U.S. Officials Address Rise in Threats, Hate Crimes Against Jews, Muslims

Robert J. Contee III, the FBI’s assistant director of partner engagement.

Federal officials say they are responding to a rise in threats against Arab, Jewish and Muslim communities as the war in Gaza intensifies, coordinating with thousands of police departments across the country to better understand the threats and deploy resources.

Even before the Israel-Gaza war began this month, hate crimes in the country – including crimes against Jews and Muslims – had been on the rise. Federal officials have not released data showing how many threats or incidents have been reported since Hamas first attacked Israeli civilians and military installations on Oct. 7, triggering a massive and ongoing Israeli response. But reporting on specific incidents and early data from nongovernment experts who study hate crimes suggest that the spike is significant.

On Oct. 14, an Illinois man fatally stabbed a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy and injured his mother in an apartment they were renting from him, authorities said. The Justice Department is investigating the killing as a hate crime. Over the weekend, a series of threats posted online targeted a Jewish student center at Cornell University and called for the killing of Jewish students. The FBI is investigating the incident.

And on Monday, the Justice Department said it last week charged a Las Vegas man, John Anthony Miller, who had left voicemails threatening to kill a U.S. senator over the the war in Gaza. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), who is Jewish and a strong advocate for Israel, was the target of the threats, her office said. According to the indictment, Miller allegedly threatened to finish “what Hitler started” and asked Rosen whether she had relatives who were Israeli settlers.

“We have definitely seen an uptick in threats across the country. It is focused on Jewish people and people from the Muslim community,” Robert J. Contee III, the FBI’s assistant director of partner engagement, said in an interview. “We have to be forward-leaning with communicating with our partners and making sure that things don’t slip through the cracks.”

On Friday, Contee and other top FBI officials held a nearly 45-minute call Friday with more than 2,400 local police department heads – including leaders of university police forces – to urge them to share with one another information about threats and to take each reported threat seriously.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray is expected to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee about domestic threats the country is facing on Tuesday, along with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The Biden administration has said it is working to address the reported rise of antisemitic incidents on college campuses, including by talking to student leaders about what they are experiencing and inviting campus police to participate in calls with other state and local law enforcement agencies.

The United States typically experiences a rise in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims when there are escalations in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Brian Levin, the former director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, who continues to closely track hate-crime data.

For example, Levin said hate crimes against Jewish people in the United States spiked in March 1994, after an Israeli American extremist massacred 29 Palestinians at a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron. The hate crimes included a gunman shooting at a van of Jewish students on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing a 16-year-old.

Levin has been tracking hate crimes in major cities through police data and says these types of crimes are typically underreported. He expects them to go up in the coming months.

Take Los Angeles. According to Levin’s data, 32 hate crimes and incidents were reported in the city against Jews between Oct. 6 and Oct. 26, compared with 13 in 2022. And 12 hate crimes and incidents were reported against Muslims and Palestinians between Oct. 6 and Oct. 26, compared with two during that same period last year.

New York City reported 44 hate crimes against Jewish people between Oct. 1 and Oct. 22, according to Levin, compared with 16 in all of September and a higher total than any other month this year.

“We are seeing a diversity of attacks, which range from noncriminal incidents all the way to threats, assaults, vandalism and bomb threats,” Levin said. “If we continue seeing these horrific images coming out of the Holy Land, we are going to see an even greater spike, not only in hate crimes, but also in much more violent types of plots, if history teaches us anything.”

Corey Saylor – a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group – said his group saw a threefold increase in complaints about anti-Muslim violence and harassment in October.

Many of these incidents occurred at pro-Palestinian protests, Saylor said, with people brandishing weapons at protesters or driving vehicles into them.

The last time reported threats and acts of violence against Muslim Americans were this high was in 2015, Saylor said.

That was the same month that two domestic terrorists – who had privately expressed their commitment to jihadism – opened fire and killed 14 people at a workplace training event and holiday gathering in San Bernardino. In response, Donald Trump, then running for president in the 2016 election, called for a “total and complete” ban on all Muslims entering the country.

Saylor said he believes President Biden could be doing more to combat the hate crimes. He said in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked and then tempered significantly after President George W. Bush denounced Islamophobia at a news event at the Islamic Center in D.C.

“It’s time for the Biden administration to step in,” Saylor said. “Antisemitism and Islamophobia are spinning out of control.”

At an event on hate crimes Monday morning, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said that the Justice Department has increased spending this year to prosecute hate crimes. She said at the Baltimore event that U.S. attorneys’ offices and the FBI are in close contact with local law enforcement to track these incidents.

“Hate crimes instill fear across communities and undermine our democracy,” Gupta said in her remarks. “Rest assured: The Justice Department will continue to use all the levers at our disposal to combat hate in this country.”

On the Friday call with local law enforcement, Contee, who served two years as D.C. police chief before joining the FBI earlier this year, said it is crucial that police departments share information about potential threats they are seeing in their communities before violence erupts.

“This is really an exercise in making sure that, if there are dots out there, that we are able to draw the line between those two dots by convening something where our partners have a chance to hear about the landscape,” he said. “It is front and center on the minds of folks to just ensure the safety of communities all across America.”