Activism / December 22, 2023

Who Is Funding Canary Mission? Inside the Doxxing Operation Targeting Anti-Zionist Students and Professors

Americans who give money to Canary Mission are potentially committing a serious crime by acting as agents of a foreign power.

James Bamford

A pro-Palestinian protest of Harvard students and their supporters, ends on the lawn behind Klarman Hall, at Harvard Business School, after starting in the Old Yard by Massachusetts Hall.

(Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It was a scene reminiscent of the Red Scare days, of grainy black-and-white television images of political witch hunts by the old House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But rather than hunting for disloyal communist sympathizers, committee members at early December’s hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce were instead hunting for university presidents disloyal to Israel. “Are you now, or have you ever been, an anti-Zionist?” quipped New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. “You can see the trap.”

What is missing from Congress are hearings into the decades of illegal anti-Palestinian espionage, covert action, and blacklisting of Americans within the United States by the Israeli government and its domestic collaborators—actions far more serious and damaging than campus semantics. As noted in my earlier articles for The Nation, they range from dispatching a secret agent to interfere in a presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump; to launching a covert operation within the US targeting academics and others who support a boycott of Israel; to conducting a massive operation to spy on and “crush” pro-Palestinian students throughout the country; to establishing a secret Israeli-run troll farm across the US to harass anyone critical of Israel; to hiring Americans to secretly spy on American students and report back to Israeli intelligence. And then there is Canary Mission, a massive blacklisting and doxxing operation directed from Israel that targets students and professors critical of Israeli policies, and then launches slanderous charges against them—charges designed to embarrass and humiliate them and damage their future employability. All secretly funded by wealthy Jewish Americans and Jewish American foundations.

Following the October 7 Hamas attack and the launch of Israel’s war in Gaza, members of Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee (HPSC) sponsored a letter addressing the conflict. “Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” it said. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison. Israeli officials promise to ‘open the gates of hell,’ and the massacres in Gaza have already commenced.” The letter was cosigned by 33 other student organizations and published in The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. Almost immediately, Canary Mission created online profiles for members of the Crimson’s editorial board (though a few likely already had one from when the Crimson endorsed divestment), along with profiles of the leaders of the HPSC and other campus clubs that cosigned the letter. The goal of the blacklist was to dox those named, encourage their harassment, and limit their future employment prospects.

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“The Mission didn’t stop at creating profiles for student leaders,” notes Owen Ray in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.

They doxxed anybody even remotely involved in the publication of the letter. One listed student was a member of the Pakistani Students Association, a club which had co-signed the PSC statement. They were indirectly involved at best, but their membership with a cultural club was enough for the Mission to brand them as hateful antisemites.

Another student was a member of the South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA), which also co-signed the controversial letter. They were placed on the website for no reason besides their SALSA membership.

And once on the blacklist, it is nearly impossible to get off. “They’re publishing personal information and holding it over people’s heads,” writes Ray. “It’s political extortion, it’s dystopian and it discourages political discourse.”

Not content with online slander and blacklisting, Canary Mission agents have also been involved in physical intimidation. At George Washington University in 2018, on the eve of a vote on a student-government resolution calling on the university to divest from companies profiting from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, two powerful men in yellow canary outfits suddenly turned up in the lobby of the building in which the vote was to take place. They then engaged in a strange and frightening dance. Their purpose was to dramatically reinforce Canary Mission flyers that had been posted around campus advising students to vote against the resolution and attacking the student activists. “THERE ARE NO SECRETS. WE WILL KNOW YOUR VOTE AND WILL ACT ACCORDINGLY,” said one threatening Canary Mission message. Abby Brook, a Jewish student at the school who was active in pro-Palestinian groups on campus, found the event “pretty unbelievably terrifying.… These two fully grown, muscular men in these bird costumes, strutting.” On the walk home that night, she said, she was careful to watch her back. In‑your-face intimidation of students is the objective.

