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Arab and Muslim groups say DOJ is falling short on combatting threats against them

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since the start of the latest war between Israel and Hamas, threats and reports of bias incidents against Jews, Arabs and Muslims in the United States have soared. The Justice Department says it is stepping up its efforts to protect those communities. NPR's Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: At a virtual conference on hate crimes early this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that he has seen in his daily security briefings the spike in threats against America's Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I want to reiterate a core principle of this Justice Department. No person and no community in this country should have to live in fear of hate-fueled violence.

LUCAS: Garland has directed U.S. attorneys and the FBI to work closely with state and local law enforcement to keep these communities safe and to see what additional support they need. He's also remained personally involved. Last week Garland hosted a 90-minute meeting with Jewish leaders in his wood-paneled conference room at the Justice Department. FBI Director Christopher Wray sat at the attorney general's side.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: I think it was a very heartfelt meeting at a time when the community has been moving through, you know, very difficult circumstances.

LUCAS: Michael Masters is the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, a safety organization for American Jewish communities.

MICHAEL MASTERS: I can tell you, sitting in the conference room of the attorney general of the United States of America, with the director of the FBI and their senior leadership, this community, at that moment, before and since, has not felt alone.

LUCAS: And that matters now, Masters says, as the Jewish community sees a huge jump in threats since the Hamas attacks. In one of the most alarming, a Cornell University student was arrested and charged with threatening to kill Jewish students on campus. This week the FBI director told Congress that the Jewish community is uniquely targeted by terrorism and hate and, quote, "needs our help." The Arab and Muslim communities are also seeing an increase in threats and violence. In Illinois, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death. The Justice Department has opened a hate crimes investigation.

ABED AYOUB: We are seeing more threats. We're seeing more hate, more bullying, more incidences than we've seen.

LUCAS: Abed Ayoub is the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Last week Garland met with Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Hindu community leaders. It was at a previously scheduled gathering hosted by the department's civil rights division. Attendees say the attorney general dropped in for five or 10 minutes at the start of the meeting before leaving. While there, Garland told them he understands what their communities are going through, and he reaffirmed the department's commitment to combating hate crimes against them.

AYOUB: Yes, it would have been good if he stuck around, but it's not the end of the world. And it doesn't take away from the conversations we've had with DOJ, not just this week but within the past - you know, since all of this started.

LUCAS: That said, the different settings for the meetings, not to mention the government's representatives, did not go unnoticed.

MAYA BERRY: I think the community's voice is not being heard at the same level - is a factual statement.

LUCAS: Maya Berry is the executive director of the Arab American Institute.

BERRY: I think that is accurate, and I would apply that across the board.

LUCAS: At the same time, both Berry and Ayoub say the Justice Department understands and is responding to the threats that Arab and Muslim Americans are facing. That goes for the civil rights division. It also goes for the attorney general. Again, Berry.

BERRY: The week after all this went down, I mean, I personally received a call from the attorney general telling me, this is what the Department of Justice is doing, and what more ways can we be helpful? And I think that's important. I think that's the kind of engagement we need.

LUCAS: That engagement is important because of the message of support it sends but also because it allows the communities to voice, and they have voiced, their current concerns to the Justice Department - concerns, they say, about students and professionals who advocate for Palestinian rights being accused of antisemitism or being terrorist sympathizers, concerns about FBI agents in recent weeks showing up at mosques and asking for information on community members similar to what the bureau did after the 9/11 attacks. Ayoub says this has happened in Texas, Michigan and California.

AYOUB: The questioning of our community members needs to stop. And the approaching of our community members, you know, for information and visits to the mosques - those need to stop immediately.

LUCAS: Asked for comment, the FBI said it is talking to faith leaders, sharing information and asking them to let the bureau know if they see anything concerning. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.