Deadly violence in the Middle East is spurring attacks and heightening fear in Muslim, Jewish, and Arab (especially Palestinian) communities across the United States.
In Illinois, about a week after Hamas militants attacked Israel, a landlord stabbed his tenants, 6-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume and his mother Hanaan Shahin, more than two dozen times for being Muslim, according to the police. Only the mother survived and told a relative that the landlord yelled “you Muslims must die!” as he choked her.
Police opened a hate crime investigation this week after a man in Los Angeles was yelling “free Palestine,” “kill Jews,” “brown people matter,” and “Israel kill people,” and kicked in the back door of a Jewish family’s home and entered.
Israel’s airstrikes in the past three weeks have killed more than 8,000 Palestinians, most of them women and minors, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas’s attack killed more than 1,400 Israelis, and the group is still holding about 200 people hostage, according to the Israeli government. As the war continues, law enforcement officials expect hate crimes reports to only increase: The FBI warned last week that “the volume and frequency of threats to Americans, especially those in the Jewish, Arab American, and Muslim communities in the United States, have increased, raising our concern that violent extremists and lone offenders motivated by or reacting to ongoing events could target these communities.”
At the Pennsylvania state Capitol, a man pulled up to a pro-Palestine protest, yelled out anti-Muslim and racist slurs, and pointed a gun at rallygoers from his car. In California, synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses have been vandalized since the start of the war. Flyers with anti-Jewish rhetoric — including “Jews wage war on American freedoms!” — were placed on vehicles across Orange County.
A man in Illinois was charged with a hate crime after threatening to shoot two Muslim men and yelling slurs at them. A Muslim all-girls school was on “soft-lockdown” after receiving a “threatening hate letter” that applauded the killing of al-Fayoume and included “racist, anti-Palestinian, and anti-Muslim language, and discussed killing Muslims and Palestinians.”
Owners at a New York City Palestinian restaurant, who publicly called for an end to what they deemed Israel’s “apartheid,” disconnected the restaurant’s phone over threatening voicemails. The restaurant has received nonstop one-star reviews since the start of the conflict; a man entered the dining room in the past week, shouting “terrorist” at the workers. College campuses have become breeding grounds for a host of antisemitic and anti-Muslim acts, leaving students fearful that they are unprotected from intimidation and possible violence.
The FBI’s national hate crimes data is reported on a yearly basis, and the agency has not released specific numbers about the increases they’ve seen in threats and hate crimes against Palestinians, Jews, or Muslims have risen in the past few weeks. Even so, the FBI’s latest hate crimes report, released on October 16, showed that hate crimes were already on the rise in the past year.
Hate crimes increased by 7 percent in 2022 compared to 2021. Anti-Jewish attacks, the second highest hate crimes category after anti-Black, rose to 1,124 incidents. There were 158 reported anti-Muslim incidents and 92 reported anti-Arab incidents.
The numbers are an undercount. Many police departments opt out of submitting hate crime data to the FBI, and it remains difficult for officers to prove that a reported crime was motivated by bias. Fear and distrust of law enforcement among victims of certain populations, such as Muslim communities, leads to underreporting. Nevertheless, the number of incidents represents the highest number recorded since the FBI began collecting this information in 1991.
One expert told Vox that the current uptick in today’s anecdotal reports can be explained by “scapegoat theory,” the idea that certain marginalized groups should be blamed for various societal conditions or events.
“I won’t be surprised if there’s a spike in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents during this period,” said Frank S. Pezzella, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College and author of the book Hate Crimes Statutes: A Public Policy and Law Enforcement Dilemma. “When these kinds of world events take place, whether here or abroad, people feel strongly about them. And when people have strong beliefs, they act out. They look at people in their neighborhoods and blame them for what is happening in the Middle East, or they blame all Asian people for what started in Wuhan, China.”
There might be an uptick in hate crimes right now, which one expert said could lead to a longer-running increase. “These kinds of spikes in hate crimes are unlike 20 years ago because they are elongating,” said Brian Levin, the founder of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “We aren’t only seeing a higher number occur but that increase is resilient and plateaus for longer. Or, after a period when hate crimes have gone down, we sometimes see them reignite like a wildfire.”
Antisemitism was already on the rise
In a midtown Manhattan subway station after the onset of the war, a man punched a woman in the face and told her it was because “you are Jewish.” Several Jewish synagogues in Utah are “on high alert” after receiving threats in the past two weeks. A rabbi in Salt Lake City interrupted his synagogue’s service to evacuate the congregation after receiving a bomb threat by email. Swastikas and pentagrams have popped up at Jewish businesses and on public property, forcing some to remove their mezuzahs, a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah that some Jewish people put on the doorframe of their homes. Jewish schools have increased security out of fear.
