Israel is in the midst of an onslaught in Gaza, killing more than 26,000 Palestinians (including at least 10,000 children) since October 7. This mass slaughter has led people and governments throughout the world to criticize Israel, and the International Court of Justice to order provisional measures against it after finding that “at least some of [its] acts and omissions [...] in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention.” As such, Israel’s killing has been accompanied by efforts, from forces within and abroad, to justify and sanitize its actions in an attempt to win the public image war.
In Canada, one group particularly active on the media front of this campaign is HonestReporting Canada (HRC), which labels itself as “an independent grass-roots organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East.” This stock description of HRC found on its website, however, clashes with how it describes its efforts elsewhere.
In a July 2023 interview, HRC executive director Mike Fegelman proclaimed that the group wants “to create a digital army for Israel.” In an Oct. 13, 2023, fundraising email, Fegelman acknowledged mass criticism of Israel, and wrote, “To prevail, it’s imperative that we operate by the maxim that the best defense is a strong offense and work to control the narrative. To that end, we’ve established a war room” in order to, as he mentions later in the email, allow HRC “to act as Israel’s sword and shield.” This framing was pushed again in a Nov. 28, 2023, email, in which Fegelman wrote, “In the war against Hamas, there are two battlefronts: the fighting on the ground and the battle for public opinion. In many respects, the war of persuasion is no less important, helping to shape an entire generation.”
According to HRC, its “war” to “control the narrative” in Canadian media has been going well. While HRC has a vested interest in portraying its efforts as successful in order to attract and retain donors — who are able to get tax write offs due to HRC’s status as a charity — there’s no denying the impact it has had on Canadian media.
The group claims to have “prompted hundreds of apologies, retractions, and revisions from news outlets” in its 20 years of existence, and has a page dedicated to listing these accomplishments that includes nearly every major publication in the country. One recent example is HRC claiming it got The Globe and Mail to alter the headline for a Nov. 24, 2023, article to refer to Palestinians released by Israel as “detainees” instead of “minors and women,” as was originally stated. In just the past four months, HRC has also claimed to have played a role in getting two Palestinian journalists, including one on maternity leave, fired.
HRC functions by having its staff members and email subscribers scan Canadian media for things they deem to be biased against Israel. These examples can be reported through a form on the site, and are then examined by HRC staff. At this point, HRC may reach out to the outlet in question posing a demand, and sometimes make a call to their more than 60,000 subscribers to email the target with similar messaging. For example, a January 17 HRC email with the subject line “Toronto Star’s Shree Paradkar Accuses Israel Of Killing Palestinian ‘Journalists’ In ‘Unprecedented Numbers’ – Ignoring Their Role In Terrorism,” linked to a form for subscribers to email the Toronto Star to complain about Paradkar’s article.
In December 2023, HRC boasted of having “mobilized Canadians to send 50,000 letters to news outlets” in just the prior few weeks. The goal of these campaigns is to pressure the publication into making the desired change as well as to establish a relationship whereby the outlet will have HRC in mind when reporting on Israel. (Full disclosure: This author was personally targeted by an HRC campaign in 2022 shortly after writing about them.)
In its “How to Monitor The Media” guide, HRC notes the importance of pro-Israel media watchdogs meeting with writers and editors, and suggests the following: “At the end of the meeting, make them a deal: If they will agree to regular meetings, you will promise to restrain your rapid-response team and to restrict your complaints to only major errors. This takes tremendous pressure off the media, who abhor being flooded with email complaints and all the bad publicity. This also creates an ongoing dialogue, whereby local editors will eventually turn to HonestReporting activists as a resource on the Israeli perspective.”
According to Fegelman, these strategies have borne fruit, with the group’s efforts sometimes being less of a battle and more of a partnership. In a September 2021 interview, for example, Fegelman claimed: “That added layer of editorial oversight we provide to the media is greatly appreciated by our newsmakers in a world of cutbacks where they don’t have that editorial oversight. So, you know, some people might think that the relationship is antagonistic. It’s actually quite cooperative and complementary because they realize that we’re helping them do their jobs.”
This investigation mentioned HRC, but wasn’t able to give it the sort of focus it deserves relative to its impact on Canadian media. A new series at The Maple offers a deep dive into HRC given its continued relevance and heightened efforts since Israel’s most-recent assault on Gaza began.
