WASHINGTON (CN) – A Justice Department official defended the agency’s commitment to prosecuting hate crimes Tuesday as the Senate pointed fingers about the surge of religious violence against Jews and Muslims.
Though racially motivated crimes still constitute the majority of hate incidents, new FBI crime statistics show that attacks against Muslims surged by 67 percent in 2015.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was among those at this morning’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing who suggested that rhetoric coming from administration officials, including President Donald Trump himself, bear some responsibility for the escalation.
“In my view the rise in hate crimes is due, in part, to the perception that people in positions of power are indifferent to what’s happening, don’t prioritize the protection of the rights of all Americans and don’t speak out,” said Feinstein.
Eric Treene, the Justice Department official testifying at the committee’s two-panel hearing on religious hate crimes, has acted as special counsel for religious discrimination at the DOJ’s civil rights division since his position was created in 2003.
Insisting that combating the problem is a top priority for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Treene pointed to the hate-crimes subcommittee that the DOJ recently created as part of its Crime Reduction and Public Safety task force.
Sidestepping the question of what caused the 2015 spike in religious hate crimes, Treene said that people who attack Muslims tend not to have personal contact with anyone who belongs to the Islamic faith.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., rattled the special counsel by asking if the White House is sending mixed messages about hate crimes.
Though Franken lauded Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitism at a Holocaust remembrance event last week on Capitol Hill, the senator asked Treene what message the president is sending by keeping Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.
Franken accused Bannon of using his conservative news Breitbart to traffick in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism.
Pressed four times on Franken’s point, Treene answered that the DOJ stands ready to protect everyone’s rights.
“In my role, I am concerned with sending out a message that we will enforce the law for all persons,” regardless of nationality, race or religion, the special counsel said.
Outlining some of the DOJ’s work against religiously motivated hate crimes, Treene noted that the agency is still investigating the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country.
Though Treene also described the FBI as well-equipped to deal with white-supremacist groups, subsequent witnesses painted a stark picture of the problem for the Senate.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that harassment and threat incidents targeting Jews spiked 41 percent in 2016, while vandalism jumped by 35 percent.
Calling out the president as one of the key drivers of this surge, Greenblatt said Trump’s presidential campaign brought out some of the worst elements of American society.
Of all anti-Semitic hate incidents in 2016, Greenblatt noted, 30 percent occurred immiediately after the election in November and December.
“In Denver,” Greenblatt said, “graffiti posted in May 2016 said ‘Kill the Jews, Vote Trump.'”
In St. Petersburg, Florida, he continued, a Jewish man was accosted in November by someone who told him that Trump will “finish what Hitler started.”
Greenblatt said much of the vandalism and harassment documented by the ADL incorporated Trump campaign slogans, including “Make America Great Again.”
Particularly of concern to the ADL is the injection into mainstream American debate of what Greenblatt described as “hate-filled language, memes, stereotyping and scapegoating” through traditional and social media during the election.
“The subsequent denial or dismissal of such rhetoric by the candidates and their supporters was unlike anything we have seen in recent history,” Greenblatt said.
This year is on track to be even worse than 2016, he cautioned. A 127 percent increase in anti-Semitic harassment incidents in the first quarter of 2017 included 161 bomb threats.
“The extraordinarily polarizing and divisive election campaign – which featured harshly anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Semitic dog whistles – has coarsened the public discourse and fostered an atmosphere in which white supremacists and other anti-Semites and bigots feel emboldened, and believe that their views are becoming more broadly acceptable,” Greenblatt said.
The ADL did find some good news, however, in a recent opinion poll. Roughly half of respondents expressed concern about violence against Jews, while 76 percent were concerned about violence directed at Muslims.
Greenblatt said about 8 in 10 said the government should play an important role in combating anti-Semitism.
Showing the human toll of these figures, the Senate also heard Tuesday from Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a physician, scientist and member of the Sikh faith who said he has been mistakenly identified as a Muslim and attacked three times since 9/11.
Singh did not report the first two instances, but the third attack landed him in the hospital for surgery.
“I still think about that evening,” Singh said of Sept. 21, 2013, when he found himself surrounded by a group of 20-30 young men on bicycles.
“Terrorist” and “Osama,” the men shouted, before they began punching his face and body, Singh testified.
The attack left Singh with a broken jaw that required surgery. He said it might have been worse had bystanders not intervened.