Like its campus spy operation, Israel on Campus Coalition, Canary Mission acts as a key intelligence asset for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a highly secretive intelligence organization that is largely focused on the United States, and the Shin Bet security service. Not only is it intended to silence anti-Israel dissent; its list of names is also used to prevent those individuals from entering Israel and attempting to visit family, including both Jews and Palestinians, and professors as well as students. Among them was Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old Palestinian American student who was planning to study in a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Although she had a valid visa, she was dragged in for interrogation shortly after landing at Tel Aviv’s airport.

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During the process, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs sent over a document marked “Sensitive.” It contained a profile from Canary Mission that listed her crime: She had served as a local chapter president of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida. Even worse, her chapter had called for a boycott of some Israeli hummus. Afterward, she was placed in detention for weeks pending deportation procedures. But following a protest letter signed by over 300 professors and other academics from the US and around the world “who reject all forms of racial profiling,” an Israeli court granted her appeal to enter the country.

Another victim was Columbia University Law School professor Katherine Franke, who at one time sat on the academic advisory council steering committee for Jewish Voice for Peace. Upon her landing in Tel Aviv, an official at the airport showed her what appeared to be her Canary Mission profile. After being kept in detention for 14 hours, she was deported and informed that she would be permanently banned from the country.

Like all of Israel’s espionage and covert operations in the United States, Canary Mission’s links to Israeli intelligence—and the Mission’s American financiers—are well hidden. But as a result of a slipup on a tax form a few years ago, those links began to be revealed. And in the process was exposed the role played by one of the wealthiest families in California, headed by publicity-shy billionaire Sanford Diller, a major Trump backer who had donated $6 million to a pro-Trump political committee. Diller was also a pro-Israel extremist, supporting a long list of right-wing Islamophobic organizations. They included the American Freedom Law Center, founded by a man who even the Anti-Defamation League said has a “record of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry,” and Stop Islamization of America, which “has sought to rouse public fears about a vast Islamic conspiracy to destroy American values,” according to the ADL.

For donations to a variety of causes, the Diller family maintains the Helen Diller Family Foundation. But in order to get a tax break, they turn the funds over to a much larger trust, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, which then channels the Diller family donations. According to The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward), in 2016 the Diller Foundation donated $100,000 through the Jewish Community Federation to an obscure Israeli nonprofit called Megamot Shalom. Untraceable, off the grid, unheard of, Megamot Shalom was actually the front for Canary Mission.

Confident that their dark donations would never be revealed, other donors around the country poured cash into Megamot Shalom via similar charities, among them the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) of Los Angeles. There, a contributor, whose name remains legally hidden by the foundation’s rules, donated another quarter of a million dollars to Canary Mission’s front. The JCF of Los Angeles manages assets of more than $1.3 billion and, like San Francisco’s Jewish Federation, has distributed millions to right-wing pro-occupation groups. Yet at the same time, it turns down donations to human rights groups opposed to the occupation, as foundation board member Lisa Greer discovered. When she attempted to donate $5,000 to IfNotNow, a Jewish group against the occupation, the foundation rejected her contribution. “I’d never heard of this happening before,” she said. “I was beyond shocked. I really did start shaking.”

There was a key reason for so much secrecy. Those Americans who were financially supporting Canary Mission were potentially committing a serious crime, acting as agents of a foreign power. They were financing a clandestine foreign organization with ties to Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, an Israeli intelligence agency—which was using Canary Mission to identify, detain and deport Americans entering the country, like Lara Alqasem and Professor Katherine Franke.