This article will present publicly available information about HRC that clashes with its grassroots branding, and explain how it was created, who is behind it, and what ties some of its current and former staff members have to the Israeli government. The second article in the series uses a document created by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) for The Maple to list and describe the various billionaire and millionaire charities that have donated to HRC, including ones run by some of Canada’s most prominent families.
As a whole, this investigation will offer a far better understanding of HRC than most have, and outline how wealthy and well-connected charities in various sectors have materially supported the organization’s efforts to “control the narrative” on Israel in Canadian media.
Is HRC Really A ‘Grassroots’ Organization?
In a September 2021 interview, HRC executive director Mike Fegelman was asked when HonestReporting was founded, and why. He responded: “HonestReporting Canada started in 2003. [...] There were some people in the U.K. who were very frustrated. Who, quite frankly, just took out their computer and were writing letters frantically at the media saying, ‘You’re just not giving Israel a fair shake. This is biased. There is no objectivity in your coverage. We want change. We want professional standards of journalism to be adhered to.’ And it started off like that: a grassroots effort, not a professional organization. People who were concerned, who didn’t want to pass the buck, who wanted to take ownership to do what they could for Israel. And it then blossomed into an actual professional organization.”
Fegelman’s answer is far from the full story.
HRC was launched in 2003, but its origins date back to 2000. On Yom Kippur that year, Shaul Rosenblatt, the founder and then-head of Aish-UK, a major Jewish charity, met with a group of students to discuss media coverage of Israel. According to the 2020 book Rav Noach Weinberg: Torah Revolutionary by Yonoson Rosenblum, at that meeting they came up with the idea of creating an email list to put pressure on news organizations to alter coverage they didn’t like. Within a few weeks, 10,000 people signed on to their list.
Whether a group started by the head of a major charity should be considered grassroots or not is up for debate. Regardless, the transition from “grassroots” to “professional” that Fegelman describes didn’t take long. According to Rosenblum, Irwin Katsof, who he describes as “Aish fundraiser-supreme,” had “heard about Shaul Rosenblatt’s group in England and immediately realized that Honest Reporting was a project for which he could raise a great deal of money.” Not long after, Katsof offered to take the effort over, and Rosenblatt, whose wife was terminally ill, “could not have been more relieved.”
Katsof played a significant role in Aish HaTorah, a pro-Israel global Orthodox Jewish organization that has funded notorious propaganda ventures for Israel. At that point in his career, a biography page for Katsof notes, he had already “recruited countless senior level Officers of Fortune 1000 Companies and United States political leadership for his high-level Jerusalem Fund missions to Israel and Jordan,” including attorney general John Ashcroft, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, and Joe Biden.
In March 2001, HonestReporting (HR) was registered in the U.S. as a non-profit, with Katsof listed as the executive director. Aish HaTorah’s Jerusalem Fund Inc., led by Katsof, lent the group more than $158,000 that year for its launch. In 2002, Aish HaTorah provided it with a $48,100 grant. Katsof was listed as executive director on tax returns for the next two years, and, as noted by the Daily Beast, “wrote in a personal blog post in 2009 that he hadn’t played enough with his kids over the years because he’d ‘worked too hard,’ including his efforts ‘to raise the profile of Israel in world opinion through HonestReporting.com.’”
HR became what Fegelman refers to as a “professional organization” — in this case, a registered non-profit — just a few months after it was created, and more than two years before HRC was launched. Despite its branding as a grassroots organization, the well-established HR website advertised HRC as an affiliate before it launched, encouraging its readers to sign up, providing them with a form to do so and declaring, “HonestReporting is coming to Canada!” The logos of the two organizations were also very similar at the time. And while HR may have originated from the efforts of students, HRC was started by a group of established professionals, including a member of a wealthy Canadian family.
Who Founded HRC?
In May 2003, HRC was incorporated as a non-profit organization in Ontario, with three directors listed on the application: Shmuel Veffer, Heather Crawford and Kenneth Rotman.
Veffer, whose name was listed on these legal documents as “Samuel,” was associate rabbi at the Village Shul in Toronto at the time of HRC’s founding, which is an Orthodox synagogue The Canadian Jewish News described in 2009 as “an Aish HaTorah satellite.” Veffer, who would go on to invent the “KosherLamp,” is also a lecturer, public speaker and author. He remains listed as an active director and vice-president of the Ontario non-profit branch of HRC, though he isn’t listed on documents for the federal charity. The Maple initially contacted Veffer through his website’s form, which had a character limit. Veffer replied to this message, but then failed to respond to several follow-up emails from The Maple containing questions for him.
