On Israel-Palestine, media analysis and HonestReporting Canada

A shield against reality

As a teacher of film studies, I spend a lot of time encouraging students to resist habits of passive media consumption.

In the classroom, we slow down and reflect at length on the details of scenes and shots. It is a critical practice whose applicability extends far beyond the realm of cinema. Any student who learns how to put a film under the microscope, as it were, might do something similar with the massive, multi-media information flow that so powerfully envelops us all today.

HonestReporting Canada (HRC) describes itself as an “independent grass-roots organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East,” projecting an image of rigorous media scrutiny.

However, its analytic procedures are the exact opposite of anything that I teach my students.

As the Maple recently covered in an exposé, HRC combs the Canadian media landscape — from major daily papers and news broadcasts to student-run papers — and sends out “action alerts” about material it deems objectionable (a determination that effectively boils down to anything that falls outside the official Israeli political narrative) to its over 60,000 members, encouraging them to send a pre-written message to the publishers, and thus flood these outlets with emails.

In this way, in the words of HRC’s executive director Mike Fegelman, the organization aspires to “create a digital army for Israel.”

Since Oct. 7, HRC has published several alerts about pieces written in the Manitoban, including a piece of my own that argued for the overturning of the suspension of Arij Al Khafagi, and for a campus climate conducive to freedom of speech and to the ability to criticize the state of Israel without fear of harsh administrative reprisal.

In the alert’s tool that allows the reader to “take action,” the pre-written letter accuses me of “downplaying Hamas’ genocidal killing of Israelis, writing it off as coming [as] a result of Israel’s ‘colonial occupation.’”

What I actually wrote was this: “In response to the Hamas attacks, which left 1,200 people dead, the majority civilians, and involved a mass seizure of civilian hostages — that is to say, attacks that, while emerging out of conditions of colonial occupation, involved unambiguous atrocities — Israel has responded with atrocities and civilian-slaughtering of its own of an order of magnitude several times higher, as is characteristic of its response to assaults, and as Hamas would well have anticipated.”

One can judge for oneself, but I don’t believe such a sentence in any way minimizes or offers tacit justification for the attacks of Oct. 7, or could in any way be construed as consistent with “regurgitat[ing] pro-Hamas talking points,” as I am further accused in the main article.

Consequently, for HRC, the real problem is that I merely described the pre-existing and inevitably formative situation in Gaza as a colonial occupation. Indeed, in its headline and elsewhere, the alert obsessively comes back to the phrase, quoting and requoting it as if to condition the reader always to treat the phrase with a scare-quote sense of dubiousness and unreality.

Another HRC alert in response to a Manitoban article provides further insight into this dynamic. This time, the article was by the Manitoban’s comment editor Jessie Krahn, who references the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s characterization of Israel as embodying a form of settler colonialism.

Calling this characterization “absurd,” Fegelman — the alert’s author — elaborates: “Colonialism is when a foreign power invades a land in order to dominate it for economic or other means. Israel is not a foreign power to the land it possesses; it is the culmination of three thousand years of habitation in the Jewish People’s historic and ancestral homeland.”

Such vehement objections to terms like “colonial occupation” and “settler colonialism” in the context of Israel-Palestine reflect a recent move by hardline defenders of Israel, who invoke the concept of Jewish indigeneity to justify any and every Israeli action, no matter how colossally violent.

As this argument goes, Jewish indigeneity means that it is structurally impossible for Jews to be colonizers, and by extension that only one people can be indigenous to Israel-Palestine, and that is Jews. You’ll notice that Fegelman’s description of the land says nothing at all about Palestinians.

The hawkish trumpeters of Jewish indigeneity drastically simplify, falsify and occlude. Why can’t it be the case that Jews at once have a deep-rooted connection to Israel-Palestine supported by archeology and religious expressions over millennia — call this an indigenous connection or whatever you want — and that the Zionist project has entailed the violent dispossession and oppression of another people indigenous to the very same land?

By the same token, why should such a deep-rooted connection provide carte blanche for unlimited violence and the nullification of human and civil rights?

In a recent webinar organized by the Jewish Faculty Network, criminology professor at Toronto Metropolitan University Shiri Pasternak usefully parses the question of Jewish indigeneity this way: “Jewish people do share a history with Indigenous peoples of survival in the face of ethnic cleansing, assimilation and genocide. But what Jewish people do not share with Indigenous people is a current history of being colonized.”

What this point allows us to see is that when the hawks mobilize the concept of Jewish indigeneity to garner support for Israel’s actions they implicitly adopt — or rather appropriate — the position of being in a condition of ongoing colonial subjection, which is patently not the case. In reality, echoing the situation of other Indigenous peoples around the world, Palestinians are in this position: a fact that the exclusionary, endlessly self-licensing claim to Jewish indigeneity precisely tries to cover up and erase.

Back in January when HRC launched its hit piece on me, I could never have imagined writing all these words in response. Why reply to such bad faith critics?

However, things changed when I became aware that Fegelman had been invited to Winnipeg to serve as the keynote speaker in the Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series, held by the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, with sponsorship from the Asper Foundation. Billed as a fundraiser for the centre, and titled “Fighting Bias in the Media,” the lecture is being held on April 7 at the Adas-Yeshurun Herzlia synagogue.

It’s especially disturbing that a historical society — indeed an invaluable historical society with extremely important archival holdings — is giving a lionizing platform to an organization that perpetuates so much historical falsehood and omission.

To be clear, I am not demanding that Fegelman be censored, or prevented from speaking. I wish to be consistent in my defence of free speech.

Rather, I share in the sentiments of a petition started amongst a group of Jews in Winnipeg — a petition that now has 200 signatures — that registers opposition to HRC’s contentious practices, expresses concern that the event “will divide the community even more and send a message of bad faith to other communities,” and asks the institutions involved to think in more reflective and expansive ways, and accordingly foster programs that advance “the universal and Jewish values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Shalom (peace), and Akhdes (solidarity).”

To this I can add one more personal note. The Orthodox synagogue where the HRC event is being held happens to be the synagogue where, a long time ago, I had my Bar Mitzvah. It was there where I publicly read from the Torah for the first time, and, as the custom goes, was initiated into adulthood.

To me, HRC represents the antithesis of this vital rite of passage. The organization spares its readers from ever having to grow up about Israel, keeping them in a bubble of arrested development in which they never have to face the troubling and knotty realities of the Israeli state.

As Fegelman has remarked in another military metaphor, HRC aims to “act as Israel’s sword and shield.” In doing so, the organization merely serves to shield its readers from uncomfortable truths, soothingly infantilize them and perpetuate decades of injustice and catastrophe in the region.

In this sense, HRC’s tireless output shares deep qualities with what the French social philosopher Jacques Ellul calls “integration propaganda,” that is, “a long-term propaganda, a self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behaviour, to adapt the individual to his everyday life, to reshape his thoughts and behaviour in terms of the permanent social setting.”

“The permanent social setting” in question here is one where Israel is granted infinite amnesty while retaliating upon the Gazan population, with genocidal, famine-inducing force, for the actions of a government that was last elected before half the population was even born — and beyond that, where we find a decades-long, highly oppressive colonial occupation (no quotation marks necessary).

What is urgently needed right now is not more consolidation of the ideology that supports this dire, entrenched situation, but rather a vigorous challenging and puncturing of such so-called thinking.

Jonah Corne is an associate professor in the department of English, theatre, film and media, where he serves as the co-ordinator of the film studies program.