On October 24, the Anti-Defamation League, the main source for tracking antisemitic incidents (assault, vandalism, and harassment), released a statement that said there were 312 antisemitic incidents between October 7 and 23, 190 of which were directly linked to the war in Israel and Gaza. For comparison, the organization received reports of 64 incidents during the same period last year.
An ADL spokesperson told Vox that the count includes 49 incidents of vandalism, 10 instances of assault, and 253 incidents of harassment, which includes 108 anti-Israel rallies in which the organization found “explicit or strong support for Hamas and/or violence against Jews in Israel.”
Antisemitism was already on the rise before October 7. The FBI’s latest data confirmed the antisemitism trends that the ADL has recorded in recent years, Jonathan Greenblatt, the organization’s CEO, said in a statement.
By the ADL’s count, which includes criminal and noncriminal acts of violence against Jews, there were a total of 3,697 antisemitic incidents in 2022, the highest number recorded since the ADL’s data tracking began in 1979. Assaults, considered the most serious offenses, increased by 26 percent that year. While Jews make up just 2 percent of the US population, antisemitic hate crime incidents accounted for 9.6 percent of all hate crimes recorded by the FBI.
In the past few years, experts have disagreed about why hate crimes against Jews have surged, a debate that hinges in part on how such crimes are defined and categorized — in the past, the ADL has been criticized for characterizing some anti-Israel statements as antisemitic. The ADL’s data for 2022 found that antisemitic harassment made up the bulk of the reported incidents, with 2,298 incidents, followed by vandalism, with 1,288 incidents. Antisemitic assaults made up 111 of the reported hate crimes and 107 of them were perpetrated without the use of a deadly weapon. There was one fatality, according to the data.
Other acts that have drawn attention and controversy — notably people tearing down fliers of Israeli hostages — are not classified as hate crimes or antisemitic incidents by either the ADL or the FBI. An ADL spokesperson told Vox that the organization did not include the tearing down of Israeli hostage posters as acts of violence or antisemitism in its latest count since it is “still determining whether that meets our criteria.”
When asked whether the FBI was investigating the tearing down of posters as a hate crime the spokesperson told Vox, “Not all acts of hate are hate crimes. For us, there needs to be a threat of violence or violence associated with the act for it to reach the federal level.”
“Pulling down a flier, that’s just not a hate crime. But it is emotional. If I were leading a police department, I’d want to get people to not do that, because invariably, there will be fights that happen as a result,” Pezzella said. “If someone snatches a flier, and then someone hits them for doing so, [the altercation] borders on the line of bias motivation.”
There is some evidence that antisemitism increases with flare-ups in the Middle East, and that this has been the case for some time. “We have seen anti-Jewish hate crimes go up to decade and or multi-year highs fairly consistently when there’s violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” Levin said. Using FBI data, Levin found that in March 1994, there was a spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes from 79 incidents to 147 a month after an American Israeli extremist opened fire on Palestinian Muslims praying in a mosque, killing 29 of them.
In October 2000, anti-Jewish hate crimes in the US increased from 81 to 204 after a series of mass protests by Palestinians in Israel. There were surges in antisemitic incidents in May 2021 in cities with large Jewish populations such as New York and Los Angeles after fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas over Israel’s threats to evict Palestinian families from East Jerusalem.
The FBI announced that “foreign adversaries” are trying to “take advantage of the conflict.” For example, on October 19, an ISIS media posting urged followers to “target the Jewish presence all over the world…especially Jewish neighborhoods in America and Europe,” and specifically encouraged attacks on Jewish temples, nightclubs, and economic interests and against “Jewish and Crusader” embassies, according to the FBI.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism reports hark back to the post-9/11 period
The Boston police department has opened an investigation after someone reportedly sprayed the word “Nazis” on a sign for the Islamic Seminary of Boston and the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace in Allston, Massachusetts.
The Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling for state and federal law enforcement to open a hate crimes investigation into an alleged vehicular assault on a Palestinian American man. According to the victim, the driver of the car yelled, “Kill all Palestinians” and “Long live Israel!” The car swerved at him and the driver shouted, “Die!” when he hit him and took off.
Dearborn, Michigan, one of the country’s largest Arab communities, has experienced several threats of violence. Police arrested a man in connection with a social media post in which he was seeking companions to “go to Dearborn & hunt Palestinians.”
The violence abroad has created violence and fear in the US for Palestinians and Muslims, and for Arabs in general, as well as people incorrectly perceived to be a member of those groups, including Sikhs. Sikh men, who grow long beards and wear turbans as part of their religion, Sikhism, sometimes get mistaken as Muslim and have faced anti-Muslim violence as a result.