Crawford worked as general counsel at Clairvest Group Inc., a major private equity firm, at the time of HRC’s founding, according to her LinkedIn profile. Crawford is a daughter of Purdy Crawford, who The Globe and Mail described as “one of Canada’s best known business leaders.” Crawford is no longer listed as a director at HRC’s non-profit, and isn’t listed as having a role in HRC’s federal charity. The Maple attempted to reach Crawford by sending several emails to her current workplace as well as calling and leaving a voicemail, but these efforts were unsuccessful.
Rotman is the son of Joseph Rotman, the now-deceased head of the family behind the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (U of T), among other school departments. Joseph, who died in 2015 and was described as a “proud Canadian and supporter of Israel” in his obituary, founded Clairvest Group Inc. in 1987. Ken joined the firm in 1993 and is now its CEO and managing director. The firm’s website states that it has $4.3 billion in capital under its management, and Yahoo Finance lists Ken’s most recent pay at $6.94 million. Ken remains listed as the president of HRC’s non-profit and is a founding director of its federal charity. The Maple sent several emails to Rotman’s work email address and also called his work phone number and left a voicemail. Rotman didn’t respond to any of these messages.
Other documentation for, and reporting on, HRC’s non-profit lists Jonas Prince as a founding director. Prince is the co-founder of Realstar, a real-estate investment and management company started in 1974 that boasts of managing more than $9 billion in assets and being the owner-operator of more than 25,000 rental units in Canada alone. Prince was also involved in the Shawinigate scandal, as the person to whom then-prime minister Jean Chrétien was supposed to sell his shares of a golf course. Prince remains an active director at HRC’s non-profit, and has been on its charity’s board of directors throughout its existence. The Maple attempted to reach Prince by email through Realstar several times, including at a designated email address for media inquiries. Prince didn’t respond to any of these contact attempts.
Who Has Joined HRC Over The Years?
Fegelman joined HRC a year or so after it was founded, shortly after finishing a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University, according to his LinkedIn. In a September 2021 interview, Fegelman stated that at the start of his career he didn’t know a lot about Israel or Judaism, but that he developed “a newfound passion” for Israel on a Birthright trip. He also claims that while walking through Jerusalem on a Birthright trip, he “saw a sign in the garbage” advertising HR. He adds: “I contacted the local office and said I’d be happy to volunteer and was hired the next day.” Fegelman started off with the group, who he has described as being founded by “prominent people,” as the assistant director and became executive director a few years later. Like Veffer, Fegelman has also been associated with Aish HaTorah, having served as the president of the Village Shul and the Aish Hatorah Learning Centre in Toronto. The Maple sent several emails to Fegelman’s work email address and also called HRC’s public phone number and left a voicemail. Neither Fegelman nor anyone else working at HRC responded to these messages.
Many prominent people have also since been involved with HRC.
A 2005 article from the Review of Journalism states that the late Irving Abella, a York University history professor at the time, was on its board of directors. Irving was married to Rosalie Abella, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada the year prior and served as a justice until 2021.
Ray Rubin, a founding director of HRC’s charity who remained on the board until 2020, is a partner at the Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP law firm in Toronto whose personal clients “include high-net-worth individuals, family businesses, trust companies and charitable entities,” according to Chambers and Partners. The Maple sent several emails to Rubin’s work email address and also called Rubin’s work phone number and left a voicemail. Rubin didn’t respond to any of these messages.
Daniel Greenglass joined HRC’s charity’s board of directors in 2020. A UHN Foundation biography page lists Greenglass as the CFO and co-managing partner of Brennan Custom Homes Inc. alongside his partner. The company’s website notes that it has “designed and built hundreds of custom homes ranging in price from $5m to over $50m,” in Canada, the U.S. and The Bahamas. In 2011, Greenglass and his partner bought an island on the St. Lawrence River and later built a 4,800-square-foot house on it. The Maple attempted to reach Greenglass by sending several emails to Brennan Custom Homes Inc. as well as calling a phone number listed on its website, but these efforts were unsuccessful.
What Are HRC’s Connections To The Israeli Government?
HRC is registered in Canada, operates in Canada and was founded by a group of Canadians. Its work, however, has been praised by Israeli government officials.
