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Postering Hate: Campus Activism and the Radical Right

News & Features | November 7, 2016

On Wednesday, October 19, Tufts students woke up to find defamatory and racist posters plastered around campus. One poster listed the names of 10 Tufts students and one professor, labeling them as activists in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), as well as supporters of the tactic of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on the state of Israel. Bright red letters across the top of the poster read “HAMAS TERRORISTS.” Another poster uses arrows and images of shadowy figures holding puppets to imply links between SJP and Hamas. There is no evidence that members of SJP or JVP are involved with Hamas. Rather, these posters are emblematic of a trend in which right-wing organizations target activist groups on college campuses.

Listed at the bottom of the posters is the website for an organization called Horowitz Freedom Center, a group founded by David Horowitz. Horowitz has been named an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy group whose program “Hatewatch” names and maps out “radical right” hate groups across the US.  The Horowitz Freedom Center’s website says its mission is to “[combat] the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror.”

The names on the poster seem to have been drawn directly from another website named Canary Mission, a database of students and professors whose stated mission is “to document people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel, and the Jewish people, particularly on college campuses in North America.” The website compiles screenshots from personal social media accounts, as well as other personal information about students and professors who are active in organizations like SJP. Canary Mission has been widely condemned, including in a petition signed by 1,010 professors at universities across the US. The petition describes the site as “an effort to intimidate and blacklist students and faculty who stand for justice for Palestinians.” Despite this condemnation, Canary Mission is still very much active.

The Tufts students named on the posters reported feeling supported by faculty, staff, and other students, but seeing their names publicly listed was jarring for some. Senior Hannah Freedman, a member of Tufts SJP, was reminded of links to her family’s past. She said, “I remember as a freshman…the first time that I published something [in support of SJP], I remember specifically thinking about the fact that I was sending this in with my real name on it, and I heard my mother and my grandmother’s voice in my head saying things they’d been telling me since I was little—to never put my name on petitions or to not have my name on things.” This fear, she said, came out of her grandmother’s history involved with organizing during the McCarthy era. She explained, “It hit me extra hard to see my name on the posters, because this really does feel like modern day McCarthy era stuff.”

Noah Habeeb, a second-year Urban and Environmental Planning student and organizer with JVP Boston, explained the implications of being targeted by the posters. “I think it’s kind of absurd that at age 22, as a graduate student in urban policy and planning, I have to have a lawyer,” he said.

Jonathan Moore, a senior whose name was also listed on the poster, said, “As a Black person who was listed…I’m obviously in a different place and space where I don’t feel corporeally vulnerable in the same way that maybe a White Jewish student or especially a Muslim student might. I’m in a position personally where I feel that it’s… it’s encouraging. Not encouraging in a superficial way, but encouraging in the sense that they’re worried about Black people supporting Palestinian liberation to the extent that they would prioritize it with the folks that they’re targeting.”

            Though organizations like the Horowitz Freedom Center and Canary Mission claim to be fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses—multiple posters include the hashtag “#JewHatred”—Freedman posits that is not the case. “These posters are not designed to end anti-Semitism,” she said. “If they were designed to end anti-Semitism, they would start talking about anti-Semitism, but instead it’s very clear that it’s only meant to intimidate students and professors and scare people out of organizing.”

In an email exchange, David Horowitz, founder of the Horowitz Freedom Center, stated that the posters “are designed to expose the agendas of SJP and the BDS campaign to public scrutiny and hold the activists of SJP and BDS accountable for their actions. It’s called free speech.”

However, like Freedman, Habeeb identified the posters as functioning to intimidate students. “I think the point of something like this is to silence people. Some people seem to think that free speech means you can say whatever libelous, defamatory remarks you want without repercussions, but that actually acts to suppress speech. It intimidates students, it intimidates activists and faculty members, into remaining silent rather than speak out against human rights abuses. It’s a tactic of silencing,” he said.

Accusations of anti-Semitism have been lodged against students and professors by both the Horowitz Freedom Center and Canary Mission. Freedman reflected that as a Jewish student, it is often easier for her to rebuke those accusations than it is for Arab and Muslim students. For Freedman, though, accusations of anti-Semitism are complex. She commented, “It feels really weird to have my name on a poster that says #JewHatred on it, but then it’s also really weird because one of the posters has a shadowy figure of Hamas holding a [puppet], like somebody else is controlling SJP.” She went on to pinpoint the “anti-Semitic trope of the puppeteer that’s behind everything,” alluding to an image that has been deployed to suggest that Jews are a hidden, sinister, controlling force in society. She explained that on the posters, that imagery was used for “Islamophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian organizing purposes, so that’s also really confusing.”

The rhetoric employed by the posters is not limited to hate groups like Horowitz Freedom and Canary Mission. Radhika Sainath is a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a self-described “independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom.” She said, “While Horowitz is viewed as an extremist, his tactics are in line with broader efforts by mainstream pro-Israel advocacy organizations, Israeli officials, and US government officials to suppress speech in support of Palestinian rights. The Horowitz posters fall in line with a pattern of widespread intimidation and censorship of students and faculty in the US who speak out for Palestinian rights, a pattern that Palestine Legal has documented.”

Mina Brewer, a Tufts senior and member of SJP, echoed this point. She said the tactics used by the posters were not surprising. She explained, “These are the same types of arguments used at any level of anti-pro Palestine activism. You know, people on the comments of Facebook posts…but then also people who are in government and the media and politicians—they all use the same type of rhetoric, and its just creepy to see that it’s so powerful.”

