Who’s Trying to Kill BDS on Campus?

An interview with Forward reporter Josh Nathan-Kazis.

Rachel Cohen
January 21, 2019
Images courtesy of Josh Nathan-Kazis and The Forward.

Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at The Jewish Daily Forward for nearly a decade, has published a series of explosive articles over the past half-year looking at some of the most important and poorly understood changes in the fight against BDS on college campuses— namely, a new, more aggressive approach to taking on critics of Israel. Freelance journalist Rachel Cohen talked to Nathan-Kazis about his reporting on these new developments. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed; shortly after it was conducted, the Forward announced that it was shuttering its 122-year-old print edition and laying off almost 30 percent of its staff. 

Rachel Cohen: For those of us who haven’t been paying close attention, why don’t we start with Canary Mission. What is that?

Josh Nathan-Kazis: I first heard of Canary Mission in the spring of 2015. I forget how I saw the website originally, but they had this video where they said very explicitly that they were seeking to highlight the radicalism of various student activists and make it more difficult for them to get work after college. There have been other efforts over the years to do online blacklists of pro-Palestinian activists, but this one struck me for two reasons: One, it seemed specifically and explicitly targeted at students, and two, it was anonymous. We tried to see who set up the website but we couldn’t.

So we ran these stories in August that were really trying, for the first time, to highlight a bunch of disparate tactics that were appearing on college campuses, that taken together, were part of this new hardline approach from various pro-Israel actors. It was part of a new, emerging strategy.

RC: I graduated college in 2014, I was very involved with Israel/Palestine activism as a student, and so I felt like I had had a pretty good handle on the crazier aspects of those campus dynamics. Reading your stories made me see how significantly things have changed even from when I was in school. Can you describe, for instance, the Canary Mission anecdote you reported on from George Washington University?

JNK: As often happens on college campuses, there was an effort to pass a BDS resolution in some form last spring at GW, and in this case there was some odd pushback. The most dramatic thing that happened was on the night of the vote, two people showed up in big yellow canary costumes outside of the building where the student government was meeting. It was clearly meant to intimidate people and clearly a reference to Canary Mission. It is not clear that Canary Mission actually was behind it—we don’t know who they were—but regardless they were using the threat of Canary Mission, the real fear people have of them, to send a message to these students.

RC: Tell me about your second story that paired with this one.

JNK: Our next story looked at how the threat of Canary Mission had grown beyond college campuses. Increasingly we were hearing reports about people who were being questioned at the Israeli airport by border officials, and they believed those who were doing the questioning had seen their Canary Mission profiles.

RC: Were these people likely to have been detained anyway?

JNK: For the named sources in that story, like Andrew Kadi—he’s a relatively high-profile Palestinian activist and he’s often been questioned by border authorities. But what he realized on this particular visit, in December 2017, was that they were now using his Canary Mission profile.

The context here is that a lot more people who are critical of Israel are getting detained, as part of policies put in place over the last year or so. The reason this is relevant is that students who have family in Israel or the West Bank now fear, not without reason, that they will have trouble visiting their relatives if they’re listed on Canary Mission. There’s definitely a feeling in the student activist community that especially among Palestinian-American students, there are real risks to being listed on there.

RC: In one of your stories you list a host of Jewish groups that do anti-BDS work on campus, including StandWithUs, CAMERA, the David Project, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, AIPAC, the Maccabee Task Force and Zionist Organization of America. You say, “the total amount of American Jewish and Israeli government funds flooding the anti-BDS effort is easily in the tens of millions of dollars each year.”

You also talk about the Israel on Campus Coalition, or ICC, and how that particular organization has changed its practices in the past few years.

JNK: The ICC is the most interesting story here, to me at least, because when it was created it was a branch of Hillel International, and then it split off, but it was still just a mainstream pro-Israel group. It wasn’t particularly active, it didn’t have particularly high visibility. What happened in the last few years is that they got a lot more money and became a central player in this new hardline anti-BDS strategy. What they talk publicly about doing is making connections among all the pro-Israel group on campus so they can work together if something like a BDS vote is coming up. But what we’ve found is that they also engage in what they internally call “anonymous digital campaigns.”

We’ve uncovered two of these campaigns. One we wrote about in a September report with ProPublica, where ICC created these Facebook pages, like “San Jose Students Against Hate” and “John Jay College Students Against Hate.” The pages ran paid ads against visits to those campuses by Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet who tours colleges as an activist. The ads were designed to look like they were coming from student organizations, but were actually run by DC political operatives with the Israel on Campus Coalition.

RC: One might assume the ICC was a student organization.

JNK: They have student fellows, but it’s a very, very professional DC-based pro-Israel organization. They also contract with really top-tier political professionals, like this Republican political consulting firm called FP1 Strategies, or this one guy [Jeff Berkowitz] who used to be on staff at the Republican National Committee and is known for his opposition research.

RC: Has there been a backlash to Canary Mission?

JNK: I’m not sure “backlash” is the right word. Canary Mission is not something that Hillel professionals or students ever asked for. I quote multiple Hillel leaders and students who are pretty critical of Canary Mission. This whole wave of hardline tactics and entities—it came from ideas developed by think tanks in Israel, and leaders of the American-Jewish community.

I think there are a lot of people in the Jewish establishment who think Canary Mission is a bad idea. And lot of establishment groups have criticized them at one point or another—though not always out loud, or super vociferously. The ADL is a little odd here. They’ve criticized Canary Mission, and then walked back the tone of their criticism.

RC: It seems rather ruthless to insert yourself into a campus’s political scene, and not care if you’re even helping the students or not.

JNK: I’m sure the people behind this think they’re helping students on campus. I wouldn’t assume they’re being disingenuous in thinking that they’re being helpful. One thing is some of the stuff on Canary Mission is legitimately disturbing. At times, they are finding bad, harmful stuff — legitimately anti-Semitic stuff. So you could see how lots of people would think that’s useful. But it’s difficult because they don’t actually come out and make their case. They have press releases and blog posts they put out arguing why they’re important, but they don’t sit for interviews necessarily, so it’s hard to really know what their side is.

RC: Canary Mission has some 2,000 people profiled on their site now. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned regarding the structure of the organization, both here and in Israel?

JNK: We learned a number of things. The most surprising thing we found was that one large amount of money going to Canary Mission had come from a foundation—the Diller Family Foundation—which is controlled by a large Jewish federation in California. The Diller Family Foundation is what’s called a “supporting foundation” of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, and it’s a complicated tax structure but the basic point is that the board of Diller is controlled by the San Francisco Federation, which is one of the largest Jewish charities in the country. An important point is that this is not money that the staff of the San Francisco Federation controlled.

RC: Did the Federation comment on your reporting?

JNK: Not initially. But later that day they said they wouldn’t give those donations anymore, so I wrote another story reporting that.

RC: And how did you find this all out?

JNK: In their 990 nonprofit tax filings, Diller had made a grant to the Central Fund of Israel, which is essentially a charity that allows American donors to donate to Israeli charities and get a tax deduction. So Diller had given money to the Central Fund, and in their 990 Diller wrote that this money was for “CANARY MISSION FOR MEGAMOT SHALOM.” I had never heard of Megamot Shalom, but we looked it up, and we sent some people to pull some files in Israel, and went to the address that they listed. We learned it was run by a guy also linked to Canary Mission.

RC: Were any other federations funding Canary Mission?

JNK: I called all the big ones to ask and what I found was that the LA Jewish Community Foundation—not the federation, but their big communal donor advised fund—had also made a grant to Megamot Shalom. Money you put in a donor-advised fund legally belongs to the charity; it’s the foundation’s money, though you can give advice on who to donate it to. So some donor—we don’t know who it is—advised the LA Jewish Community Foundation to give money to Megamot Shalom. This wasn’t like foundation staff saying to do it, but it was the foundation’s money, and they could have said no.

RC: They told you they gave the donation?

JNK: They told me. I called them all to ask, and I was also pressuring everyone by tweeting my call list as I went through.

RC: How have students adapted to the advent of Canary Mission?

JNK: I spoke to students who made decisions about who would be the public faces of their pro-Palestinian student groups based on who could risk being listed on Canary Mission. So they chose who the public members of their SJP would be, based on who could take that risk. I’ve also learned of people who chose not to become active on the Palestine issue specifically because they feared the repercussion of being on Canary Mission. Alex Kane has also looked closely at this issue. Some student governments have also moved to taking these BDS votes now by secret ballot, in light of Canary Mission.

RC: Can you get off Canary Mission? Have any defamation suits been filed?

JNK: Canary Mission says they’ll take you off if you apologize, and they’ve posted these apologies of former “canaries.” They take your name off, but frankly they’re not very good at redacting the information to make the identity less obvious. I’m not aware of any lawsuits—successful or otherwise. And there are reasons for that, they are pretty careful about what they post.

RC: In a big piece you published at the end of December, you look at a lot of the recent political developments taking place in Israel and the U.S. that may have contributed to this new strategy for anti-BDS campus activism.

JNK: Yeah. In 2010, after the 2008-2009 Gaza war, this particular Israeli think tank, Reut, laid out a strategy to be used against a so-called “delegitimizer” of Israel—a hardline Palestinian activist of a certain sort. Reut laid out certain tactics in a 2010 strategy document, which we begin to see appear in 2015. I don’t think one should assume that Reut agrees with the ways some of these organizations started doing things, the tactics were applied to a far broader group of people than Reut had suggested, but it is worth pointing out that these ideas, about naming-and-shaming in particular, were developed around 2010.

RC: FIFA played a major role in this story too.

JNK: When you talk to security strategy types in Israel, many will say that these BDS movements are not always at the front of their minds, because there are other more immediate threats that the government is dealing with. But as it happened in 2015, there was this difficult political moment—there was an election, and the results of the election were sort of unclear, it was difficult for anyone to form a government. And just as Netanyahu was finally successfully pulling a government together, this odd thing happened where Palestinians put in a complaint with FIFA (which is the international soccer organization) and basically threatened to hold a vote at an upcoming FIFA conference that would effectively mean Israeli teams wouldn’t be allowed to play in international competitions anymore.

Soccer is a very big deal in Israel and apparently this threat was a major, major story in Israeli media. It also happened at a moment when the new Israeli government was coalescing, and setting its priorities for the next few years. And as that all happened, Gilad Erdan, who is a powerful member of the Likud party, was given a number of portfolios including the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. That ministry didn’t away have a big budget, but Erdan was able to get a big budget with the idea that he would oppose the BDS movement. In fact, in a statement he made when he got this job Erdan specifically referenced the FIFA threat, and talked about how it would be his job to counter these kinds of efforts.

RC: What kinds of efforts has Erdan been linked to in the US?

JNK: I did a story earlier this year about how the Ministry of Strategic Affairs tried to give grants to American-Jewish organizations, and the groups turned that money down because they worried they would be required to register as foreign agents if they accepted it. The money was supposed to be for trips to Israel for influencers. Some of these groups were already running those kinds of trips, but the Ministry of Strategic Affairs wanted to expand them. As far as I know they all turned down the grants. They do have this network of pro-Israel groups though that they work with called the Blue Network. Membership is not publicly known.

RC: Sounds very spy-like.

JNK: The Ministry of Strategic Affairs does model a lot of their operations on the Israeli intelligence community. They were the agency responsible for the new list of organizations and activists banned from entering Israel.

RC: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Campus Maccabee Summit, and what that convening signified.

JNK: So in the summer of 2015, Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban invited donors and Jewish non-profit officials to a conference in Vegas to talk about ways to fund pro-Israel activity on campus and counter BDS. It was about figuring out new strategies and creating a pool of money. What ended up coming out of it is a new organization called the Maccabee Taskforce.

There are differences between the Campus Maccabees and the ICC, but I think what this gets at is it’s a complex landscape of many different campus groups, there’s not one coordinated effort. There are a ton of these groups doing a ton of different things, they have differences sometimes with one another, and they have different donors.

RC: What has the public reaction been like to your reporting?

JNK: In this news environment, it’s really easy to not connect dots, and it’s really easy to miss these stories that don’t touch on the biggest issues of the day. I think people didn’t have a sense of what the Jewish community and what the pro-Israel apparatus has been doing over the last few years to try to make its case on college campuses. It’s gotten very aggressive, and very hard-nosed. And I think people have been surprised that some relatively mainstream groups have been connected to some of this stuff.

Look, a lot of other people say that groups like Canary Mission are exposing real antisemitism and we shouldn’t be reporting critically on them. I hear a lot of that, too. But nobody knew who was funding Canary Mission, even people who are very, very involved and interested. This was not an open secret. The broader picture that we’re painting here—of a lot of very aggressive efforts targeting students—is a story most people didn’t know.

RC: Do you see a connection to your reporting with the pro-Israel loyalty oaths, and the new bills in Congress penalizing those who boycott Israel?

JNK: I haven’t done much reporting on those personally. But I did do a story a few weeks ago about Anti-Defamation League staff who wrote an internal memo in 2016 saying that anti-BDS laws were bad for the Jews and likely unconstitutional. The ADL leadership has taken a different position. I can’t really say more right now, but it’s relevant that these things have all come up around the same time.

RC: Are there still related questions you’re pursuing?

JNK: There are projects I’m still working on. Now that these campaigns are getting more attention, and the people behind them are being exposed a little bit, does that make them less attractive or more attractive to donors? There are certainly stories along this thread that I am still pursuing.

RC: What did you find most challenging about this reporting?

JNK: Different things were hard at different times. When I couldn’t figure out how to get past the wall of anonymity for Canary Mission’s website, that was really frustrating for a really long time. Once we began to break through, I was really frustrated by the disclosure laws for charities that make it so easy to hide so much. You don’t have to say who the recipients of your foreign grantees are anymore. That was not the case when I started at the Forward in 2010. The state of nonprofit reporting and what the IRS requires means it’s very difficult to track contributions, and it’s gotten harder over time.

Rachel Cohen is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.