Sheikh Ammar Shahin (center, in white head covering) of the Islamic Center of Davis was joined by Jewish and Muslim leaders at a press conference in Davis on July 28, 2017, where he apologized for earlier anti-Semitic remarks.
Sheikh Ammar Shahin (center, in white head covering) of the Islamic Center of Davis was joined by Jewish and Muslim leaders at a press conference in Davis on July 28, 2017, where he apologized for earlier anti-Semitic remarks. (Photo/Elissa Einhorn)

Davis imam apologizes to Jewish community for anti-Semitic sermon

The firestorm that was ignited at the Islamic Center of Davis has eased as Imam Sheikh Ammar Shahin delivered a public apology to the Jewish community for anti-Semitic remarks delivered during his July 21 sermon.

“To the Jewish community here in Davis and beyond, I say this: I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused,” the imam said during a 30-minute press conference on July 28 in Davis organized by Jewish and Muslim leaders. “The last thing I would do is intentionally hurt anyone, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise. It is not in my heart, nor does my religion allow it.

“Indeed, commitment to defending religious rights in Jerusalem should not cause division or fan the flames of anti-Semitism.”

As reported yesterday in J., in his sermon during Friday prayers last week at the Islamic Center, Shahin delivered incendiary remarks including a call to “annihilate” Jews, and to cleanse the Temple Mount of “the filth of the Jews.” Jewish outrage at the sermon was nationwide, with groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee denouncing the imam’s words.

The controversy extended to statements posted on the Islamic Center’s website and Facebook that accused MEMRI, which publicized portions of the sermon, of taking the Sheik’s remarks out of context. In response, MEMRI issued its own statement, saying, “The inciting messages in Imam Shahin’s prayer were absolutely in context; here is the sermon in full from the YouTube channel of the ICD. The viewer can use their own judgment.”

The ICD statement has since been removed from both platforms, and the ADL issued a statement July 28 accepting the imam’s apology, but cautioning that more work needs to be done to restore trust.

Carol Loew, president of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, who initially said she and other Jewish community leaders would not attend a press conference with Shahin unless given an opportunity to review his apology in advance, said she was moved by his expression of contrition.

“I greatly appreciate the grace of the apology and hope it continues in our community,” she said. “We are a strong interfaith community and this has been a growing experience.”

Willie Recht, executive director of Sacramento’s Jewish Federation added, “It’s easy to just stand behind fear. It takes courage to do what was done here. I hope everyone can understand how we hope to move forward in peace.”

The dual message of maintaining strong interfaith ties and a call to action was reiterated by several speakers, including Davis Mayor Robb Davis, Yolo County Supervisor Don Sayor, Rev. Elizabeth Banks from the Universalist Unitarian Church, Sameera Ali from the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations, and ICD President Amr Zedan.

“Today we will hear an apology,” said the mayor, “but it’s not about today. It’s about a long journey in our city to make this day possible. It’s about telling the imam the truth about his words. The question will be, ‘Is this enough?’ Most surely, the answer should be, ‘No.’

“The hurts are deep. Words spoken were harmful and hurtful. One statement cannot be enough but it doesn’t have to be enough. It’s a beginning to walk forward to discuss how we as a Davis community will make harms right.”

Rabbi Seth Castleman, chair of the Sacramento-Area Board of Rabbis, spearheaded efforts this week toward regaining trust between the region’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

Referring to a four-hour meeting convened in Davis on July 27 between Jewish and Muslim leaders, Castleman said, “The least surprising part to me was how much we were on the same page and how easily the process flowed. I hope it becomes apparent in the weeks and months ahead.”

In his statement Friday, Shahin pledged to be part of longstanding interfaith efforts in the city, saying, “Today I commit to working harder and will join efforts for mutual understanding and building bridges. As a young religious leader, this has humbled me. I hope to grow and develop as a more worthy leader in the community and seek your support and counsel in navigating the better path toward understanding and healing.”

Castleman accepted Shahin’s apology but also implored him to follow his words with actions. Speaking directly to Shahin, he said, “The Muslim, Jewish, and Davis communities will be looking for that and demanding that.”

The rabbi also spoke of forgiveness, explaining, “All faiths have a strong tradition of what we in Judaism call teshuva (atonement). The work we have done the past few days has built on the foundation of work that has been done over these many years. It is a true testament to teshuva. It doesn’t complete the process, but it’s a beginning.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.