            The appearance of these posters at Tufts is not an isolated incident. According to Freedman, “These posters have come up on, like, 10 different campuses around the country with literally just the names changed. So it’s somebody just going onto Canary Mission [and] sorting by school.” Sainath said that in addition to Tufts, the posters have been put up on the campuses of Brooklyn College (CUNY), San Diego State University, San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UCLA, University of Chicago, University of Tennessee Knoxville, and Vassar College. “It happened at 10-plus schools, it’s also within this huge pattern of suppression of outside groups but at universities as well,” said Habeeb. He continued, “I think it’s important that we contextualize an incident like this within a broader trend and pattern of suppression of Palestinian solidarity work on US campuses that mostly targets students and faculty just as these posters did.”

Moore pointed out that the posters are revealing in another way as well. “The thing that resonates most with me is the fact that I am not at all a prolific organizer or activist for SJP,” he said. “Their targeting is so disconnected from the ground.” Moore observed, “They have no groundwork that is actually plugged into the work that activists are doing. Or at least they’re not public about it. I don’t think it exists.”

            What remains unclear is what person or group of people might have put up the posters at Tufts specifically. Freedman doesn’t think that a Tufts student put up the posters: “It’s…clear that the people who put up these posters have no understanding of the Tufts campus community. When I first saw [the posters] it was very clear that [whoever put them up] didn’t go to Tufts, it wasn’t by a Tufts student or anybody involved with Tufts, because who puts a poster at Dowling when you can put it at the Campus Center? It was somebody driving around campus and putting it up near roads.”

Habeeb, on the other hand, thinks a Tufts student could be responsible. “After I reflected on this, what I found to be even more disturbing was the uncertainty to who did it. Because one can’t help but think that it could be students on this campus,” he said. “And I really would like to think that it wasn’t and I’d like to think this is a community in which that wouldn’t happen and that this was some outside actor, but you can’t help but think it’s possible that this was a Tufts student. And that’s kind of a shame.”

Regardless of what individual may be responsible for putting the posters up, it is clear that they are created by the Horowitz Freedom Center with information sourced from Canary Mission. David Horowitz has not denied responsibility for Horowitz Freedom Center and its actions, but anonymity still remains an important tool employed by both organizations.

Canary Mission’s creators have remained more or less anonymous since it first appeared in 2015, though journalists have speculated as to the identity of its creator. In a May 2015 article published by the Forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis writes, “The Web domain is registered in a way that hides its ownership. Though the site says that Canary Mission ‘is a non-profit organization,’ no group called Canary Mission is currently registered with the IRS as eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions, and the website indicates no fiscal sponsor through which it can accept donations. The group’s MailChimp account identifies its ZIP code as 10458, a corner of the Bronx that includes Fordham University.”

A September 2015 follow-up article reported that a link on the Canary Mission website meant to link to the organization’s Twitter page temporarily linked to “the personal Twitter page of a South African-born resident of Israel named Warren Betzalel Lapidus.” According to the Forward article, “Lapidus identified himself on Facebook as the editorial director of an online Israel advocacy operation called Free Middle East.” As of October 27, 2016, both Lapidus’ Twitter page and the website for Free Middle East, both linked to in the Forward article, no longer lead to active sites. Canary Mission, however, remains up and running.

Though Horowitz does not deny responsibility for the posters, he has refused to reveal the identities of anyone working for him. In an interview with the Tufts Daily published on October 21, Horowitz said, “I have people who make posters and they have people who put them up. I have no idea who they are so I can’t answer this question and I wouldn’t if I could.”  When asked again, by the Observer, who puts up the posters for him, or if he sees irony in protecting the identities of those people while listing the names of students and professors on his posters, Horowitz refused to respond, only saying, “These are not reporter’s questions. They are more like a police inquisition in a totalitarian state, such as Gaza or the West Bank. They are accusatory and indicting.”

Habeeb said, “The irony is that the people behind these efforts of silencing prefer to remain anonymous…They want everybody to know who we are, and to link us to libelous claims that they cannot substantiate, but they refuse to reveal who they are.”

Horowitz also refused to answer questions about who he sees as his main supporters, where his organization receives funds from, and whether his goal is for students and professors to be verbally or physically attacked as a result of his posters. He did, however, deny that students were named on the posters. “First of all we did not name students and we did not ‘label them terrorists.’ That is false,” he said. “We identified them as supporters of BDS and SJP and of the terrorist regimes in Palestine and Gaza.” It is unclear what Horowitz thinks it means to name students. Regardless, students are listed by first and last name on the posters.

Despite all this, Moore still finds motivation in Horowitz’s tactics. He pointed out that the disconnects between the posters’ content and organizing happening at Tufts—naming people who are on Canary Mission rather than people who are most centrally involved with SJP—should “encourage folks that support Palestinian liberation at large, because there’s a disconnect between the threat and their capacity to organize,” he said. “So,” he continued, “in reading between the lines of their politics, I think we learn a lot about who they’re threatened by and the sort of alliances that threaten their cohesion, if you can call it that. And if we lean into that and we sort of take it as a sign that, you know, folks on the ground are doing great work, Black organizers like Kristian Davis Bailey and the reputation they’ve garnered for having these dualistic conversations, I think it’s encouraging in that way.”