Not content to secretly fund Canary Mission to carry out its spying and intimidation on American college campuses, many of the wealthy donors also wanted generous federal tax breaks for their donations. The problem was that tax breaks are not allowed for donations to foreign charities, just those in the United States, and Megamot Shalom’s being in Israel would rule out the deduction. To solve the problem, years ago a family living in Israel’s illegal settlements came to the United States and set up shop in New York City as a nonprofit “charity,” calling itself the Central Fund of Israel. Therefore, the Diller family, through San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation, actually “donated” their money to the Central Fund in New York, and in return received a substantial tax rebate. And then the Central Fund simply transferred the money to Megamot Shalom’s bank account in Israel. Under the scheme, billionaires and their foundations got richer while American taxpayers subsidized the blacklisting and terrorizing of their own children in college.

In addition to Canary Mission, the Central Fund also directs millions of donations to a wide range of racist and extremist settler groups. Among them is Lehava, a far-right Jewish supremacist group based in Israel that has staged marches chanting “Death to Arabs.” Last year, a group of 19 rabbis signed a letter to one of the Central Fund’s key supporters, the New York–based Jewish Communal Fund, with assets of more than $2.4 billion, protesting the donations. “Incitement and violence are not legitimate political positions,” they wrote, and requested a meeting. But officials from the Jewish Communal Fund simply rebuffed the rabbis and declined to meet with them.

Nearly invisible, the Central Fund for Israel was hidden in the back room of a fabric company in midtown Manhattan. It has since moved into a back room of J. Mark Interiors on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, Long Island. The family business is run by Jay Marcus, a gray-haired settler with a kippah on his head and a second home in Efrat, an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. From the textile company, the Diller family’s $100,000 was wired to the Israeli bank account of Canary Mission’s front organization, Megamot Shalom. Unsurprisingly, the actual physical address for Megamot Shalom appeared to be a run-down abandoned building in Beit Shemesh, a city west of Jerusalem. Near a few broken chairs and a scattering of pigeon droppings—or perhaps those of a canary—was a heavily scuffed powder-blue door from which hung a rusty padlock.

Hidden deep in the shadows, the man behind both Megamot Shalom and Canary Mission was a smiling, pleasant-looking, middle-aged rabbi with receding dark brown hair beneath a black felt fedora, Jonathan Jack Ian Bash. Although he has denied involvement, Bash signed the 2016 financial reports for Megamot Shalom, and two people separately confirmed to The Forward that he was in charge of Canary Mission. Megamot Shalom is what is known in Israel as a “public benefit corporation,” and documents seem to clearly describe its work: to “ensure the national image and strength of the state of Israel via the use of information disseminated by technological means.”

While Bash has long run Canary Mission’s operations, the man with the money pulling the strings appears to be multimillionaire Adam Milstein, a convicted felon and close associate of the late multibillionaire Israel supporter Sheldon Adelson. In 2016, during an investigation by Al Jazeera television, Tony Kleinfeld, an undercover investigator, discussed Milstein with his then “boss,” Eric Gallagher, fundraising director for the Israel Project, a Washington-based pro-Israel media organization. At the time, Gallagher believed that Kleinfeld was a like-minded pro-Israel advocate. Asked about Canary Mission on Kleinfeld’s hidden camera, Gallagher said, “It’s him, it’s him,” to which Kleinfeld asked, “Adam Milstein?” Gallagher replied, “Yeah, I don’t know who he hired to oversee it. Adam Milstein’s the guy who funds it.” Milstein has denied funding the organization, and Gallagher reportedly told Milstein that Al Jazeera had selectively edited his quote to make it appear that he was saying Milstein backed the operation.

But it should not be up to a foreign television program to investigate secret Israeli intelligence and covert operations in the US, along with their clandestine American funders. That is what the FBI is paid to do. And rather than drag university presidents up to Capitol Hill for a replay of the Red Scare/HUAC hearings, it’s time for the White House and Congress to at last rip the cover off Israel’s vast network of spies, collaborators, and funders in this country. Even if it means giving up millions in donations and political support from AIPAC—the key reason Israel remains immune from any investigation.

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James Bamford

James Bamford is a best-selling author, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and winner of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. His most recent book is Spyfail: Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America's Counterintelligence, published by Twelve Books.

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