London imam’s ‘inflammatory’ remarks at vigil link Israel to local killings

A screenshot from a video posted by Imam Munir El-Kassem to his Instagram page, in which he connected a hate crime against Muslims in London, Ont., to the conflict in Israel. (Screenshot from Instagram)

Jewish groups in Canada have strongly condemned remarks about Israel made at the end of Tuesday’s memorial vigil in London, Ont., for the Muslim family members killed while out for a stroll last weekend.

As Canada’s political leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, joined an estimated 10,000 people for the service outside the London Muslim Mosque on Oxford Street, speaker after speaker decried the rise of Islamophobia that has resulted in the deaths of four members of the Afzal family, leaving only one survivor—a nine-year-old boy—in hospital.

Listen to the imam’s full remarks in our news podcast, The CJN Daily

After two hours of speeches and prayers, Imam Munir El-Kassem was invited to the stage to give closing remarks. He ended his speech, which was carried live during the nationally televised event on major Canadian news networks, by connecting the London murders with the recent hostilities in Israel.

“There’s a reason why they say the world is a small village. Every country has a foreign policy. I just want to say, whatever is happening in Jerusalem and Gaza is related to whatever happened in London, Ontario—period,” El-Kassem declared, to loud applause from the audience.

Reaction from Canadian Jewish organizations came from CIJA, B’nai Brith Canada and activist Avi Benlolo, who flagged the speech on his Facebook page.

“Linking this horrible crime to Jews or Israel is an irresponsible and inflammatory act,” B’nai Brith Canada said in a Twitter post Tuesday night. The group is asking the imam to retract his remarks. 

Early Wednesday, CIJA said that it had watched and participated in the evening with sorrow and resolve to stand with their Muslim neighbours in the face of the hateful attack. However, after hearing how the closing speaker’s comments, they sent out a new statement on Twitter. “This is incendiary and dangerous,” they said, especially in light of “false conspiracy theories circulating about the attack being perpetrated by a Jew.”

Benlolo says he was “disappointed that one of the speakers politicized this hate crime… as we have seen a skyrocketing of anti-Semitism and violent attacks against the Jewish community.“

El-Kassem did not respond to a request from The CJN for an interview. He posted a video of his speech to his Facebook page Tuesday, but the clip has since been taken down. It is still on his Instagram account, where it has been seen over 21,000 times.

Warm relations between Jews and Muslims

London’s Jewish community said that relations have been good between their 3,000 members and the much larger Muslim community in the southwestern Ontario city.

Indeed, organizers of Tuesday’s vigil had originally invited Jewish leaders to attend, and there had even been plans for Rabbi Catharine Clark of Congregation Or Shalom to participate in leading a moment of silence, although that didn’t come to pass. Stephen Taran, president of Jewish London Ontario, had also been slated to address the gathering on behalf of the Jewish community. 

A planned Zoom lecture by Joe Gilbert on Judaism and medical ethics was swiftly cancelled Tuesday, so the London Jewish community could participate in the vigil. While some leaders were scheduled to attend in person, about 80 families watched on a live link streamed through the organization’s Facebook page. 

Bill Klein watched the vigil at home that way, and also on CBC News. Five years ago, he participated in a multifaith panel at the mosque on Oxford Street, known as “Abraham’s Cafe”. An imam, a Catholic theologian and Klein discussed religious aspects of the afterlife. Klein, a dentist, doubles as the spiritual leader of the synagogue in Sarnia, Ont., and serves as a layperson in his London synagogue.

“We’ve had good relations with them,” Klein told The CJN’s news podcast, The CJN Daily, referring to the rise of bigotry and hatred as “a big plague”.

Increased security

The London synagogue did ask for extra police cruisers to be stationed at the building‘s parking lot recently for Shavuot services, Klein said, due to the spike in anti-Israel protests and online anti-Semitism during the May hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

In February, London police arrested and charged a local woman after six businesses in the downtown core around Carling Street were vandalized with graffiti, including swastikas. The city has also seen several similar incidents of swastikas being painted on public schools and in a washroom on the campus of the University of Western Ontario.

“They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile,” Klein said. “Maybe it takes more energy to hate than to love.”

While the size of the London Jewish community is a fraction of the numbers in the local Muslim population, Eric Robinson, the program director for Jewish London Ontario, says both communities have many ties with each other, in good times and bad.

“There’s an interfaith peace camp here in London that many people are involved in,” Robinson told The CJN Daily. “Several times a year, there’s an interfaith tree planting led by ReForest London, one of the environmental components of the city’s operations.”

Suspect not known to be Jewish

After the 2017 attack at the Quebec City mosque, which killed six worshippers and injured five others, London rabbis spoke at the city’s multifaith prayer vigil. 

“After the [Tree of Life synagogue shooting] tragedy in Pittsburgh, we got tremendous support from the wider community in London, including the Muslim community, and we’re grateful for that,” Robinson said. Eleven worshippers were killed in that attack in January 2018.

When the name of the London suspect was released, some online groups speculated he could be Jewish, sparking heightened tension of reprisals against Jewish businesses or people as a result. However, the local Jewish community confirmed they do not know him.

The Jewish community met Tuesday with the London Police Service’s diversity officers. They are also working very closely with CIJA.

While police in London have not released many details on the suspect’s background, media reports portray Nathaniel Veltman, 20, as a Strathroy native who works part time at Gray Ridge Eggs, in the shipping department. Neighbours at his downtown London apartment told journalists he played a lot of video games after his night shifts. 

“By and large, London is a wonderful place to live. This is one of the blackest marks in the city’s history, if not the worst altogether,” added Robinson. “It’s just a tremendously devastating thing.”

How the Jewish community has reacted

Although Ontario Premier Doug Ford temporarily lifted COVID-19 protocols prohibiting large crowds in order to allow the vigil to be held, the pandemic has curtailed what Robinson suggests might have been a much different show of support from Jewish London.

“Our community would be out and would be wanting to bond with our neighbours, and be a shoulder to lean on and collectively grieve. And with the pandemic, obviously it makes everything so much tougher,” Robinson said.

“We’re glad that there is so much support from the wider Jewish community and from all Canada,” Robinson added, when asked how the murders have impacted Jewish London. “We know there’s no place for this kind of hate, discrimination, terrorism or Islamophobila in Canada, just as there’s not room for anti-Semitism of any other kind of hate.”

London’s Temple Israel congregation has invited the community to participate in a multifaith march through the city planned for Friday evening.

Independent Jewish Voices’ London branch says they support a call for “an immediate national action summit on Islamophobia”.

They also suggest people donate to a Go Fund Me campaign set up by a neighbour of the Afzal family, in memory of the deceased. The family has been identified as Salman Afzaal, 46; his 44-year-old wife, Madiha; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna; and the children’s 74-year-old grandmother. Only a nine-year-old boy, Fayez, survived the attack and remains in hospital recovering from serious injuries.

The fund is called a sadaqa, which means charity in Arabic. It has already collected over $555,000.

Update: The day after the vigil, Imam El-Kassem wrote on social media that “it has been painful to see my words twisted in a moment of incredible grief.” He then clarified the meaning of his original comment: “The deaths of families here in London has happened too in Palestine. Our love and pain is universal. Any other interpretation is nonsensical and potentially defamatory. I will not be responding further.”