'Backlash effect': Why the Middle East conflict triggers hate crimes in the US

Palestinian supporters march with flags and signs and chant in protest as the Israel-Hamas war continues in the Middle East, Oct. 13, 2023, in New York. [AP Photo]

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, a wave of antisemitism and Islamophobia has swept across the United States, putting American Jewish and Muslim communities on edge.

A 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death outside Chicago on Oct. 14, a week after Hamas' attack on Israel triggered the conflict. The attacker shouted "You Muslims must die" before fatally stabbing the boy and injuring his mother.

A 20-year-old asylum-seeker from Jordan was arrested in Houston last month after posting online his support for "killing Jews."

The American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has documented a staggering 312 cases of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault during the first two weeks of the war, a nearly five-fold increase from the same period last year.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) fielded 774 complaints during the same two weeks, more than triple last year's total for that period. That is the most since December 2015, when then-candidate Donald Trump called for a "Muslim ban."

Most of the incidents fall short of hate crime classification. But police data from cities such as New York and Los Angeles show an uptick in hate crime reports since Oct. 7.

The escalation is alarming, given that hate crimes were already at unprecedented levels, experts say. Last year, the FBI recorded the highest number of incidents since it began collecting hate crime data in 1991.

"The current conflict in Gaza is pouring gasoline on a fire that was already raging," said Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.

How does a conflict thousands of miles away trigger such intense, domestic repercussions?

"Unfortunately, it's actually not uncommon," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "Historically, we've talked about something called the 'backlash effect': events happening anywhere in the world end up having an impact domestically. We saw it during the Arab embargo" when oil shipments to the U.S. and some other countries were cut off in 1973-74.

In the decades since, the pattern has largely held up.

An analysis of FBI statistics dating back to the early 1990s shows that anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes escalate during Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The analysis, conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, was shared with VOA.

In March 1994, for example, anti-Jewish hate incidents more than doubled to 147 after Jewish extremist settler Baruch Goldstein fatally shot 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.

The sharpest rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes occurred in October 2000, with the Second Intifada's onset - 204 incidents, marking an increase of 183% over October 1999.

Recent years have seen significant increases during Israel-Hamas conflicts in 2006, 2014, 2018 and 2021.

"Our data, across three decades, clearly show huge percentage spikes in anti-Jewish hate crime in the U.S. when there is war in the Holy Land," said Brian Levin, professor emeritus at California State University, who conducted the analysis.

Other studies corroborate this finding. A recent study by political scientist Ayal Feinberg examined the link between antisemitic incidents and Israeli military operations between 2001 and 2014. It found that during weeks of Israeli military operations, total antisemitic incidents rose by 24% across the U.S., while acts of antisemitic violence and intimidation soared by 33%.

"I think it's critical to note that even in the United States, which many consider to be the most philosemitic country in the world, that over the last two decades there's been no factor that explains increases in antisemitism greater than when Israel is engaged in violent conflict with its neighbors," Feinberg, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Gratz College, said in an interview.

The correlation between the Israel conflict and anti-Muslim hate crime is less clear-cut. The FBI data show double- and triple-digit monthly increases in anti-Muslim hate crimes during Israeli military operations in 2004 and 2014.

But other periods of tension have not triggered a significant rise in anti-Muslim hate crime. Experts say international terrorism and incendiary rhetoric are the main drivers of hate-motivated attacks on Muslims.

The largest surge occurred in September 2001. The number skyrocketed to a record 330, up 8,150%, as the 9/11 terrorist attacks unleashed a wave of Islamophobia.

The second-largest monthly increase came in December 2015 after then-candidate Trump called for a "total and comprehensive" ban on Muslims entering the country. Almost 70 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported during the month, up 886% from the year before.

"Muslim and Arab Americans also face disturbing hate crime spikes during conflicts with Israel, but the largest increases revolve around scapegoating when foreign extremists commit fatal attacks," Levin said.

Many American Muslim and Arab rights advocates blame political vitriol and what they perceive as biased media coverage of the conflict for the rise in Islamophobia.

"This dehumanizing framing impacts Muslims in America as individuals who hold anti-Muslim prejudice frame them as terrorists," said Mobashra Tazamal, associate director of the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia at Georgetown University.

By all accounts, the current wave of Islamophobia and antisemitism is far more intense than previous episodes related to the Israel conflict.

While most incidents don't rise to the level of hate crimes. But police across the country have made arrests in connection with anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate.

In New York, two men face hate crime charges for assaulting an Egyptian teenager Oct. 11 while shouting "F--- Palestine!" and "F--- Islam!"

Outside Chicago, a man was arrested and charged with hate crimes for allegedly abusing and threatening to shoot two Muslim men on Oct. 17.

A Michigan man was charged with making a threat of terrorism after posting a threat on Facebook asking people to "hunt Palestinians."

American Jews have been targeted by a string of antisemitic attacks and threats across the country.

In Houston, the FBI detained 20-year-old Jordanian asylum-seeker Sohaib Abuayyash on Oct. 19. FBI Director Christopher Wray said this week Abuayyash had been "studying how to build bombs and posted online about his support for killing Jews."

Patrick Dai, a Cornell University student, was charged this week with making threats against Jewish students. In court documents, federal prosecutors alleged that Dai threatened to "bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot" Jews.

When hate crimes surge, the target communities experience insecurity, Feinberg noted. But this time, he said, "it viscerally feels different."

"What I'm noticing in my conversations with Jewish professionals and Jewish lay people alike is that they are feeling more insecure today than they have ever in their entire life in this country," he said.