Canary Mission has exploited its anonymity to smear college students with impunity. The Grayzone is investigating the forces behind the malicious anti-Palestinian organization’s web domain.
By Hamzah Raza and Max Blumenthal / AlterNet’s Grayzone Project
Editor’s note #1:An attorney for Howard David Sterling has asserted that Sterling “does not own the website” of CanaryMission.org, “did not engage in any of the conduct” committed by Canary Mission, and “had never even heard of that website until he was asked about it by a reporter earlier this year.” Sterling’s attorney stated, “GoDaddy specifically informed us that Howard Sterling is not and never has been the owner of that domain registration.”
Editor’s note #2:The Grayzone has continued to investigate the forces behind Canary Mission. We have obtained a bank statement recording a November 21, 2018 donation to CanaryMission.org that was accompanied by a cellphone number that was registered in Sterling’s name until at least March 15, 2015 — a month after the Canary Mission domain was registered.
Editor’s note #3:As Ali Abunimah and Asa Winstanley first reported, the censored Al Jazeera documentary, “The Lobby – USA” identified pro-Israel oligarch Adam Milstein as “Canary Mission funder.”
Since it first registered its website in February 2015, Canary Mission has been a source of mystery and menace. Dedicated to blacklisting students involved in Palestine solidarity activism, intimidating them and denigrating their public reputations, Canary Mission’s administrators have gone to great lengths to conceal their identities. The secrecy has enabled them to target legally defenseless students – who are mostly members of minority and immigrant groups — with total impunity.
A document supplied to the Grayzone identifies the person who was at least the initial owner of Canary Mission’s domain name as a wealthy lawyer who has been a fervent supporter of Israel. According to document provided to the Grayzone, his name is Howard David Sterling.
Sterling has said that it his life’s mission to increase foreign investment in Israeli healthcare companies. Having worked extensively in Israel’s medical and hi-tech sector, he sees investment in the country as a means of ensuring American support for Israel. He has published several videos on YouTube highlighting what he sees as Israel’s “impossible” medical breakthroughs.
In an interview with the Jewish National Fund’s IsraelCast, Sterling stated that, “People will protect their pocket books. And if they have shares in Israeli companies, they are going to want to protect their pocket books by protecting Israel.” Other major Israel lobby operatives featured on the JNF’s podcast include Jacob Baime, who is Executive Director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC). Adam Milstein, a California-based Israeli-American hedge fund director who is among the top funders of the ICC, sits on Baime’s board of directors.
Josh Nathan Kazis, a correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward, reported that the ICC’s Baime hired a professional consultant to battle a divestment resolution at Ohio State just a month after Canary Mission registered its website. It was the first known instance of the Israel lobby hiring political professionals to battle the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement on campus.
Two months later, the Israeli government appointed Gilad Erdan as Minister of Strategic Affairs, transforming the outfit into the military-intelligence apparatus’s main base of operations against the global BDS movement.
Sterling is a previously unknown figure whose ties to the ICC and other pro-Israel organizations are not firmly established. And that might be why Canary Mission’s website, which thrives off of anonymity, is registered under his name.
Calls by the Grayzone to the phone number associated with Sterling’s registration form were initially not answered.
A family member of Sterling’s later contacted the Grayzone to deny that Sterling was the owner of Canary Mission’s website. They claimed that because there were several other people named Howard Sterling in America, the owner could have been another person, and one without the same record of pro-Israel advocacy. When confronted with the fact that the document supplied to the Grayzone identified the website as registered under the name and address of Sterling, the family member could not explain how or why this took place.
The Israel on Campus Coalition supports Canary Mission
The Canary Mission website has had such an inflammatory effect that it generated controversy even within Zionist circles. The American Jewish Congress has condemned the organization, while the Anti-Defamation League backed away after initially issuing support, referring to Canary Mission as “Islamophobic and racist.”
But the ICC has consistently stood by Canary Mission. The ICC brings together some of the lobby’s most hardline organizations, from the Zionist Organization of America to the David Project to the right-wing Christians United for Israel.
The ICC’s 2016-2017 annual report endorsed Canary Mission, referring to it as a “strong deterrent against anti-Semitism and BDS activism.” Baime, the Executive Director of the ICC, has been an avid defender of Canary Mission.
Sources who have viewed an unreleased Al Jazeera investigative documentary series about the Israel lobby have told the Grayzone that the series identifies the operatives who conceived and today direct Canary Mission. Al Jazeera has refused to air the documentary since falling under pressure from the lobby and its supporters in Congress.
Since its advent in 2015, Canary Mission has been one of the most pernicious weapons of the Israel lobby. Today, the website contains profiles of nearly 2000 students and over 500 college professors considered enemies of Israel. The site was created with the stated aim to expose those who “promote lies and attacks on Israel and the Jewish people” so that “the public is better informed.“
In practice, this means that those who overly support the Palestinian cause are publicly defamed through the publication of personal dossiers containing inaccurate, misrepresented, and/or out-of context statements. By raising the stakes of Palestinian solidarity activism, the website intends to act as a deterrent to students considering Palestinian solidarity activism — particularly those from marginalized communities like immigrants and people of color.
The case of a Palestinian-American law student named Ahmad Aburas provides a particularly disturbing portrait of Canary Mission tactics in action. While Aburas was enrolled at Seton Hall Law School, Canary Mission contacted school administrators to suggest that statements he made on social media expressed support for terrorism. Seton Hall then called the FBI, Aburas was taken out of class and subjected to interrogation by federal agents over his political views.
One Facebook status that Canary Mission singled out related to Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza, where Israel killed 551 Palestinian children in Gaza and destroyed or damaged some 100,000 homes. Amid the atmosphere of despair, Aburas took to Facebook to declare, “We are all RESISTANCE ! We are all #hamas ! We are all HUMAN.”
Aburas maintained that he was challenging the Israeli propaganda that targets every Palestinian as a member of Hamas, not expressing any ideological affinity with the organization or its military resistance. Yet none of this mattered to Canary Mission, which branded him as a terrorist sympathizer and deliberately triggered his FBI interrogation. “Canary Mission is an alt-right Zionist website created to put an end to Palestinian political opinions. Through false information and hostile tactics, Canary Mission intimidates pro-Palestinian organizers and activists,” Aburas said.
A co-author of this investigation, Hamzah Raza, also experienced the Israel lobby’s culture of intimidation while part of Vanderbilt’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. There were multiple occasions when members of the David Project, an affiliate of the ICC, inquired about the student organization’s budget, took notes on laptops at the back of meetings, and even attempted to record its events. When Canary Mission created a profile on Raza, he was shocked at the level that the Israel lobby’s intimidation tactics had gone to. The website compiled 67 images of him and stated that he “supported terrorists, demonized Israel, and spread anti-Israel propaganda.”
Anonymity has allowed Canary Mission to carry out its McCarthyite tactics with impunity.