American Jews and Palestinians Face Fear and Hatred

21


As the ripple effects from the war between Israel and Hamas are felt around the world, Palestinian and Jewish Americans describe a growing sense of fear due to a rise in threats and harassment.

As hundreds of people gathered for a peaceful rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on 13 October, a man wielding a gun started yelling racial slurs.

People scattered, running for their lives, said Omar Mussa, who had helped organise the pro-Palestinian event on the steps of the state Capitol.

“He came to this rally to inflict fear and terror onto us,” the 30-year-old Palestinian American told the BBC. “The last thing that you want is to be fearful to gather with your people and to speak about your truth and to speak about what you believe.”

The man who allegedly pointed the firearm at the crowd while spewing Islamaphobic rhetoric has been charged with crimes including ethnic intimidation and making terroristic threats.

The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said it has received hundreds of reports of hate incidents against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans. Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League said there has been a steep increase in antisemitic incidents – 107 – reported since the latest conflict began on 7 October.

The incidents have drawn condemnation from President Joe Biden, who warned during an Oval Office address on Thursday that Americans could “not stand by and stand silent” in the face of such hate.

But both experts and Jewish and Palestinian-American leaders worry the trend will persist as the war in the Middle East continues.

“We’re girding for a rough ride – not only because of the intensity of the conflict but the duration,” said Brian Levin, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Bomb threats and stabbings

Several high-profile incidents have already drawn national concern.

Last week, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was stabbed to death and his mother seriously injured in Plainfield, Illinois. Their landlord allegedly targeted the pair because of their religion and the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Just 30 miles (48 kilometres) away in Lombard, Illinois, hate crime charges were brought last week against a man who reportedly threatened to shoot two Muslim men.

In New York City, police say a man punched a woman in the face in the subway because she was Jewish. In Utah, several Jewish congregations have reported receiving threats.

Sam Spector, a rabbi in Salt Lake City, was an hour into leading a service on 8 October when he was forced to stop because of a bomb threat.

Mr Spector described the shocking content of the message: “We put bombs in every Jewish centre in Utah. They will go off in a few hours – you all deserve to die,” it said.

Dozens of congregants, including 20 children in a room nearby, had to evacuate the building.

It was not the first bomb threat the congregation has experienced during Mr Spector’s time working there. But since the war broke out this month, he said he has received more hateful antisemitic messages than ever before.

“People take their strong opinions out and blame both local Jewish and local Muslim communities who are just folks here in America trying to live their lives,” he said.

‘Live life fully and be careful’

Concerns about safety are forcing some Americans to restrict their daily activities.

Mohammad Abd-Elsalam received a death threat last week from a man in Texas who told him all Palestinians “deserve to be killed”.

The national president for the Palestinian American Organizations Network, Mr Abd-Elsalam said he had begun avoiding public spaces and had told his family to do the same.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Mr Abd-Elsalam. “You don’t know how to deal with [the war in Gaza], and at the same time you have to be concerned about your safety here and the safety of our community in the states.”

Rabbi Spector said he has boosted security measures at his synagogue in recent weeks – there are also plans to spend close to $500,000 (£411,000) to enhance temple safety over the next few years.

Still, Jewish people across the country are asking whether it’s safe to attend religious services, said Niv Elis of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“Our advice right now is live your Jewish life fully and be careful,” he told the BBC.

Mr Mussa said heightened tensions in the Middle East have led to threats not only against Palestinians, but several Muslim groups, as some incorrectly view the broader Muslim community as a “monolith”.

He said those who wear religious coverings such as a hijab were often the most vulnerable.

“Individuals who look somewhat like a minority or look like they’re an immigrant are targeted,” he said. “People are more scared now to walk the streets.”

Longstanding tensions

As minority groups, both Muslim and Jewish communities in the US have long histories of dealing with discrimination and threats. But experts said that hate crimes tended to rise during times of tensions in the Middle East.

Jessica Winegar, a professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Northwestern University, said that the current war in Gaza was especially fraught.

“We have never seen this level of killing in this short amount of time,” she said. “It really is a much more heightened moment in this conflict.”

The polarised nature of American politics only added fuel to the fire, experts explained.

The intense debate over the complex, long-running conflict in the Middle East is now another point of contention between the left and right in the US – and those on the extremes may be more likely to lash out at someone they erroneously blame.

Ms Winegar said government officials and local community leaders had a critical role to play in denouncing acts of hate and expressing sympathy for innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Mr Mussa, the Palestinian-American from the rally at Pennsylvania’s state Capitol, said he did exactly that at his protest, while also criticising Israel’s policies. But he believes the suffering of Palestinian civilians is ignored by much of the political establishment, and that has consequences in the US too.

“This is emboldening individuals in this country to treat us like animals, to not see us as equals, to not see us as Americans,” Mr Mussa told the BBC.

While President Biden promised ironclad support for Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas attack – and has also requested Congress provide an extra $14bn (£11.5bn) in aid to the country – he expressed condolences for Palestinians killed in Gaza in his address to the nation.

“We mourn every innocent life lost. We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” he said.

And he too made the connection with how the rage in Israel and Gaza can turn into hate crimes in the US, impacting Jews and Muslims alike.

“And to all you hurting…I want you to know I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: You’re all America.”

Source : BBC