Though the FBI has cited 2022 as the worst year of hate-fueled violence since its recording began in in 1992, Americans should brace for even bleaker future statistics unless they break a terrible trend.
Violence directly inspired by events in Israel and Gaza has already struck the homeland. In Joliet, Illinois, six-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume was murdered and his mother gravely injured in a stabbing attack by their landlord allegedly motivated by anti-Muslim hate. A Muslim community member in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was assaulted by an assailant “wearing an Israeli flag.” American Jews have suffered too. In California, Paul Kessler was killed after an altercation with a pro-Palestinian protestor, and at Cornell University, a student sent anti-Semitic threats to classmates. In Indianapolis, a woman was arrested for attempting to drive her car into what she believed was a Jewish school. In a press conference last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams warned the city’s Jewish community that their safety was at risk. “We have to be high alert,” the mayor declared. “We cannot let our guards down.” Even though the Hamas attack took place in Israel, “we’re the largest Jewish population outside of Israel,” the mayor said.
The United States has a history of mirroring overseas conflicts in its own communities. During World War II, Japanese Americans were rounded up into internment camps, sometimes for the duration of the war. After 9/11, hate crimes skyrocketed against American Muslims—including a 1,617 percent rise from 2000 to 2001—as the community was blamed for the actions of a terrorist organization twisting their religion into a murderous doctrine. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community suffered a spike in harassment and hate crimes, cornered by presidential declarations that the coronavirus was a “Chinese virus.” These types of atrocities have been troublingly consistent, from the shooting of Indians believed to be Iranian in 2017 to a hate-motivated attack this November on a Sikh teen on a NYC bus. In fact, targeting minority groups at home when their counterparts abroad are in the news could be called an American tradition.
Tensions in the Middle East have often fueled violence at home, but social media is making it far easier given outrage-rewarding algorithms and the free rein of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns online. Hamas’s 2021 attack on Israel prompted an eye-popping expression of online support for its violence. Variations of “Hitler was right” appeared in tweets more than seventeen-thousand times. Far-right extremist movements have typically monopolized the effort to target Jews, but increasingly, left-wing Americans have grown more comfortable targeting Jews, expressing antisemitism and hatred, and organizing around it. Reactions from some left-wing circles today have ranged from an inability to condemn the violence visited on Israel to outright statements of support, a stark reality that has forced the traditionally-liberal American Jewish community into soul searching.
The conflict, and its reflection in the United States, could still worsen. Should the fighting broaden to include belligerents from Lebanon, the West Bank, Iran, and even the United States, the range of possible targets for harassment and hate crimes in the homeland will only widen. Americans hail from every nation on earth. There is no limit to the dark possibilities.
Is this hate unstoppable? Are there countermeasures?
First, political leaders need to do more to dial down the temperature, speak with nuance, and promote pluralistic solutions. Speaking up right away to set the tone and expectations is essential. In some cases, politicians can offer help through policy prescriptions, building coalitions and partnerships, and finding resources to help local efforts. Business leaders can drive change by promoting clear expectations for their workforce and modeling what America represents.
Grassroots solutions are vital to medium- and long-term success. Community nongovernmental organizations are already working to reduce stereotypes, build awareness of the other, and find common ground, yet they do not have the financial means to scale and deepen their work. The United States is rich in innovation, ideas, and financial assets. Yet we do not put this to work to ease tensions. A big bet philanthropic injection into coalitions that fight hate and antisemitism, promote new ideas, and produce new cultural norms could transform how Americans think about and act toward the other and learn how to disagree well.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a long-term endeavor that requires encouraging new behaviors and norms for millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha—each of which need to be engaged in building a more welcoming America that revives values of small “l” liberalism, pluralism, understanding, and democracy. The most salient interventions at the individual level—the ones that deliver profound, comprehensive, systemic change—are those that shape the way youth form their identities. Part of this societal change includes cultural influencers and the values they promote. And part of this has to do with social media use. It is time for the United States to learn from the EU’s stricter approach toward tech companies.
The United States cannot expect to solve this longstanding issue quickly or cheaply. Any effort to build a healthier democracy must involve all generations and all backgrounds. It is not naïve to expect more from each other: the necessary ideals have already been set forth in sacred global texts and America’s founding documents, and have been articulated through the historic struggles of the civil rights movement. As a nation of citizens from every part of the world, Americans need to fight the “us versus them” urges that emerge all too often, even in well-meaning people. There is far more that unites us—a desire for peace, protection, and prosperity—than divides us. We must invest in us.
This post was written for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Renewing America initiative—an effort established on the premise that for the United States to succeed, it must fortify the political, economic, and societal foundations fundamental to its national security and international influence. Renewing America evaluates nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world. For more Renewing America resources, visit https://www.cfr.org/programs/renewing-america and follow the initiative on Twitter @RenewingAmerica.