Why the Gaza War Has Sparked a Wave of Antisemitism and Islamophobia in the US

As the war in Gaza rages for a second month, violence of a different kind is erupting across the United States.

Attacks on American Jews, Muslims and Arabs have risen to levels not seen in years, fueled by a conflict that often triggers strong feelings on both sides of the issue.

The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish advocacy group, documented a staggering 832 antisemitic incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment between Oct. 7, the day Hamas attacked Israel, and Nov. 7. That amounts to an average of nearly 28 incidents a day and represents an increase of 315% over the same period last year.

At the same time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights organization, reports an “unprecedented surge in bigotry” since the war started.  Between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4, the group received 1,283 requests for help and complaints of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias, an increase of 216% over an average 29-day period last year.

Behind the numbers are real people. While the majority of the incidents reported by the two groups have involved nonviolent acts, such as harassment and intimidation, and don’t rise to the level of hate crimes, at least two recent deaths have been tied to the conflict.

On Oct. 14, Joseph M. Czuba allegedly fatally stabbed 6-year-old Palestinian American boy Wadea Al-Fayoume after seriously wounding his mother, Hanaan Shahin, in their home outside Chicago. Czuba was charged with murder and attempted murder.

Then last week, Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish protester, died following an altercation at dueling pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations in a Los Angeles suburb. Loay Alnaji, 50, a pro-Palestinian demonstrator, was arrested Thursday in connection with Kessler’s death.

The hate-fueled violence has spread to U.S. colleges and universities, as tensions have heightened between pro- and anti-Israel student groups.

A Cornell University student was charged with making threats against Jewish students.  At Drexel University in Philadelphia, a Jewish student’s dorm room door was set on fire. And a Muslim student at Stanford University was allegedly run down by a driver making a racist remark.

Policymakers and law enforcement officials are sounding the alarm. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned this month that the bureau is concerned that violent extremists — both domestic and homegrown — “will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against ordinary Americans.”

President Joe Biden, who has faced criticism from American Muslim and Arab groups for his unwavering support of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, delivered an Oval Office address last month to denounce antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism,” Biden said. “We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.”

This week, the Education Department announced new resources to help schools and college campuses to protect Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Arab or Palestinian students from discrimination and harassment.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict often inspires hate crimes, but the ripple effect has been outsized this time, magnified by the length and intensity of the war, the polarization of public opinion and media coverage, the spread of false and inflammatory information, and the use of inciteful language by people on both sides of the issue.

‘Hate spike’

Brian Levin, founder of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and professor emeritus at California State University, San Bernardino, said the U.S. is experiencing a “generational hate spike that is likely to have a longer and more violent half-life than prior event-driven increases.”

“The bigoted backlash from the Israel-Hamas war is causing online invective and disinformation to skyrocket, while anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crime incidents are spiking to possible decade highs,” Levin said. “And in the case of anti-Jewish hate crimes, a possible record in the U.S.”

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, said it’s no surprise that the conflict has spawned attacks on Arabs and Muslims.

“Historically, we’ve talked about something called the ‘backlash effect,'” Berry said.  “Events happening anywhere in the world end up having an impact domestically. We saw it during the [1973-74] Arab embargo. We saw it in the aftermath of 9/11. And we’re seeing it play out now.”

Levin is one of a handful of experts who have examined the link between the Israel conflict and hate crimes in the U.S.

His analysis of FBI statistics dating to the early 1990s shows that anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes tend to escalate during Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

In March 1994, for example, hate crimes targeting Jews more than doubled to 147 incidents after extremist American Israeli Baruch Goldstein fatally shot 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.

The sharpest rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes occurred in October 2000, with the Second Intifada’s onset — 204 incidents, marking an increase of 183% over October 1999.

Recent years have seen significant increases during Israel-Hamas conflicts in 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2021, according to Levin’s analysis.

“Our data across three decades clearly show huge percentage spikes in anti-Jewish hate crime in the U.S. when there is war in the Holy Land,” Levin said.

Other studies corroborate Levin’s finding. A recent study by political scientist Ayal Feinberg found that during weeks of Israeli military operations between 2001 and 2014, the number of antisemitic incidents rose by 24% across the U.S., while acts of antisemitic violence and intimidation increased by 33%.

In the years since, the pattern has held up, Feinberg, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Gratz College in Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

“I think it’s critical to note that even in the United States, which many consider to be the most philosemitic country in the world, that over the last two decades there’s been no factor that explains increases in antisemitism greater than when Israel is engaged in violent conflict with its neighbors,” Feinberg said.

The link between the Israel conflict and anti-Muslim hate crime is less clear-cut. The FBI data show double- and triple-digit monthly increases in anti-Muslim hate crimes during Israeli military operations in 2004 and 2014.

But other times of tension have seen no significant increase in anti-Muslim hate crime. Instead, terrorist attacks carried out by jihadi groups have served as a primary driver of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S.

The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered the biggest monthly spike in anti-Muslim hate crime — a record 330 incidents, up 8,150%. Though the number of incidents eventually leveled off, it never returned to pre-9/11 levels.

The second-largest increase came in December 2015 after then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and comprehensive” ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The result was dramatic: nearly 70 attacks on Muslims for the month, up 886% from the year before.

The flood of bias complaints CAIR received in the weeks after Oct. 7 was the most since Trump’s “Muslim ban” speech, the group said.

The question of what motivates people to attack Muslims and Jews against the backdrop of the Israeli conflict has no simple answer. But experts agree that hate crime perpetrators often hold Muslims and Jews responsible for the actions of Hamas and Israeli military forces.

“There is a lot of blame going on,” said Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “This conflict is more complex than these simple characterizations of all Palestinians are terrorists, or all Jews are invaders systematically conducting genocide.”

Increasingly ubiquitous posters of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas have become a flashpoint in this scapegoating.

In the days after the Hamas attack on Israel, the “kidnapped” flyers were pasted on trees outside a mosque in San Diego, putting the congregation on edge.

“Why would you presume anyone at the Islamic Center of San Diego has anything to do with what took place there?” Berry said.

Meanwhile, anti-Israel protesters have been criticized for tearing them down. Two dentists recently lost their jobs over their removal.

‘Good and evil’

Muslim and Arab American activists say the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflict as a “struggle between good and evil” has fanned the recent flame of Islamophobia.

“This dehumanizing framing impacts Muslims in America, as individuals who hold anti-Muslim prejudice frame them as terrorists,” said Mobashra Tazamal, associate director of the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia at Georgetown University in Washington.

Berry of the Arab American Institute said the Biden administration was slow to acknowledge Palestinian suffering during the ongoing conflict.

“I will say the Biden administration pivoted, and that’s important,” she said. “And I think when that happened, it does contribute to public safety in a very real way, meaning people start to think, ‘OK, wait. There are victims here that need to be recognized.'”

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