newsAntisemitism

HonestReporting Canada: ‘We want to create a digital army for Israel’

Mike Fegelman, the media watchdog’s executive director, reflects on his 20th anniversary at the nonprofit.

Mike Fegelman, executive director of HonestReporting Canada. Credit: Courtesy.
Mike Fegelman, executive director of HonestReporting Canada. Credit: Courtesy.

It took a bit of “cajoling” from his sister, but Mike Fegelman, like many Jewish Canadian teenagers, went on Birthright. It was the summer of 2003, and the 18-year-old’s first visit to Israel impacted him profoundly.

“It awakened a newfound personal passion in me about Israel and the existential challenges it faces on a continual basis,” Fegelman told JNS.

The following year, Fegelman joined HonestReporting Canada, where he became executive director a few years later. As he approaches two decades at the media watchdog, Fegelman told JNS about the ways the battle to defend Israel has changed and what drew him to the field.

‘David’ vs. ‘Goliath’

A Toronto native, Fegelman, 42, grew up in a “fairly secular” Jewish household. He had a bar mitzvah and the family observed major holidays.

“Over time, I acquired a thirst for knowledge about my Jewish identity, along with a yearning for meaning, purpose and community,” he told JNS. “That affinity developed deeper, and I went to various Torah classes and programs that Toronto’s dynamic Jewish community has to offer.”

He wanted to give back and be part of an institution centered “on personal growth, leadership development, support for Israel and care for the Jewish people,” he said, which led him to run the young professionals program at his local Orthodox synagogue, the Village Shul and Aish HaTorah Learning Centre.

Village Shul
The Village Shul and Aish HaTorah Learning Centre, an Orthodox Congregation in Toronto. Credit: Google Maps screenshot.

Fegelman co-chaired the congregation’s annual golf tournament for many years, and eventually became the synagogue president. (He is now the immediate past president.)

On that first trip to Israel, he was most of the way through his bachelor’s degree in journalism, which he earned at Carleton University in Ottawa in 2004. The prior year, he visited the Kotel, Tel Aviv beaches and other tourist sites on the Birthright trip. 

It was in Israel that he first learned about HonestReporting Canada from a poster, which proclaimed: “Help fight media bias against Israel. Join HonestReporting!” He remembers the advertisement depicted a Palestinian kid throwing a stone at an Israeli armored vehicle—“a typical narrative presented by the media to depict a David versus Goliath scenario,” he told JNS.

Realizing that a dozen photographers had taken the same photo, and that they had all been cropped out of it, led to the realization that news media narratives could be and were manufactured.

Returning to Toronto, Fegelman learned that Jonas Prince and Ken Rotman had launched HonestReporting Canada in 2003. Both are board members today, with Prince serving as chairman and Rotman serving as vice chairman. (Despite its name, HRC is independent of HonestReporting, which was founded three years prior.)

The nonprofit aims to counter anti-Israel bias in Canadian news providers. Intrigued, Fegelman asked about becoming a volunteer, only to learn HRC was hiring an assistant director. He applied and was hired.

Jules Olitsk
Jules Olitski’s painting/sculpture “Elyon,” conceived as a Holocaust memorial, at the Conservative synagogue Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Prince and Rotman had founded HRC largely because the Jewish community “wasn’t doing enough” to combat anti-Israel biases, according to Fegelman. Since then, HRC, which has a staff of seven (including Fegelman), has grown exponentially.

“When we started in 2003, we had only a few dozen subscribers. That has since grown to over 56,000 subscribers,” Fegelman said. “We want to create a digital army for Israel.” 

‘Bias by omission’

HonestReporting focuses on international media, while HonestReporting Canada looks particularly at the ways that Canadian media portrays Israel inaccurately.

Canadian news outlets are likelier than U.S. news publications to “normalize and weaponize antisemitism,” according to Fegelman.

He cited two recent examples: a June 2023 column, in which a University of Calgary student publication accused Jews of “the ultimate thievery” of Palestinian identity, and a May 2021 anti-Israel open letter, which Canadian journalists signed and which accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing.”

Mainstream Canadian publications rely too heavily on overseas producers, and even outlets like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) are unwilling or unable to conduct interviews on the ground in Israel, according to Fegelman.

“There are so many factors involved which make Canadian media more critical and hostile to Israel,” he said.

This leads to a “bias of omission,” he added. 

That bias came to the fore during the recent Israel Defense Forces counter-terrorism operation in Jenin.

“Canadian outlets listed Palestinian casualties without mentioning the fact that these people were terrorists,” Fegelman said. “There was also no mention of the weapons caches in civilian areas. People should be up at arms to know that these munitions are being placed next to mosques and U.N. buildings.”

HonestReporting Canada will continue to focus on these kinds of issues, and Fegelman foresees increasing focus on social media.

“As more Canadians get their news from sources like Facebook and Twitter, it underscores the importance of our organization being more proactive and being on the vanguard of factual reporting,” he said.

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