Hate crimes against these communities remain underreported. The University of California Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, which tracks anti-Muslim discrimination worldwide, released a US study in 2021 that found that 55 percent of those who faced Islamophobia said they did not report it to authorities.
CAIR has said it has received 774 complaints and reported bias incidents against Muslims between October 7 and October 24. CAIR says the number is the highest recorded since 2015, when Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Abed Ayoub, the national executive director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), told the Associated Press that the organization has received more than 100 reports that include threats, verbal harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks since October 7. In one case the organization has highlighted, a Palestinian American family received death threats at their home and business, with callers stating “we’ll kill all you Palestinians” and “we’ll kill your family.” Following the threats, the family believes someone fired a bullet through their living room window.
“It’s very reminiscent of the early days of post-9/11, where people didn’t want to go outside, they didn’t want to send their kids to school,” Ayoub said. “They’re just worried about being in public and being approached.”
After the al-Qaeda terrorist organization attacked the Twin Towers and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Muslims and Arab Americans faced an unprecedented amount of hate and violence in the US. They received death threats and were harassed as mosques were burned down. Those perceived as Muslim were beaten and held at gunpoint. The number of assaults against Muslims rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, amid President Trump’s rise, and surpassed the 2001 peak. Anti-Muslim intimidation, or reasonable fear of bodily harm, made up the bulk of the incidents followed by assault, and then property damage and vandalism.
Post-9/11 surveillance has left Muslims distrustful and fearful of law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts that have targeted them. A few days after Hamas’s attack on Israel and as Israel began striking Gaza, the ADC said that it fielded reports that federal law enforcement had visited mosques and questioned and detained Palestinians in the US. In one report, the FBI allegedly visited a Texas mosque to ask about “troublemakers” in the community. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security did not respond to the Intercept’s questions about the visits.
“We’re seeing a lot of Palestinian students threatened with violence and anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic messages,” said Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, an organization that represents individuals who face consequences for speaking publicly about Palestinian rights. According to Sainath, the organization has received “a tsunami of requests for help.” They’ve received more than 400.
Stereotypes seem to be fueling the incidents. “The stereotyping we are seeing right now are the classic anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab tropes,” Sainath said. “That Palestinians are all terrorists. That they want to kill babies and that they’re rapists. That they’re not people who have feelings and deserve empathy, human rights, and to live in equality. People are spreading the idea that [Arabs and Palestinians] are scary in some ways.”
Is it possible to break the cycle of hate?
In response to the reported increase in violence, the protests that have erupted nationwide, and heightened fear, the FBI and other law enforcement bodies have launched plans to increase surveillance across a variety of communities.
“In recent years, there have been several events and incidents in the United States that were purportedly motivated, at least in part, by the conflict between Israel and HAMAS. These have included the targeting of individuals, houses of worship, and institutions associated with the Jewish and Muslim faiths with acts of physical assault, vandalism, or harassment,” the FBI said in a statement. The FBI did not release numbers about the threats, but said many were made online and that many turned out not to be credible.
President Joe Biden acknowledged the concerns on X, formerly known as Twitter. “VP and I spoke with our national security teams to discuss ongoing steps to protect the homeland, including Jewish, Arab, and Muslim communities, following the attacks in Israel,” he wrote. In a recent Oval Office address, he stated that Americans could “not stand by and stand silent” in the face of such hate. Biden met with Muslim American leaders about how to combat anti-Muslim sentiment at the White House on Thursday in a meeting that was not on his public calendar. Muslim and Arab American leaders have criticized the president, saying that he seems indifferent to Palestinian civilians, as he pledges support for Israel. Biden spoke to Jewish leaders about antisemitism on October 11.
The rhetoric of the US leadership can have a major impact, according to Levin. “Civics matters now. When [President] Bush spoke about tolerance for Muslims six days after 9/11, we saw that hate crimes dropped precipitously the next day,” he said.
National and local organizations are calling for greater governmental and community support, as the upcoming 2024 presidential election is expected to keep surges in hate crimes elevated.
“With antisemitic incidents up across the board in nearly every category we track, a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach is needed to address these disturbing trends,” said Greenblatt. In May, Biden launched the country’s first national strategy to combat the rise in antisemitism. In September, the administration announced that it would use the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit antisemitism and Islamophobia in federally funded programs and activities.
“What we have to do now is make sure that structures for coordination within faith communities are maintained,” Levin said. People must also be aware of where to report hate crimes, Levin said, citing that some states, including California (833-8-NO-HATE) and New York (1-888-392-3644 or text “HATE” to 81336), have hate crimes hotlines. “Police departments all across the country must make sure they have plans for houses of worship, community centers, and protests.”
Update, October 31, 11:40 am: This story was originally published on October 31 and has since been updated to include the fact that Palestine Legal has received over 400 requests for help since October 7.