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'People want a hate-free society': Community leaders on the rise in Islamaphobia and antisemitism

A long line of people walk on a sidewalk, with police cars on the road adjacent.
Alie Skowronski
Miami Herald
From left to right: Reverend Tom Capo, Tehsin Siddiqui, Nadine Asin, and Matt Anderson lead the We Are United march over the bridge into Brickell on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are a dark problem in the U.S., even in peaceful times. But the war that broke out last month between Israel and Hamas seems to have opened a Pandora’s box of hatred toward Jews and Muslims.

Four weeks ago, authorities reported that an enraged man stabbed a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy to death outside Chicago. Last week, a student at Cornell University in New York state was arrested for making online anti-semitic threats against Jewish people on campus.

South Florida is not immune — especially given our own large Jewish and Muslim populations. In recent weeks, there has been a raft of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents outside synagogues and mosques here in the region.

READ MORE: Top South Florida officials keeping close watch on hate crimes, threats

On the South Florida Roundup, WLRN’s Americas Editor, Tim Padgett, spoke to Wilfredo Ruiz, Florida spokesman for the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. And Sarah Emmons, regional director in Florida for the Jewish nonprofit Anti-Defamation League (ADL), about the situation and solutions to quell the tension.

“We see that inflamed xenophobic rhetoric affecting all of us. That's why you see spikes in antisemitism and spikes in Islamophobia,” said Ruiz. “The direct consequences of this war [are] being felt and breathed in our communities and neighborhoods. And that's perhaps what got the environment so tense as we feel it now.”

Besides the war itself, Emmons feels that activities on college campuses and social media are drivers in the increase of anti-Semitism in the last couple of weeks, saying that the spread of misinformation and polarization have added to the tension.

“We see that inflamed xenophobic rhetoric affecting all of us. That's why you see spikes in antisemitism and spikes in Islamophobia ... And that's perhaps what got the environment so tense as we feel it now.”
Wilfredo Ruiz, Florida spokesman for the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“In reality, this conflict is incredibly nuanced, involves a lot of context and history that many folks who are quick to repost a meme or retweet a soundbite are not aware of the full context,” she said.

When asked about what can be done to confront and reduce Islamophobia in South Florida and across the country, Ruiz said educating the public and providing balanced reporting is key.

“We have been educating [our community] for four decades…I believe we have been very successful in trying to say ‘Let what you do for your community, show who you really are and what our faith is’,” said the CAIR spokesman.

He says CAIR is trying to convey a balanced reality to its community, telling them that in these very emotional times, they have to watch what they say, write and how they react to what is being said.

When asked what the South Florida community can do to reduce antisemitism, Emmons said asking elected community leaders to speak out against all forms of hate is just one of the many ways to help.

“When these elected leaders speak out, it serves to bring us back to center to recognize that heat is on the fringes and that the vast majority of people want a hate-free society,” said the ADL Florida director.

Skyrocketing of incidents

Since Oct. 7, hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and Arabs have soared in the U.S.

The ADL reports that “incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault” skyrocketed 388% since the start of the war compared to the same period last year. CAIR said almost 800 anti-Muslim incidents — the highest in years — have been reported nationwide since Oct. 7.

Emmons added that being willing to have these conversations in person, asking workplaces to get involved, advocating for policies that fight hate and protect marginalized communities and reporting hate incidents will help reduce these issues in South Florida and across the country.

Last week, the Biden Administration reiterated its plans to create a national strategy to combat Islamophobia. In Florida, meanwhile, state lawmakers said they plan to steer $25 million to bolstering security at Jewish schools.

Also reports of Jewish and Muslim groups seeing an increase in hateful rhetoric has top federal law enforcement officials in South Florida on high alert for possible hate crimes and potential threats.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office and our local FBI partners are focused on protecting the safety and the civil rights of every person in South Florida,” said Miami U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe in a statement released by his office.

The region’s top FBI official, Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey B. Veltri, said his agency is working closely with police agencies throughout South Florida “to share information and identify and disrupt any threats that may emerge.”

“As always, we take seriously any tips or leads we receive regarding potential threats and investigate them rigorously to determine their credibility,” he said. “The FBI encourages members of the public to remain vigilant and report anything they consider suspicious to law enforcement.”

In his statement, Veltri urged the public to report all suspected hate crimes to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or tips.fbi.gov.

Listen to the entire conversation by clicking on the audio link above this story.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
Sergio Bustos is WLRN's Vice President for News. He's been an editor at the Miami Herald and POLITICO Florida. Most recently, Bustos was Enterprise/Politics Editor for the USA Today Network-Florida’s 18 newsrooms. Reach him at sbustos@wlrnnews.org
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