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As intolerance grows, targeted religious groups join forces

Jewish and Muslim communities are the most targeted religious groups, according to FBI data, and advocacy organizations report a rise in hate crimes during the last year.

Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., said some passersby during the Unite the Right rally yelled "Heil Hitler" and other anti-Semitic slurs at congregants.
Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., said some passersby during the Unite the Right rally yelled "Heil Hitler" and other anti-Semitic slurs at congregants.Read more(Kianna Gardner / News21)

NEW YORK — "If you attack one of us, you attack all of us."

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism, wasn't speaking just for Jewish people. As religious hate crimes rise in America, faith groups across the country have come together to protect themselves and help others who have been been attacked for their religion.

In Philadelphia, after vandals desecrated at least 275 headstones at the historic Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in February 2017, hundreds of volunteers, including members of other faiths, helped with the cleanup, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

In Victoria, Texas, after an arsonist destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center in January 2017, members of the Jewish community in the city of 60,000 offered the keys to their temple, and Christian churches offered spaces so Muslims could worship until the mosque was rebuilt.

In Tennessee, after the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was spray-painted with anti-Islamic slurs and defaced with bacon in July 2017, hundreds from the community provided cleaning supplies and donations to the cleanup area, said Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the center's board of trustees.

"We've seen faith communities come together and take a clear stance against hatred," said Faizan Syed, executive director of the Missouri chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations.

Jewish and Muslim communities are the most targeted religious groups, according to FBI data, and advocacy organizations report a rise in hate crimes during the last year.

Anti-Semitic incidents reported to the Anti-Defamation League increased from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 in 2017, according to the ADL. For the first time since 2010, acts against the Jewish community were reported in all 50 states last year. "Racists and white supremacists and other anti-Semites have felt more free to speak out and voice their hatred for minorities, including Jews," said Aryeh Tuchman, associate director for the ADL's Center on Extremism.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. rose in the last year from 260 to 300 incidents,  according to figures from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Harassment was recorded as the most frequent form of anti-Semitism, according to a 2017 ADL audit. Physical damage, destruction or vandalism to mosques was the most frequent anti-Muslim hate crime, according to a 2018 report from CAIR.

Leaders of 20 mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras — which are places of worship for Sikhs, who often are mistaken for Muslims —  around the country also found religious groups are amping up security, hosting self-defense classes, and educating neighbors about religions, with simplified instruction and open houses.

Allison Miller of St. Louis, a stay-at-home mom and convert to Islam, created four-hour self-defense classes for Muslim women after she was physically attacked while wearing a hijab outside a Kevin Hart comedy show in 2015.

In the last decade, safety has been such a priority for synagogues, temples, mosques and churches that several companies now specialize in security measures for religious institutions. Firms teach rabbis, imams and priests to handle threats, as well as to train volunteers in congregations to spot suspicious behaviors, serving as a voluntary security force.

Advocates say far more work is needed to combat the increase in number of hate incidents, as white supremacists are becoming more visible and emboldened.

Hatred of Jewish people persists

The number of anti-Semitic hate incidents in 2017 were the second highest since the ADL began collecting such information in 1979. The data show an uptick about 2004, then a steady decrease until 2014, when the numbers began rising again.

"We feel confident in saying that a general level of bigotry and xenophobia and general hatred and intolerance has increased in our country, at the very least since the run-up to the 2016 election," Tuchman of the ADL said.

Jacobs, with the Union for Reform Judaism, called the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., the epicenter of hate. Hundreds of white supremacists, racists and anti-Semites — who came from around the country to protest the city's decision to remove a Confederate statue — "joined together in their hatred." One woman was killed and dozens injured when a car was driven into a crowd of counter-protesters.

For Jacobs, the silver lining to the darkness of Charlottesville was the reaction from local faith communities.

"They're in the midst of the hatred and the bigotry and the militia and the white supremacists and anti-Semites," Jacobs said.  "The faith community stood on the front lines. They stood together. They stood nonviolently."

National leaders from all religious faiths condemned the violence, with many devoting their next sermons or messages to it.

The Rev. Phil Woodson, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, said he was "completely oblivious" to the white supremacy in the country until a few years ago, and the violent rally was a moment of awakening for him and other religious leaders.

"White supremacy and this culture of racism is America's original sin," Woodson said. "We hear that talked about from a lot of very prophetic faith and civic leaders. It is a deep, deep wound that has never healed because we've never got down into it."

Galvanizing events lead to anti-Islamic hate

Patterns of hatred for Muslims are rooted in recent history: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Barack Obama's election, the raucous 2016 presidential election and President Trump's January 2017 executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., according to advocates and experts.

"Galvanizing events do matter," said Ilir Disha, assistant professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, who conducted extensive research on anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes after 9/11.

Disha's research showed the number of hate crimes against Muslims reported to the FBI increased in the eight months after 9/11. But then anti-Muslim hate crimes fell to historic lows and stayed that way until 2008, said Syed of CAIR Missouri. After Obama's election, anti-Islamic incidents started to creep up and fall again until the 2016 election. When Obama campaigned for the U.S. Senate, there were already conspiracies circulating about potential ties to the Islamic faith — and they became stronger when he ran for president.

The most prevalent motive for anti-Muslim incidents is the victim's ethnicity or national origin, which accounted for 32 percent of recorded bias incidents against Muslims in 2017. The number of anti-Muslim incidents reported to CAIR increased by 386 in 2016 to a total of 2,599 in 2017, according to the organization's most recent report.

In a 2018 report from CAIR, Muslim leaders wrote that national leadership matters: "The 45th president's brazen display of animosity and prejudice has emboldened individuals seeking to express their bias and made the very word Trump an encapsulating and potent symbol of wide-ranging racial and religious animus."

Moving forward: A push for tolerance

Headstones of the historic Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia were restored after they were vandalized in 2017, said Laura Frank, public-relations manager of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Nearly 300 volunteers aided the project.

Next to the cemetery, in a nearby park, is a mural titled Cultivate Respect.  It incorporates colorful flowers, butterflies and the word cultivate in cursive.

The mural was in the works before the headstones were damaged, but Frank said themes of tolerance and inclusivity were added in response to the vandalism.

"It was a very big moment for all of us to come together and just to stand against vandalism," Frank said.

Scott Bourque, Bryce Spadafora and Lenny Martinez Dominguez contributed to this article.

This report is part of the "Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. For the complete project, visit