“We’re all feeling this atmosphere of fear and danger”: War fuels rising attacks on Jews and Muslims

Law enforcement and advocacy groups fear growing threats from “violent extremists and lone offenders”

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published November 4, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Family and community members pray during the funeral service for six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume at the Mosque Foundation on October 16, 2023 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)
Family and community members pray during the funeral service for six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume at the Mosque Foundation on October 16, 2023 in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images)

Arab, Jewish and Muslim communities have witnessed a rise in threats and violence amid the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

The FBI and DHS 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.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has also observed a surge in complaints, including reported bias incidents, with 774 incidents received between October 7 and October 24. This is a threefold increase compared to the same period last year, when the organization received about 224 complaints in a span of 16 days, Corey Saylor, Research and Advocacy Director at CAIR, told Salon.

“I am of the belief that it is the worst wave that we've seen since December 2015, and that was when Donald Trump announced his plan to ban Muslims from the United States,” Saylor said. 

He noted that there’s been a “very significant wave of backlash” and violence erupting due to what’s happening in Gaza and Israel, pointing to incidents of a vehicle driving through a crowd rallying in support of Palestinians and people brandishing weapons at protesters.

One of the reported acts is also being investigated by the Justice Department as a hate crime. A landlord in Illinois stabbed his tenants, Hanan Shaheen and her 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, killing him and inflicting over two dozen stab wounds on his mother due to them being Muslim, according to police

Saylor highlighted that students on campuses have also faced harassment for speaking out on behalf of Palestine. He pointed to the incident of a billboard truck driving through Harvard’s campus last month and displaying the names and faces of students, who released a statement that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

Individuals are also experiencing doxxing, where their personal information is being exposed in mass documents and Google Sheets. Some companies have requested the names of students and stated they would not consider hiring individuals, Saylor explained. 

“Now, what we're seeing is pretty much everyone who speaks up is essentially red meat on the barbecue,” he added.

But what’s further contributing to the ongoing “dehumanization” narrative against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. are the statements being made by Israeli officials and the Biden administration, Saylor said. 

President Biden specifically “repeating propaganda” and making comments saying that he had "no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using,” have further fueled more tension, he added.

Implying that you cannot trust Arabs is part of an anti-Arab trope that's been “built into our society for years,” Saylor said. Perpetuating these narratives will only drive more hostility toward Arab and Muslim communities.

Independent nonprofit organizations have consistently said that the death toll estimates produced by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry have been broadly accurate despite the administration's complaints.

Framing this ongoing violence in Gaza as an “Israel-Hamas war” is also a part of the problem, Amer Zahr, professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and the president of the Dearborn-based New Generation for Palestine, told Salon.

“When you put a hyphen between two things, it almost makes it sound like they're somehow equal,” Zahr said. “This is an Israeli war on Palestinians and Israeli attacks on Palestinians. Obviously, in our point of view, it's a genocide… When we go out on the streets and call for an end to the war, or call for an end of bombing on Gaza, or say that the real problem is the occupation, every Palestinian is branded as loving Hamas.”

As an activist, Zahr said he’s used to receiving backlash and harassment for his advocacy efforts. But in recent weeks, these attacks have “accelerated,” leaving community members with a heightened sense of unease.

“I've been in America since I was three, and the only two times in my life that my mom has called me and told me to be careful was the day after 9/11 and the day after that six-year-old boy was stabbed 26 times in Chicago,” Zahr said. “So, we're all feeling this atmosphere of fear and danger.”

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The White House announced Wednesday that the administration will work on developing a National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia in the United States, partnering with local communities to come up with the strategy.

“The most helpful thing for them to do would be to get a ceasefire because that is really in many ways what I was driving a lot of the incidents that we're seeing,” Saylor said. 

Similar incidents of harassment and violence are also impacting the Jewish community, which has seen a nearly 400 percent increase in antisemitic incidents across the United States, including assaults, harassment and vandalism, according to the Anti-Defamation League. 

During the weekend, a series of online threats targeted a Jewish student center at Cornell University. The online messages included threats to shoot Jewish students and encouraged others to harm Jews, according to the school’s student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department disclosed that it had pressed charges against a Las Vegas resident for leaving threatening voicemails to kill a U.S. senator in relation to the conflict in Gaza. The threats were directed at Senator Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, who is Jewish and a strong advocate of Israel, her office said. 

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The ADL has recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and 23, and 190 of those were directly linked to the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel with college campuses facing a “brunt of severe antisemitic incidents,” a spokesperson for ADL said. 

The ADL recorded 54 antisemitic incidents on campuses since Oct. 7, of which 43 could be directly linked to the situation with Hamas in Israel.

There have been a total of 110 anti-Israel rallies on U.S. campuses since the war started; at least 27 included expressions of support for terrorism, according to the group.

Jewish civil rights organizations in the United Kingdom, France, and various other regions have also observed an upsurge in incidents of antisemitism in recent weeks when compared to 2022. “League officials said London police had received 218 reports of antisemitic crimes between Oct. 1 and Oct. 18, which was 13 times greater than the numbers reported in 2022,” The Associated Press reported.

“When conflict erupts in Israel, antisemitic incidents soon follow in the U.S. and globally,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “From white supremacists in California displaying antisemitic banners on highway overpasses to radical anti-Zionists harassing Jewish people because of their real or perceived support for the Jewish state, we are witnessing a disturbing rise in antisemitic activity here while the war rages overseas.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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