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Middle East war spurring ‘sharp increase’ in hate crimes across New England and nation

Muslim community members left flowers at Wadea Al Fayoume's grave in LaGrange, Ill., in October. A landlord accused of fatally stabbing the 6-year-old Muslim boy and seriously wounding his mother was charged with a hate crime.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

A University of Massachusetts Amherst student was arraigned this week on charges that he punched a Jewish student and spit on an Israeli flag. Last month, a Rhode Island man was arrested for allegedly calling in a bomb threat to a Providence synagogue, while Boston police launched an investigation after “Nazi scum” was found spray painted on an Islamic community center’s welcome sign in Brighton.

Hate crimes against Jews and Muslims have skyrocketed locally and nationally since the start of the war in the Middle East early last month, fueling rising concerns about the risk of broader reprisals, according to the FBI and two organizations that track hate crimes nationally.

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“Many do not want peaceful coexistence,” the Islamic Society of Boston said in a statement, calling for an open dialogue and mutual respect among different groups. “Leaders have to do more to speak out against hate regardless of who it’s directed to . . . [in order to] counter the voices that are encouraging more and more violence.”

In a statement Thursday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced it received nearly 1,300 discrimination complaints over the past month at its national headquarters and state offices. The group’s national headquarters, which directly received 248 complaints, reported that hate crimes represent just over 15 percent of all recorded acts of discrimination.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, executive director of the organization’s Massachusetts chapter, said hate crimes represent roughly a quarter of the total discrimination complaints. She said her office received 13 reports of hate crimes across the state in the past month, more than the number of complaints reported throughout all of 2022.

“While Islamophobia has been on the rise for years . . . everyone in this community was truly surprise[d] how quickly and aggressively it emerged on Oct. 7,” the Islamic Society of Boston’s spokesperson said, adding that the “surge of reports of anti-Muslim hate, including harassment and threats” has primarily targeted students and women wearing a hijab or other head covering.

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The Anti-Defamation League said reported hate crimes and harassment against Jewish and Israeli-Americans have also spiked across the state and country since the war.

“We have definitely, nationally and locally, seen a sharp increase in antisemitic activities,” said Jonah Steinberg, director of the ADL’s New England region. “As we come into November, we are already significantly ahead of what we saw in the entire calendar year of last year.”

Between Oct. 7 and 23, acts of hate against the Jewish community were up 388 percent nationwide compared to the same time last year, according to the ADL. That figure encompassed 122 incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault, many of which were “directly linked to the war in Israel and Gaza,” Steinberg said.

A map of all antisemitic incidents since the war began indicates that in the past month, there have been 27 acts of harassment and vandalism in New England, 20 of which occurred in Massachusetts, according to the ADL.

In remarks to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray cautioned that the outbreak of war has elevated the risk not only of hate crimes against individuals and small groups, but also of domestic terrorism.

“Here in the United States, our most immediate concern is that violent extremists — individuals or small groups — will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans going about their daily lives,” he said in prepared remarks to the Senate committee. “That includes not just homegrown violent extremists inspired by a foreign terrorist organization but also domestic violent extremists targeting Jewish or Muslim communities.”

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Wray pointed to the fatal stabbing of a 6-year old Muslim boy and the wounding of his mother in Illinois on Oct. 14, allegedly by their landlord, as one prominent example, which he said is being investigated as a federal hate crime. A couple of weeks later in upstate New York, federal agents arrested a 21-year old Cornell student who allegedly threatened to “slit the throat” of any Jewish man he saw on campus.

The spike in incidents has been widely felt across New England. Westfield city councilors voted unanimously to publicly condemn neo-Nazi group NSC-131 in response to the group’s distribution of antisemitic recruitment fliers on the street near Westfield State University last month. More recently, UMass Amherst student Efe Ercelik was arrested by campus police after allegedly interrupting a UMass Hillel event, punching a student in the face, taking his Israeli flag, and spitting on it, according to court filings. He pleaded not guilty to assault charges Monday and was ordered to stay away from campus. His attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Meanwhile in Rhode Island, Governor Dan McKee said hate “will not be tolerated” and affirmed the state’s commitment to cracking down on such crimes after a bomb threat was left on voicemail at Providence’s Temple Beth-El in mid-October. Less than 24 hours later, a Pawtucket man was arrested and charged with making the threat.

In New England, Steinberg said, the ADL has recorded “such a sharp increase” in incidents since the outbreak of the war that this year’s numbers “are now well above” the number of incidents recorded during all of last year. In addition to the skyrocketing number of antisemitic hate crimes, Steinberg said, the organization has also recorded several attacks on the Muslim community, including what it condemned as the “vile defacement” last month of the Palestinian Cultural Center for Peace in Allston-Brighton, which shares the property with the Boston Islamic Seminary in Chelsea.

“It was an act of vandalism and an apparent hate crime and an affront to anyone who pursues peace,” Steinberg said.

In a statement, the seminary said staff are “deeply saddened by the recent act of vandalism,” which is being investigated by Boston police, and continue to “stand firmly against all forms of hate and prejudice.”

Kristen Setera, a spokesperson for the FBI’s Boston office, which covers Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, said agents are closely adhering to national protocol, and “communicating not just with our law enforcement partners, but also with faith-based organizations and the private sector . . . to help keep our communities safe.”

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“We are 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,” she said in a statement.

Setera echoed Wray’s warning of “an increase in reports of threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities and institutions,” as the Israel-Hamas conflict has unfolded. She noted that hate crimes are likely underreported, typically due to fear among victims of retribution by their attacker, or distrust of law enforcement.

She encouraged anyone who believes they have been the victim or witness of a hate crime to report it to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov.

“Hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim, but they are also meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community,” Setera said. “Countering terrorism remains the FBI’s number one priority, and we will not tolerate violence motivated by hate and extremism.”



Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.