By Hirra Farooqi and Alexis Perikleous
Local Jewish community members have mixed responses to efforts by a former Ryerson teaching assistant to share his story after he was fired by the university for alleged anti-semitic remarks.
“Do I believe he made a terrible mistake? Yes,” said Tamar Jaclyn Lyons, current president of Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson. “Do I believe he is truly sorry for what he said? I hope so.”
Lyons is one of three prominent local Jewish community members who have responded to recent articles in the Toronto Star that question whether the backlash against Ayman Elkasrawy, a former Ryerson TA, was justified.
Elkasrawy, a current PhD student in electrical engineering, was fired from his TA position in February after a video surfaced of him allegedly preaching anti-semitic speech.
The video was shot in June 2016, when Elkasrawy was giving a supplication in Arabic at his local mosque, Masjid Toronto.
According to a Toronto Star investigation, experts now say that his words were mistranslated, leading people to believe that he was praying for the “killing of jews.”
Atiqa Hachimi, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and Arabic sociolinguist, said the video was edited, decontextualized and mistranslated.
A key point that Hachimi emphasized was a quote in which Elkasrawy allegedly said, “the filth of Jews” (danas al-yahood). Hachimi explained that the Arabic word danas was mistranslated to ‘filth’ but is, in this context, “widely understood” to mean ‘desecration.’
According to Hachimi, the desecration that Elkasrawy was referring to was acts of violence committed by the Israeli police towards members of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Hachimi says that Elkasrawy used the word ‘Jews’ instead of ‘Israeli forces.’
“His sermon may have been manipulated, however, he admittedly used the term ‘Jews’ as a negative term, and instilled hatred and fear in the minds of many,” Lyons said.
Since the Star investigation, Elkasrawy penned an op-ed piece published on Oct. 30 in the Star in which he said, “I used to be able to speak freely. Now, I am scared that anything I say can be spliced, rearranged and twisted into something ugly that hurts people.”
Bernie Farber, a Jewish community leader and former CEO of the Mosaic Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes diversity, defended the Ryerson student.
“Racists and anti-semites, they’re very proud of being racist and anti-semitic. They don’t hide it,” Farber said.
“Most of the ones that I’ve had to deal with in my professional life have been very proud of the fact that they hated Jews, or they hated Muslims, or they hated people of colour. And this is not Ayman Elkasrawy, not in the least.”
Elkasrawy reached out to Farber for help learning from his mistakes. In May, Elkasrawy attended his first workshop at the Mosaic Institute where Farber and others gave him cultural sensitivity training.
Farber believes the Temple Mount and Al-Asqa Mosque are the underlying point of contention, as the site is holy to both the Muslim and Jewish faiths.
Farber said that Muslims believe the site belongs to them, but Jews see it as a site belonging to people of their own faith.
“I may not agree with that, and he may not agree with me. That’s fine. We’re allowed to disagree with each other. But to say that made him an anti-semite, to me, is more than unfortunate because it almost ruined his life,” Farber said.
“While Al-Aqsa is holy to Muslim people, the Temple Mount (Al Aqsa) is also the holiest place in Judaism. And Jews aren’t allowed to pray there for safety and status quo reasons,” Lyons said.
“For Jewish people, saying ‘cleanse Al-Aqsa from the filth/desecration of the Jews’ is religiously offensive, and fuels an aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that creates tension between people.”
Once the original video started gaining attention, Masjid Toronto released a statement apologizing for Elkasrawy’s speech and suspended him from the mosque.
After Elkasrawy’s dismissal in February, Ryerson’s president Mohamed Lachemi released a statement saying, “we do not, and will not, condone any actions that are counter to our core values of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
“Regardless of his intent,” said Geoffrey Handelman, current president of Hillel Ryerson, Ryerson’s Jewish student organization, “Elkasrawy’s prayer was deeply disturbing and hateful to Jews.”
In response to the recent Star articles, Handelman said, “Hillel Ryerson has full confidence in the way the university’s administration investigated and dealt with this matter at the time.”