Throughout May, Canada’s Jewish community reeled in the face of an unprecedented barrage of hate stemming from the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Hamas terror group based in the Gaza Strip.
Within one 48-hour span, Jews in Toronto were chased and beaten, a pro-Israel rally in Montreal was disrupted with stones and fisticuffs, dozens called for violence against Jews in downtown Calgary, and over 100 people danced to a pro-Hamas song with a chorus of “Get lost, you son of a Jew!” outside the Manitoba Legislature.
Then, last Sunday, the country was stunned by the abhorrent murder of four of five members of a Muslim family taking a walk in London, Ont. Canadian Jews and their organizations joined the outpouring of grief and sympathy – yes, we had experienced a terrible month, but none of our members had been killed.
Unfortunately, at Tuesday evening’s national vigil, that sense of solidarity between Jews and Muslims was shattered. How do we find a way to put it back together?
In his minute-long concluding remarks, Dr. Munir El-Kassem, a local dentist, imam and former police chaplain, thought the most important point to make was this: “Whatever is happening in Jerusalem and Gaza is related to whatever happened in London, Ontario. Period!”
The accused in this horrific crime, Nathaniel Veltman, is neither Jewish or Israeli. This became clear based on media reports and testimony by his friends within just 24 hours of the attack. Still, conspiracy myths blaming the crime on Jews or “Zionists” continue to circulate on social media.
By linking events in London to Jerusalem and Gaza, whether intentionally or not, Dr. El-Kassem signalled to many that our domestic tragedy should likewise be blamed on the Jews. That is certainly what some viewers took from his remarks, as they proceeded to make that very allegation on social media.
After B’nai Brith immediately raised the alarm and called on Dr. El-Kassem to retract his incendiary suggestion, he doubled down instead, asserting that “the deaths of families here in London has happened too in Palestine.”
Canadians may hold differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but surely we all can recognize that there is no comparison or linkage between the recent round of fighting in the Middle East and Sunday’s horrendous crime.
The sad irony is that by conjuring up this blatantly false equivalency, Dr. El-Kassem seems intent on bringing the Middle Eastern conflict to our doorsteps. That is something that no Canadian – Jewish, Muslim or otherwise – should ever want to happen.
Paradoxically, earlier on the day of the vigil, Dr. El-Kassem delivered a message from the uncle of one of the victims: “We will show love. We will rise above retribution. We will not engage in back-and-forth manifestations of anger.” He would have done well to follow that sage advice himself.
In times of tragedy, the role of religious leaders is to provide solace and bring the community together, not inflame groups against each another. Canadian Jews and Muslims have both suffered over the past month, albeit in different ways. Unscrupulous politicians are known from time to time to use wedge issues like this for their own advantage – but it is all the more disturbing to hear this coming from a faith leader.
If Dr. El-Kassem is not prepared to acknowledge how his remarks have inflamed animosity against Canadian Jews and played into hateful conspiracy myths, then a real leader should step up to the plate and do so. Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Doug Ford or London Mayor Ed Holder – all of whom were present for his outburst – are all prime candidates, if they can sum up their political courage.
Muslims and Jews still can and must join forces to fight hate. But that can only work if we recognize that bigotry is a mindset, not a skin colour or religion. Anyone can hate, and anyone can be hated. No one is immune.
You can’t fight fire with more fire. And we can’t fight hate with more hate.