Antisemitism, Islamophobia Surge in 2023, Watchdogs Say

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Since the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the United States and other nations have reported dramatically heightened numbers of antisemitic and Islamophobic threats, leading to heightened security for their faith-based communities.

The number of reported antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 388% in the four weeks after October 7, according to the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, while the number of Islamophobic incidents in the U.S. increased 216% during the same timeframe, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

As 2023 comes to a close, both anti-hate watchdogs say the most recent conflict in the Middle East — in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 others kidnapped by Hamas, the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel’s history, as well as a U.S.-backed Israeli response in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 19,000 people — has resulted in a record year for reported incidents of anti-faith hatred.

“In just 8 weeks in October and November of 2023, CAIR received 42% of the complaints it received in all of 2022,” the U.S.-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy group said in a report published on December 20. “Following the escalation of hostilities in Israel and Palestine, and specifically the Israeli government’s apparent intent to commit genocide against the Palestinian people, 2023 is set to lay claim to one of the worst waves of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States in the last three decades.”

Israeli and Palestinian representatives at the United Nations have traded accusations of “genocide” over the war raging in Gaza, with both sides demanding an international response.

FILE – Jewish Americans and supporters of Israel hold signs as they protest against antisemitism during a rally on the National Mall in Washington on Nov. 14, 2023.

The ADL last week issued a report stating that from October 7 to December 7 it recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents of any two-month period since the group began tracking them in 1979.

“ADL recorded a total of 2,031 antisemitic incidents, up from 465 incidents during the same period in 2022, representing a 337% increase year-over-year,” the report stated. “This includes 40 incidents of physical assault, 337 incidents of vandalism, 749 incidents of verbal or written harassment and 905 rallies including antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism. On average, over the last 61 days, Jews in America experienced nearly 34 antisemitic incidents per day.”

As reported by Reuters, virtually no continent was spared, with incidents of antisemitism registered in North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR deputy director, told VOA in October that violence in Gaza also fueled unrest and Islamophobic bigotry around the world, including the targeting of Muslim Palestinian Americans.

“Our government must call for an end to that violence and the dehumanization of Muslims and Palestinians that is being used to justify that violence,” Mitchell said, insisting that White House efforts to combat rising Islamophobia in the United States must go hand in hand with the protection of civilians in Gaza from Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Hamas. “Only then can the broader strategy to combat Islamophobia be effective.”

The recent surge in antisemitism as a reaction to Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing new, Heidi Beirich, co-founder of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told VOA shortly after October 7.

“It’s just a sad fact that whenever conflict arises between Israel and the Palestinians, Jews in all parts of the world will suffer some level of hate violence,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security offered recommendations to safeguard places of worship and community centers, and British police in October called for a review of the legal definition of extremism amid surging incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Similar measures were reported in Argentina, and leaders across the European Union pledged to crack down on incidents of hate.

In the U.S., college campuses have been scrambling to restore a sense of security for both Jewish and Arab students after weeks of dueling demonstrations — sometimes leading to clashes or arrests — stressing messages of inclusion for diverse student bodies. Untangling what’s protected as political speech and what crosses into threatening language or intimidation, however, has proven a daunting task.

Several experts who spoke with VOA’s Serbian Service, however, said it’s important for people on both sides of any contentious debate to maintain a firm distinction between legitimate criticism of a given policy and verbal threats or intimidation of a given ethnic- or faith-based community.

For example, does criticism of Israel’s security policies or its conduct of the war in Gaza constitute antisemitism?

Joshua Shanes, director of the Arnolds Center for Israel Studies at the College of Charleston, told VOA that people sometimes “mislabel things that really deserve legitimate criticism.”

“What has to be remembered is that criticism of a state has to focus on that state and that you cannot assume that Jews anywhere else in the world, just because they’re Jewish, that they are somehow connected to Israel, even if they themselves may be Zionist,” he said.

Similarly, the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was repeatedly heard at pro-Palestinian protests around the world. While many Palestinian activists describe it as a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood and decades of Israeli military rule over millions of Palestinians, many members of the Jewish community hear a clear call for the destruction of Israel.

“Anyone who knows something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is aware that the river is the Jordan [River] and the sea is the Mediterranean, thus this ‘liberation’ implies genocide or ethnic cleansing of the Jews,” said Alejandro Baer, a sociologist from Spain’s National Research Council and associate member of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Research at the University of Minnesota.

FILE - Pro-Palestinian protesters take part in a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the parliament in Athens, Greece, on Nov. 5, 2023.

FILE – Pro-Palestinian protesters take part in a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians, in front of the parliament in Athens, Greece, on Nov. 5, 2023.

He speculated that many protestors in Europe and the U.S. are ignorant of the slogan’s meaning but said that replicating slogans chanted by Hamas is typically problematic.

“We have barely heard slogans that are pro-peace, pro-rights or pro-two-state solution in those rallies, not to speak of condemnations of the Hamas massacre,” he said.

Mehnaz Afridi, director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College, claims that this slogan “really does mean” the destruction of Israel, and that she would never join a protest that has those kinds of messages to “any group, especially Jews.”

“For me as a Muslim, it was hurtful because Hamas is anathema to my religion,” she told VOA. “It is not Islam. What Hamas is doing, and eliminating the Jews, is not the Muslim way at all. In fact, we suffer as brothers and sisters and we pray as brothers and sisters, just like with Christians.”

According to the Arnolds Center’s Shanes, the chant “sometimes has a violent meaning in the sense of ethnic cleansing of Jews or genocide, and sometimes the slogan is used in the sense that all people should be free, both Jews and Palestinians.”

“It depends on the person who sings it,” he told VOA. “I think I’ve also heard a version that reads: ‘From the river to the sea, everyone should be free’ and I think that’s very nice.”

Correspondents Marko Protic, Patsy Widakuswara and Masood Farivar contributed reporting. Some information is from Reuters and The Associated Press. This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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