Rise in hate speech over Gaza a defining moment
Israel’s war on Gaza has polarized the world in an almost inconceivable way, with one outcome being a rise in both antisemitism and Islamophobia. Both are extremely dangerous and have led to a spike in hate crimes, especially in the West. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there was an “appalling” rise in reported anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents in the first month after the violence erupted between Israel and Hamas.
The council said it had received 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias in the month from Oct. 7 — a 216 percent increase compared to the previous year. The organization said that, in 2022, it received an average of 406 complaints in a 29-day period.
A week after Israel waged war on Gaza, a 71-year-old man stabbed and killed a six-year-old Palestinian American child and attempted to kill his mother in Illinois. He was charged with murder and hate crimes. Investigators determined the victims were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis.”
Just this week, three Palestinian university students were shot in Burlington, Vermont, in what authorities have described as a “hate-motivated crime.” Police characterized the gunman as “a white man with a handgun.” Although no official motive has been confirmed, two of the three young adults shot were wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh. Two were described as being in a stable condition, while the other suffered more serious injuries.
Perhaps the most-reported case of hate crime was that of former Obama administration adviser Stuart Seldowitz, who was caught on video harassing and insulting an Egyptian halal cart vendor in downtown New York. Several videos captured the former diplomat harassing the vendor about his Egyptian roots and Islamic faith. He was later arrested and is facing one count of aggravated harassment of race or religion and four counts of stalking as a hate crime.
Many of those marching in support of the Palestinians in the US and Europe have been harassed and accused of justifying terrorism or supporting Hamas. Some Western governments made things worse by labeling such peaceful protests as antisemitic or even “hate marches.”
To portray the Palestinian tragedy and struggle for liberation as a religious war is shameful and insulting.
Likewise, antisemitism cases have spiked since Oct. 7. According to CNN, a wave of global hatred directed against Jews has followed Israel’s indiscriminate response in Gaza to Hamas’ attack and killing of Israelis. Reuters reported that Jewish advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents had risen by about 400 percent in the two weeks following the Oct. 7 attacks compared with the same period last year.
Similarly, there was a 1,350 percent increase in hate crimes against Jewish people in the two weeks following Oct. 7, according to London’s Metropolitan Police. Ade Adelekan, the deputy assistant commissioner, described the rise as “significant” and added that Islamophobic offenses in London were up by 140 percent over the same period last year.
Social media platforms have seen numerous cases of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech, which often goes unreported. The rise in hate speech has been fueled by horrific images being shared on social media of the carnage in Gaza, especially where children were involved, and the devastation and loss suffered by Israelis in the south of the country in the wake of the Hamas attack.
The incendiary language used by a number of Israeli officials — describing Gazans as “human animals” or claiming that “there are no innocent civilians” there, as well as suggesting that Israel could drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza — has added fuel to the fire and stoked both antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Many Israelis, full of rage, have threatened to “kill the Arabs,” while American and European bigots used the Palestine issue as an excuse to express Jewish hatred. This is a case where the two sides are both wrong and dangerous.
To portray the Palestinian tragedy and struggle for liberation as a religious war is shameful and insulting. Hamas, a militant group with an Islamist ideology, is not a representative of the Palestinian people. Its 17-year-old rule of the Gaza Strip is both complicated and controversial. Until Oct. 7, its popularity in the besieged Strip had reached record lows. Israel has used Palestinian divisions to its benefit, with the clear intent of weakening the Palestinian Authority. Likewise, the PA has become a dysfunctional political entity and it too has become unpopular in the West Bank. Palestinians have not voted for a legitimate representative since 2006.
The Palestine-Israel conflict should never be used to ignite religious hatred or to justify the use of racist or ethnic slurs.
The Palestine-Israel conflict is not a religious one and it never has been. Until the Zionist colonization of Palestine, Muslims, Christians and Jews had coexisted peacefully for centuries. The Palestine Liberation Organization charter calls for the establishment of an independent, secular and democratic state. Palestinians are against Zionism, not Jews. The now-sidelined Palestinian National Council, which acted as a Palestinian parliament in exile, included Jewish members who were anti-Zionists.
The complexity of the Palestine-Israel conflict notwithstanding, it should never be used by extremists and fanatics on either side to ignite religious hatred or to justify the use of racist or ethnic slurs. It is unfortunate that the biggest supporters of Israel today are the followers of certain branches of US evangelical Christianity whose loyalty toward Zionism is rooted in biblical beliefs.
Zionism must not be conflated with Judaism or the Jewish people and those standing against it, including many Jews, cannot be described as antisemites.
The Palestinian struggle for liberation is about justice, freedom and the rule of law and those supporting those rights come from all walks of life and from every faith, race and nationality. The emotional expressions of humanity and empathy toward the suffering of Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are in no way a show of support for Hamas and its strategy. Those who support one side against the other, for whatever reason, should not be used by sinister forces to stoke the fires of hate speech, antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Antisemitism is a European scourge that is alien to the people of the Middle East. The Palestinians, of all people, should never be dragged into this distinctively Western syndrome, which has resulted in pogroms and massacres of Jews in Europe that were resolved at the expense of the Palestinians.
Politicians, academics, influencers and religious leaders are responsible for calming people. The message must be that supporting the Palestinian right to self-determination is not and should not be perceived as antisemitic, just as supporting Israel must not be used to trigger Islamophobic hate speech.
There are people — powerful individuals and governments — who want to cancel others by labeling them. Hate speech leads to hate crimes and innocent people then suffer at the hands of bigots and fundamentalists. Sober leadership is needed at all levels to make sure that neither antisemitism nor Islamophobia deflects attention from the real issue, which is ending the occupation.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman.