American Professors Under Attack for Criticizing Israel

L. Ali Khan

Canary Mission, an anonymous surveillance website now operating for nearly a decade, identifies American professors, students, and professionals for their criticisms of Israeli policies in the occupied territories of Gaza, West Bank, and Golan Heights. The surveillance website says it collects information about the listed individuals from “publicly available sources,” social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and academic sources such as the university pages where professors list their publications, interviews, and other professional activities. Professors teaching in colleges and universities in New York, Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and numerous other states and Canadian provinces have made the list. These listed professors teach and research in diverse academic fields, including media, international relations, comparative politics, languages, literature, religion, history, medicine, and law. Some professors have taught for decades, some are department chairs, and some are relatively new to the academy. The listed professors are women, men, African Americans, Asians, other races, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and other faiths.

The Canary Mission’s broad net sweeps through the entire American professoriate. “Wherever you say and write about Israel and whoever you are, we are watching you,” is the Orwellian siren of the surveillance website.

Dubious Accusatory Framework

Much like a Kangaroo court, the surveillance website indicts each listed professor with questionable charges, such as supporting terrorism, endorsing Hamas, defending anti-Israel activists, spreading hatred of American Jews, and demonizing Israel. The anonymous operators of the surveillance website make these heinous accusations by fudging the data they gather. No one knows whether these hidden hands are qualified to judge professors’ works, intentions, and motives. The ghostwriters of the website might get the facts from public sources, but they boldly attach sinister meanings to the facts and fabricate accusations, like hating Jews or supporting terrorism. By all counts, the surveillance website engages in egregious character assassination of hundreds of American professors who have dedicated their lives to teaching, researching, and documenting the grievances of powerless communities.

Under the website’s dubious logic, if a professor is pro-Palestinian, they are ipso facto anti-Israel, and if they oppose the Israeli war in Gaza, they are supporting Hamas. And if a professor publishes a research paper documenting the role of some Jews in constructing American white supremacy, they are allegedly promoting the hatred of American Jews. According to the website, Professors who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement unfailingly qualify as antisemitic. The broad label of antisemitism is a weapon to preclude legitimate criticisms of Israeli governments.

Professors do no wrong when they point out the unlawful acts of Israel as they do no wrong when they criticize the American foreign policy in the Middle East. To command by perversion that hundreds of professors across the country must place Israel on a pedestal beyond critique or face consequences is tantamount to extortion that the American universities would decisively reject. If there is anything that free speech protects the most, it is the criticism of governments, including foreign governments.    

In 2018, an investigative report published by the Intercept identified that Jewish donors in California supported the Canary Mission financially. After the website veil of secrecy was partially lifted, some donors promised to withdraw funding, and some denied funding despite praising the website. However, the current financing of the website remains covert. The website’s Contact Us and About Us pages do not reveal the operators’ identities. Because of the obscurity of its finances, the concealed character of the operators, and the ghost authors who frame the malicious charges against professors, students, and professionals, Canary Mission assaults the professors’ academic integrity, negatively affects their employment, inflicts emotional trauma, and jeopardizes their and their families’ physical security.

Tangible Harm to the Professors

Canary Mission engages in intimidation and harassment of professors who muster the courage to speak up on issues they think are essential to their academic integrity as teachers, researchers, and writers. Professors can be wrong in what they believe to be true. What most distinguishes American colleges and universities from institutions elsewhere is the notion of academic freedom, closely related to the First Amendment, which empowers academics to think and speak freely. Academic integrity and professional ethics compel professors to pursue the truth, not hide facts, critically examine their positions, and refrain from saying things dishonestly. The peer review system restrains professors from teaching or writing something with no basis in credible evidence. Here and there, a professor may fail in their own or institutional expectations of intellectual rigor. Yet, the paired dynamics of peer review and academic freedom train American professors to take responsibility for their views and positions.

Canary Mission accuses hundreds of American professors of lacking academic integrity, claiming that the listed professors are criticizing Israeli policies without any basis in fact or analysis but out of hatred for Jews and Israel. In addition to intimidation, such wild accusations cut into shards the existential rationale that makes a hard-working person a professor of history, religion, international affairs, law, or any other field. The invisible warriors of Canary Mission summarily dismiss the notion that many American professors, after rigorous research, have concluded that the Palestinians have been wronged.

Western history is full of professors who have been bullied, fired, and murdered for saying what was forbidden. In 1600, Giordano Bruno refused to compromise his intellectual integrity and recant that the universe is infinite, and Earth is not its center. Instead, he accepted to be burnt alive at the stake. We need not eventuate such a fate for American professors.  

In addition to existential anxiety, the physical and emotional harm is actual, not hypothetical, when a professor faces malicious allegations of supporting terrorism that affect their reputation and employment. A Stanford professor listed on the website has been suspended. The tormentors of the Canary Mission know that an accusation, even without proof, crushes the mind of the accused, and the trauma lingers for years. Some individuals listed on the website have expressed how, for years, they felt paranoid and helpless.

Sadistically, following the Bruno times, the website invites the listed professors to recant their negative views about Israel and become an ex-canary. The website lists many male and female profiles without pictures where the ex-canaries confess their bigotry and promise to abandon their hateful views of Israel. A female ex-canary says: “Everything I said was horrendous, and it is haunting to me.” We do not know whether these ex-canaries are professors, students, or professionals or whether the Canary Mission has fabricated them to tempt the weak-hearted in the academy to abandon their critical views of Israeli governments and leave the groups under the website attack, such as the National Lawyers Guild. 

A Personal Note

I am not listed on the Canary Mission website. Still, during my forty years in the legal academy as one of the first Muslim law professors in the U.S., I have been harassed by threatening emails for writing advocacy pieces and law review articles. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I remember sitting in my office preparing for Payment Systems, a U.C.C. class, when the Dean entered my office and handed me a copy of a magazine that had painted as “ugly” and “violent” a law review article I had written about Islam. The Dean said nothing and quietly left after listening to my baffled response. No punishment followed the Dean’s visit, but the haunting feeling that an influential national magazine had taken the trouble to write me up so negatively was nerve-wracking. At the time, raising young kids as an immigrant dad, I felt highly insecure about mine and their future and safety. So, I can empathize with the professors, Muslims, and non-Muslims who are facing malicious and false charges of supporting terrorism. Recalling my anguish, I felt a heartfelt need to write a Jurist commentary to stand up for a professor accused of Islamophobia. Despite their hard intellect, I know most professors are fragile people.

Actionable Remedies

It is insufficient to point out the harm the Canary Mission and similar websites inflict on American professors, students, and professionals. Concrete corrective steps must be taken to shut down criminal enterprises that play with American professors’ lives, liberty, employment, tenure, and professional integrity. I propose the following action: First, Federal authorities must investigate the website operators’ whereabouts and credentials, who may not even be U.S. citizens or lawful residents. The media houses like the New York Times can also help. Second, the hosting service must bring down the Canary Mission website for engaging in a criminal enterprise of intimidation and harassment of professors, many new to the academy and many belonging to vulnerable minorities. Third, the legal aid services and pro bono lawyers must assist the listed professors in seeking compensation from the website financiers for causing reputational damage, employment problems, and emotional trauma. Fourth, colleges and universities where the listed professors teach must take specific measures to protect them against physical harm, social media bullying, and harassment.

The enforcement agencies, colleges, and universities cannot sit helplessly, much less condone, when U.S. academics and citizens are intimidated and harassed by the unknown operators of a dark website for criticisms of a foreign nation located thousands of miles away from the U.S. shores.    

A version of this article is published in JURIST.