Looming fears from pro-Palestinian activists on campus and inconsistency from Mason
BY BASMA HUMADI, MANAGING EDITOR
It is no secret that Mason student activism exists and has been advocating for a number of issues. From Transparent GMU to Turning Point USA to GMU Student Power, a variety of concerns are represented and students are working to gain traction and speak up about concerns important to them.
One student activist organization, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), has dealt with issues each year that are facing pro-Palestinian activism at large. Instances of surveillance, harassment and difficulty in securing funding are matters they have had to take into consideration, which in turn cause strain for SAIA speaking out and navigating how to go about running an organization.
One website, Canary Mission, is an example of surveilling college campuses across the nation.
The website keeps tabs on all universities across the U.S., and users can filter through and look at their school to see professors, students and organizations critical of Israel or of the U.S. In its own words, Canary Mission is described as a site that “documents individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses. Canary Mission investigates hatred across the entire political spectrum, including the far right, far left and anti-Israel activists.”
Information is taken from public sources—which can be anything from personal social-media sites or college-organization biographies.
Potentially, for example, it could impact your employment or background checks for a future job. In one case, it was used by the FBI to interrogate a college student on their support for Palestine.
One Mason student, Lucas Rodriguez, was the target of a profile on Canary Mission. Rodriguez served on the executive board for Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) in the 2016-2017 school year. There are posts on other Mason students and faculty also on the website.
“They take a whole bunch of stuff from anyone you’re affiliated with and bunch it altogether,” Rodriguez said. “But a lot of it is untrue. They take things that I definitely did not say or that somebody else may have said and then play with the words and make it look really bad. And they’ll explain why it’s wrong. Mostly just to villainize. If you look there, there’s not much content.”
Rodriguez knew, prior to being posted about on the website, what Canary Mission was, as a number of Mason students and faculty who were part of SAIA or Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were already on the website. He found out he was on the website from his sister, who had been checking the site. Once Rodriguez also logged on to his Twitter account, he discovered that the Canary Mission Twitter account had been drafting and tagging him in accusatory tweets.
“It’s anxiety-driving to find out people are looking to post about you and your stuff online, basically these [vulnerable] people to find,” Rodriguez said. “In some ways, it hasn’t affected me too much, but in other ways it’s just the fear. And I get that’s the point of having a blacklist—it’s supposed to be a fear tactic.”
An article from The Intercept, written by Alex Kane, stated, “Since it first splashed on the web three years ago, the blacklist has taken a remarkable toll on activists’ mental health and ability to engage in free speech and public advocacy on Palestine. A survey of over 60 people profiled on Canary Mission, conducted by the group Against Canary Mission, found that 43 percent of respondents said they toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website.”
After being targeted, Rodriguez changed his social media usernames and privacy settings. According to Rodriguez, the majority of the individuals posted on the site are people of color and/or Muslim. In turn, the website falls into Islamophobic tropes and racial profiling.
“I knew it was just a blacklist that Zionists had created to make activists look bad,” Rodriguez said. “Their basic approach is to say that all these people are anti-Semitic. As soon you look onto the website all the people there are basically Muslims and Arabs, Palestinians, so it’s very clearly racially profiling, for the most part.”
Zionism is “the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Canary Mission’s tactics have gotten more advanced, said SAIA member Noah Black.
“Canary Mission used to be just for people who are pro-Palestine, but they’ve gotten a lot [more clever] and now add people who are actually White supremacists to the site,” Black said. “So they’re trying to implicate people who are pro-Palestine and pro-human rights with actual White supremacists and group them all together.”
According to the website, it “gathers content from publicly available sources. We aggregate this information into a concise and easily searchable format, providing free access to the general public. Before publication, all content is verified, meeting our high standards of accuracy and authenticity.”
There is no reported process for how their content is verified and meets standards of accuracy or authenticity. There is no published contact information for who runs the website, and content is not credited to anyone, so it is difficult to trace the individual(s) who run and gather information for Canary Mission. The site and its affiliates do not directly reach out to targeted individuals, and biographies are posted without their consent. Recently, according to an article from MintPressNews, a lawyer named Howard David Sterling was found to be the owner of the domain name of canarymission.org.
In addition to the fear of being listed on Canary Mission, as part of the organization, SAIA members have been subjected to harassment on- and off-campus.
According to Facebook messages obtained by Fourth Estate, the group has received messages from random accounts saying, “We are now watching you!” and that they are “shutting them down soon. Anti Semitic bastards!!”
In a recent statement against claims of anti-Semitism, SAIA said the following:
“SAIA is founded on the belief of the equality of all and the supremacy of none. We firmly reject any type of discriminations, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, etc. Our membership believes that the liberation of one marginalized people is contingent on the liberation of all.”
