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Antisemitic incidents heightened across U.S. amid Israel-Gaza fighting; mosques were damaged, too

Preliminary research by a prominent Jewish civil rights group found an increase in online and real-world incidents of antisemitism amid the latest conflict in Gaza.
Image: Abraham Cooper
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, center, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, speaks in front of civic and faith leaders outside City Hall on May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. Faith and community leaders in Los Angeles called for peace, tolerance and unity in the wake of violence in the city that is being investigated as potential hate crimes.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Rabbi Shaoul Hamaoui's synagogue, the Persian Hebrew Congregation in suburban Chicago, had never been defaced while he's served as spiritual leader for more than a decade.

But that changed Sunday afternoon when a window was shattered and surveillance video captured two people, one carrying a stick and another holding a "Freedom for Palestine" sign.

No one was at the synagogue at the time, and police in Skokie, Illinois, said they are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime as the search for its perpetrators goes on.

The incident has jolted Skokie's Jewish community, which makes up nearly 30 percent of the town's population, and members of the Illinois Jewish Legislative Caucus condemned it as an "attack" targeting a congregation that is a "visible symbol of Jewish life."

The incident, however, isn't an outlier. From New York to Los Angeles, an apparent uptick of antisemitic vandalism and incidents have been reported to police and shared on social media as deadly fighting escalated over the past two weeks in the Gaza Strip between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mosques in the United States have reported damage in recent days, as well.

And despite a bilateral cease-fire announcement taking hold early Friday between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a move quickly welcomed by President Joe Biden and other world leaders, tensions continued to flare in the U.S. overnight during chaotic pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

"We understand that every nationality stands with their country and there's freedom of speech in America — we respect that," Hamaoui said. "But this is not right. Although there is a conflict overseas and we feel for both sides, it should not lead to violence in America."

Police in New York City are investigating an incident in which someone threw two commercial fireworks during opposing pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protests Thursday evening in Times Square. One person suffered minor injuries, New York City Police Department Detective Annette Shelton said. Police made at least two dozen arrests during the demonstration, although the circumstances were not immediately clear.

In addition, the department's Hate Crime Task Force is investigating an assault Thursday evening on a Jewish man in Times Square after a video of the apparent attack involving a group of people was shared on social media.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday he is asking the state police's Hate Crimes Task Force to assist in the investigation. Other videos show confrontations in the nearby Diamond District, where Jewish store owners have had a longstanding presence, between passersby on the street and people in cars carrying Palestinian flags.

"I unequivocally condemn these brutal attacks on visibly Jewish New Yorkers and we will not tolerate antisemitic violent gang harassment and intimidation," Cuomo said in a statement.

Former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords tweeted Thursday that her Tucson synagogue was vandalized and that "hate has no place in Arizona." NBC News could not immediately confirm details about the incident.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, said its preliminary research found an increase in online and real-world incidents of antisemitism in the U.S. amid the latest round of Israel and Hamas fighting.

An analysis of Twitter between May 7 and 14 showed more than 17,000 tweets which used variations of the phrase "Hitler was right," the group's Center on Extremism said in data shared Thursday.

In addition, the group said, it received more than 190 reports of possible antisemitic incidents in the week after the fighting began, up from 131 incidents in the week prior. While the majority of pro-Palestinian protests in the U.S. have "stayed within the lines of free and civil discourse," the ADL said, it noted signs that invoke anti-Jewish tropes and Holocaust analogies.

"As the violence between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate, we are witnessing a dangerous and drastic surge in anti-Jewish hate right here at home," CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement earlier Thursday afternoon.

The recent rise comes after already heightened antisemitic incidents over the past few years. Last year, there were 327 reported incidents at Jewish institutions, including synagogues, schools and community centers, up 40 percent from 234 in 2019, according to the group.

Research from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found spikes in anti-Jewish bias during major conflicts in the Middle East in past years, as well as a rise in anti-Muslim bias after incidents, such as the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead.

Brian Levin, the center's director, said bias incidents against Jewish Americans worsened in 2018 around the midterm elections, "when bigoted anti-Jewish conspiracy theories were widely circulated," and with the attack that year on a Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed the lives of 11 people.

"Unfortunately, Jews in the U.S. get targeted around both international conflicts and domestic ones," he said in an email.

But Muslims are also grappling with acts of vandalism and bias.

Shelton, of the NYPD, said investigators found "hate graffiti" spray-painted on the front door of the Tayba Islamic Center in Brooklyn on May 13 after receiving a call of criminal mischief. The Hate Crime Task Force was notified, and the investigation is ongoing.

The graffiti reportedly said "Death to Palestine," and was discovered as congregants were celebrating Eid al-Fitr, a holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Earlier this week, a mosque on Long Island was found vandalized with graffiti and a sacred flag on the property burned, Suffolk County authorities said. The investigation continues.

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national Muslim American advocacy group in Los Angeles, said the attacks against both Jews and Muslims and their houses of worship are "despicable" and violence should not spill over into the streets.

He said he was disturbed by reports this week in Los Angeles of antisemitic remarks directed at Jewish diners by people who were also yelling pro-Palestinian messages.

There was also a report of men wearing Palestinian flags and shouting from cars and physically assaulting Jewish men on the sidewalk. Los Angeles police said the incident is being investigated as a hate crime and no arrests were immediately made.

"We as a city condemn last night's organized, antisemitic attack," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted Wednesday. "Jewish Angelenos, like all residents, should always feel safe in our city."

Al-Marayati said the majority of pro-Palestinian protests have been peaceful and letting angry rhetoric overtake the larger message "won't affect change in any way."

"What we saw the other night on video does not help any cause," he added. "Explaining and articulating the aspirations and the struggle of the Palestinian people is sufficient. You can be better than any violence or hate."