz or Canary Mission and supporters of Palestinian rights. In a comprehensive four-part series in AlterNet, Max Blumenthal and Julia Carmel set forth the broader, well-funded right-wing coalition that is harassing progressive activists on campus, blacklisting and defaming them, infiltrating student groups, and trying to buy campus elections — the attack on BDS is part of a broader assault on the Left. AlterNet specifically noted the coordination between the anti-BDS efforts of David Horowitz and the anti-left program of Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA (TPUSA): “At a 2015 retreat convened by David Horowitz, Kirk outlined an ‘undercover, underground plan’ to ‘control student funding,’ ‘censor professors’ and ‘get rid of free-speech zones.’”

TPUSA’s publicly declared mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Yet that is simply a cover to get past college administrators. In a video of Kirk’s appearance at that retreat, Kirk discussed the group’s real aims:

We’re starting … a rather undercover, underground operation that is designed for one purpose only, and that is to run — and win — Student Government Association races the same way we look at Congressional campaigns. If we can successfully retake the student governments … on these really, really far-left campuses such as UC-Irvine, UCLA, and we run the student government association races with the same money, time, energy and resources [as] we do a Congressional campaign, then we can start to see … an effective, neutralizing factor on these campuses. You can control student funding, you can censor professors, you can get rid of free-speech zones, you can then balance the curriculum, you then can use your student government post as a bully pulpit.

One of TPUSA’s initiatives is the “Professor Watchlist,” a McCarthyite site where students and others are encouraged to denounce “leftist” faculty. The American Association of University Professors responded by mounting a campaign wherein faculty could request that their names be entered, in solidarity with those already named. As of this writing, more than 12,000 professors have stepped forward. In a similar gesture, a group of pro-Palestinian activists has launched a website, “Against Canary Mission,” wherein those profiled by Canary Mission can upload their own profiles and spell out in detail exactly how and why they are proud to be identified as activists for Palestine. (I am among those who have done so.) Our group puts forth accurate and detailed information to correct Canary Mission’s distortions, proudly declares what we are doing and why, and urges others to join us.

By refusing to be intimidated, those on the Left who can afford to are stepping forward in solidarity with those who cannot. The alt-right’s tactics stand exposed and ridiculed.