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As threats against Jews, Arabs and Muslims rise, Justice Department looks to help

Police and security stand outside the Center for Jewish Living at Cornell University on Nov. 3 in Ithaca, New York. The university canceled classes after one of its students is accused of making violent antisemetic threats.
Matt Burkhartt
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Police and security stand outside the Center for Jewish Living at Cornell University on Nov. 3 in Ithaca, New York. The university canceled classes after one of its students is accused of making violent antisemetic threats.

Updated November 17, 2023 at 4:14 PM ET

At a hate crimes conference early this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that he has seen in his daily security briefings the spike in threats against Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S. since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

"I recognize the fear, frustration and isolation that many of you have felt over the past few weeks," Garland said. "I want to reiterate a core principle of this Justice Department: No person and no community in this country should have to live in fear of hate-fueled violence."

But in the wake of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and the Israeli military's assault on Gaza, many American Jews, Arabs and Muslims are living in fear as they face a wave of hate-fueled threats and violence.

The Justice Department is taking steps to protect — and reassure — those communities. Garland has directed U.S. attorneys and the FBI to work closely with state and local law enforcement to keep these communities safe, and to determine what additional support they need.

The attorney general also has remained personally engaged

Last week, he hosted a 90-minute meeting with Jewish leaders in his wood-paneled conference room at the Justice Department. FBI Director Christopher Wray sat at Garland's side.

"I think it was a very heartfelt meeting at a time when the community has been moving through very difficult circumstances," said Michael Masters, the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, a safety organization for American Jewish groups.

"I can tell you, sitting in the conference room of the attorney general of the United States of American with the director of the FBI and their senior leadership, this community, at that moment, before and since, has not felt alone," Masters said.

He added that from Oct. 7 through the end of last month, SCN has reported close to 150 tips or incidents or threats to the FBI.

"The feedback and communication has been incredible," Masters said. "We know from our interactions with the 56 field offices in the FBI, their responsiveness and proactiveness — the same with the U.S. Attorneys offices around the country — is a direct result of the messages that they are getting from the attorney general and the FBI director to be proactive and engaged."

And that matters now because the Jewish community in the U.S. is seeing a huge jump in threats since the Hamas attacks on Israel. In one of the most alarming, a Cornell University student was arrested and charged with threatening to kill Jewish students on campus.

This week, the FBI director told Congress that the Jewish community is "uniquely" targeted by terrorism and hate.

"The idea that a group that makes up only 2.4 percent of the American public should be targeted with something close to 60 percent of all religiously based hate crime is abhorrent and should be abhorrent to everyone," Wray said.

The Arab and Muslim communities are also seeing an increase in threats and violence

In Illinois, for example, a six-year-old Palestinian boy was stabbed to death; his mother was stabbed, too, but survived. The Justice Department has opened a hate crimes investigation.

"We are seeing more threats. We are seeing more hate, more bullying, more incidents than we've seen at any point in the past year or few years," said Abed Ayoub, the national executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Last week, Garland met with Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Hindu community leaders at a previously scheduled gathering hosted by the department's Civil Rights Division.

Attendees say the attorney general dropped in for five or 10 minutes at the start of the meeting before leaving. While there, Garland told them he understands what their communities are going through, and he reaffirmed the department's commitment to combating hate crimes against them.

"It would have been good if he stuck around, but it's not the end of the world," Ayoub said. "And it doesn't take away from the conversations we've had with the Department of Justice, not just this week but since all of this started."

The different settings for the attorney general's meetings with the Jewish community and the Arab and Muslim communities — as well as the different government representatives — did not go unnoticed.

"I think the community's voice is not being heard at the same level is a factual statement," said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute. "I think that is accurate and I would apply that across the board."

At the same time, both Berry and Ayoub say the Justice Department understands and is responding to the threats that Arab and Muslim Americans are facing. That goes for the Civil Rights Division, as well as the attorney general.

"The week after all this went down, I personally received a call from the attorney general telling me this is what the Justice Department is doing and what more ways can we be helpful," Berry said. "I think that's important. I think that's the kind of engagement we need."

That engagement is important because of the message of support it sends, but also because it allows the communities to voice — and they have voiced — their current concerns to the Justice Department.

Concerns, they say, about students and professionals who advocate for Palestinian rights being accused of anti-Semitism or being terrorist sympathizers.

They also have concerns about FBI agents in recent weeks showing up at mosques and asking for information on community members.

Ayoub said such visits have happened in Texas, Michigan and California.

"The questioning of our community members needs to stop, and the approaching of our community members for information and visits to the mosque, those need to stop immediately," Ayoub said.

FBI actions like these harken back to the bureau's aggressive tactics targeting Muslim and Arab communities after 9/11. It's also why, advocates say, many American Muslims and Arabs don't trust the FBI and do not report when they are the target of hate crimes.

Asked for comment, the FBI said in a statement that to help keep communities safe, it is "talking with leaders of all faiths, including Jewish and Muslim leaders, sharing information, and asking them to let us know if they see anything concerning."

It also said that countering terrorism "remains the FBI's number one priority."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ryan Lucas
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.