Israel’s ambassador to Canada from 2004 to 2008, Alan Baker, wrote the following, as published on HRC’s endorsements page: “Since becoming familiar with the efforts of Honest Reporting, I can say that your work to address media bias against Israel and to correct the misleading reporting in Canadian media outlets is a source of inspiration for those who seek clarity and objectivity on the subject. As an organization dedicated exclusively to ensuring fair and accurate media coverage of Israel, you are a significant and vital element in this regard. As I prepare for an end to my Ambassadorial term and I reflect on my time in Canada, your contribution as an organization that is publicly confronting media bias against Israel has been invaluable.”
The consul general of Israel in Montreal from 2007 to 2011, Yoram Elron, wrote the following, also published on HRC’s endorsements page: “Honest Reporting Canada is an invaluable ally in the war against disinformation in the mainstream media. For years it has offered Canadians from all walks of life an unbiased and accurate depiction of the situation in Israel and the Middle East. I applaud HRC for its courageous work in educating the public and in making Canadian news outlets accountable for their reporting on Israel and the region.”
HRC also has ties to Israel, the state it was created to defend and for which it sees itself as its “sword and shield.”
Several of HRC’s current and former staff members worked for the Israeli government prior to joining HRC.
Dov Smith, HRC’s first executive director, is reported to have previously worked in PR for the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Ysabella Hazan, HRC’s former associate director for Quebec, worked as the political and public affairs strategist at the Consulate General of Israel in Montreal from 2020 to 2021, ending her term just a couple of months before assuming her position at HRC. Robert Walker, HRC’s current assistant director, worked as the director of communications for Israel’s embassy in Ottawa from 2009 to 2010, where he says that he “built new relationships and expanded existing relationships with members of the national and international media.” Jade Levitt, HRC’s current Quebec regional director, worked as the political and public affairs director at the Consulate General of Israel in Montreal from 2019 to 2021. HRC described her as “Israel’s official watchdog for Quebec media.” During this time, she also served as an alternate delegate for Israel before the International Civil Aviation Organization.
HRC has also partnered with a group that was founded with the help of the Israeli government. In December 2022, HRC announced that they’d be forming a “united front” with Hasbara Canada in order to create the “Canadian Campus Media Program.” Successful candidates for the program, they stated, would be required to attend joint workshops held by the two groups, monitor campus media and respond to coverage deemed to be “problematic,” proactively submit opinion pieces and press releases in order to “steer the conversation about Israel,” and share pro-Israel content. The announcement promised each student would be paid $1,000 upon successful completion of the six-month program. HRC’s Q1 2023 report announced that 23 students from 14 universities across the country had been accepted to the program.
The Hasbara Fellowships program, which is behind Hasbara Canada, was founded in 2001 by Aish HaTorah — the group that also founded HR around the same time — in response to a professed need from the Israeli government for pro-Israel advocacy on university campuses. The program was launched with a $50,000 grant from the foreign ministry of Israel. A 2010 article about the program noted that Aish HaTorah now covered the entire cost of the trips, though it’s not clear exactly when the foreign ministry stopped funding any part of them.
Several current and former HRC staff members have been involved with Hasbara Fellowships in some way, including Fegelman, Hazan and former research analyst Noah Lewis. The most notable involvement with Hasbara, however, is Walker, HRC’s current assistant director (who left his Hasbara position in 2019).
In 2015, Hasbara Fellowships announced that they’d hired Walker as the first Canadian director of the program as part of an effort to expand into Canada. At the time, The Canadian Jewish News reported that, “[Walker] said the reason Hasbara organizes student trips to Israel is because they want students to ‘build narratives’ based on their personal experiences in Israel.” Walker, they reported, added, “Nobody has ever been convinced of Israel’s virtues because of the facts alone.”
As a professional organization that has been operating for more than 20 years, HRC has needed significant funding. So, where has this funding come from? Given that HRC was created, and is directed, by “prominent” individuals, it perhaps won’t come as a surprise to learn that a significant chunk of its funding has come from a similar milieu.
In the next article of The Maple’s series on HRC, we outline the various billionaire and millionaire charities that have contributed to help ensure HRC’s efforts to “control the narrative” on Israel in Canadian media continue.
This article is based on a document provided to The Maple by the CRA, and offers an unprecedented look into the group’s finances.