It continued, “We reject the notion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are inherently tantamount. Firstly, because Jews are a group diverse in nationality, culture, and thought, and may or may not align with Zionism. Secondly, because Zionism is a specific political movement borne out of 19th century European ethnonationalism, whose modern application entails the promotion of Israel despite its flagrant oppression of the Palestinian people. We uphold the fact that self-determination for all people, including Jewish people, is a human right. We oppose the idea that the establishment of Israel justifies the loss of Palestinian lives and freedom.”
It ended, “We point to Judith Butler’s quote on the danger of conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism: ‘If the charge of anti-Semitism is used to defend Israel at all costs, then the power of the charge to work against those who demean and discriminate against Jews, who do violence to synagogues in Europe, who wave Nazi flags and support anti-Semitic organizations is radically diluted.’”
SAIA previously had a confrontation with a racist person who came up to one of their kiosks in the JC.
“We did have like a White supremacists come to one of our kiosks,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t realize at first; we just thought he was coming up to ask questions.”
He continued, “But then he started saying all this stuff. Basically he was looking for justification of his anti-Semitism, so he was coming to us like, ‘The Jews are doing this and that,’ and we were like, ‘No, look, we’re against apartheid and occupation; we’re not anti-Semites; there are Jewish people in our group.’”
After a while, the individual left the kiosk and SAIA informed campus security of the incident.
Rodriguez added, “So even from this other side, [we have had] these people kind of harass us from multiple angles … which is really concerning.”
Inconsistency in funding allocation
In the past, there was a trend with SAIA having difficulty getting events passed or getting funding allocated by the Student Funding Board (SFB) for their organization.
“It’s kind of difficult to point to one instance, because the university has a system of rules specifically around funding that are really arbitrary,” said Black. “So if we apply for funding … basically, they can reject funding for any number of reasons, and it’s hard to find out if it’s like you messed up one tiny thing, and someone’s just being annoying about your application for funding, or if it’s for a political reason.”
Black worked as treasurer for SAIA for the 2017-2018 school year.
He said, “Sometimes, [it’s because] it’s a student funding board, so it’s made up of undergraduate students, and in my opinion, because those are appointed positions, there’s no real accountability.”
In general, Black noted that their organization tends to be held to more critical standards than others are.
“But I would say the trend of our funding being denied almost every time we apply for something,” he continued. “And then, I go back and check the application, run through every little detail with someone who’s part of the funding board, and they say the application is perfect, and then it gets denied again. There’s a clear pattern of rules being arbitrarily applied to some people and not to others.”
Black added, “[It is] possibly specifically on the basis of what people support politically, [and] if it threatens university money, they’ll say no, et cetera.”
SAIA noted that, when they attempt to bring in well-known non-Mason individuals or organizations that they typically run into issues. In one case, when the organization held a National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) conference November 4-6, 2016, it was difficult for them to book a space on campus. The organization reached out to book a space months in advance but was turned down in the end on the justification that their event was held by an outside organization.
“There were a lot of times when the university went back on what they had originally said,” Rodriguez said. “We were originally going to host an event in JC Dewberry Hall, and basically, that was made impossible. We actually had to rent a space last-minute outside of the school, in the elementary school on the edge of the campus, because they said that this conference was being held by an outside organization. Which wasn’t true, because we as SAIA were hosting it.”
Rodriguez added, “Yeah, we were bringing people from outside, but they asked us to pay full price for Dewberry, instead of letting us rent it out as a student group. Which is like, ‘What? We are a student group..?’”
Due to these issues, the NSJP conference took place at the Main Street Child Development Center in Fairfax.
Another event that SAIA hosted and reached out for funding was not able to be finalized until a few days before the event. SAIA hosted a guest speaker and attempted to cover their speaking and travel fees. The event ended up taking place Feb. 27, 2018. Initially it was intended to take place in November 2017, but it had to be rescheduled because of delayed funding.
Messages obtained by Fourth Estate show that the event was initially denied funding for SAIA failing to placed it on Get Connected and not specifying how many days the speaker would be in a hotel. After Black responded with the correction that the event was, in fact, on Get Connected and specifying the hotel days, a response on Feb. 19 said that the SFB was waiting to hear back from supervisors, because it was a unique circumstance. Funding was officially allocated on Feb. 21, six days before the event was set to take place.
In general, there seems to be a pattern of inconsistency in obtaining resources for events.
“Because the university rules are not applied evenly, they can just claim, ‘We were just applying this rule in this case,’ but they do not apply it in every case,” Black said. “And yeah, we, [SAIA,] also don’t have money [as an organization]; we have to [rely on asking] the university for money.”
SAIA does not collect dues from students to be a member of the organization, nor do they receive funding or sponsorship from an institution or individuals.
The Student Funding Board did not respond when Fourth Estate reached out for a response on these matters.