Palestinian New Yorkers and supporters gathered Friday to express their frustrations about their inability to safely support the more than 2 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza as Israel continues to bomb the territory. Some spoke of a growing fear of a return to post-9/11 Islamophobia and persecution.
At a rally for Palestine in front of City Hall on Friday morning, attorney Omar Jamal, a board member with the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY), condemned elected officials and others who he said created an environment that threatened free speech.
“In these past few days, there has been a concerted and powerful effort to silence anyone who dares to express solidarity,” Jamal, who is Palestinian-American, said. “Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, and vocal allies are being threatened, fired from jobs, bullied at school, and even attacked in the street. Our community members have told us that the reckless and dangerous rhetoric of the politicians has created an Islamophobic environment we experienced post 9/11.”
In the wake of the surprise attack led by Hamas on Oct. 7, which killed about 1,300 people in Israel, New York elected officials issued strongly worded statements condemning the violence. But Arab New Yorkers Documented spoke with say they have felt a painful silence from many of New York’s political leaders in recognizing the 1,900 Palestinians who have been killed during the bombardment of Gaza.
Lamis Deek, a Palestinian-American attorney, who says she responded to cases in the aftermath of 9/11 said that this moment feels very similar to that time — with a key difference.
“Post 9/11, we did have government officials step in and say, ‘please do not hurt the Muslim community.’ We have not seen that — what we have seen is the opposite,” Deek said. “What we are seeing from government representatives, local, state, and federal, is a call for further violence using these terms and euphemisms.”
Demonstrators said that their fears were not unfounded. At this morning’s rally, where about ten pro-Palestinian protesters gathered, those speaking were met with derogatory language from passerbyes. “I hope you die,” one man screamed at the group.
Beyond individual acts of violence, many fear that the recent rhetoric could open up the door to increased acts of state repression. In the aftermath of 9/11, nearly a thousand innocent Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian undocumented immigrant men, including 491 in the New York City metropolitan area, were rounded up by federal authorities and sent to detention centers without trial. Most were deported. What followed was nearly two decades of mass surveillance of Muslim communities throughout the country which left a generation scarred by paranoia.
Abed Ayoub, Executive Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said on Twitter that over the past week, his organization has received multiple reports of the FBI visiting Palestinian individuals, as well as mosques. They also received reports of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detaining Palestinian nationals, Ayoub said.
On Friday afternoon, at least 500 people gathered on Broadway near Times Square to protest the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and organize for Palestine, while a smaller group of demonstrators for Israel congregated in a separate area.
Dozens of demonstrators held up Palestinian flags and wore keffiyehs. Some stood on top of containers in the middle of the rally, leading the protesters in chants of “Free Palestine.” Some held signs reading “Defend Gaza,” and “Resistance is not terrorism.”
Among the energetic crowd, was a contingent of Ultra-Orthodox Jews with Neturei Karta, a Hasidic sect that rejects Zionism. There, Rabbi, Yitzchok Deutsch was staunch in support for the Palestinian community.
“Jews and Arabs used to live in peace for hundreds of years,” he said. “We can live in peace again and we have a lot of Arab neighbors in Brooklyn and we want to live in peace with them.”
When asked about the Israel-Hamas war on the GMGT Live’s radio show “The Reset Talk Show,” Adams said: “We must bring peace in the Middle East.” He added, “I know this is a painful moment, but our pain cannot turn into inflicting pain, it must turn into purpose.”
Mona Abdullah, who had come to Midtown to back Palestine, made clear that she condemned the killings by Hamas. At the same time, she felt frustrated with how New York politicians have reacted to the Israel-Hamas war. “I think it’s very pro-Israel,” Abdullah, 35, said. What she wanted to see from elected officials, she said, was: “recognition of the state of Palestine.”
“It’s just frustrating to feel like the lives of Israelis are more important than Brown and Black people,” Abdullah said. “I honestly stopped watching T.V.”
For Mateen, an ER nurse who did not want to share his last name, the response from New York elected officials has also been disappointing.“ Their statements are always very one-sided,” Mateen, 27, said. “They don’t see the other side. The lives that are being lost.”
On Wednesday, three Arab men were attacked in two separate incidents in Brooklyn by pro-Israel assailants in what the NYPD is investigating as hate crimes. A day later, on Thursday, pro-Israel New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov was photographed openly carrying a pistol to a pro-Palestine rally outside Brooklyn College. She was subsequently arrested on Friday and charged with criminal possession of a firearm.
On Wednesday evening, a 19-year-old female suspect reportedly attacked a 24-year-old Israeli student of Columbia University with a stick in front of the school’s main library, as the student was hanging flyers against Hamas.
At the protest, Yamina Kezadri, an Algerian New Yorker and the Director of Muslims Giving Back, a community-based organization that provides food, legal aid, and job placement services for those in need, felt that negative depiction of the Palestinians was increasing hostility in the streets.
“I live in the heart of Brooklyn and I can tell you that Islamaphobia is on the rise,” she said. “With a hijab, I can’t leave the house without having my husband or my brothers by my side to protect me. That’s insane.”
Kezadri primarily felt that elected officials, like Gov. Kathy Hochul, who when recently asked if she had a message for the city’s Palestinian community, urged “law-abiding Palestinians to reject Hamas,” were contributing to that atmosphere of hostility.
“To be quite honest I’m not surprised,” she said, “but I’m upset by the response we are getting from the majority of our officials.”