Antisemitic threats are “coming from all sides,” but the FBI is “hitting back at them full-force” with multiple FBI programs currently “laser-focused on the problem,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Never Is Now Summit in New York on Thursday.
“Antisemitism remains a pervasive and present fact,” Wray said. “And we at the FBI see — up close, day in and day out — the actions that hatred drives. Jewish people continue to face repeated violence and very real threats, from all kinds of actors, simply for being who they are.”
The director noted that antisemitism motivates 63 percent of religious hate crimes, targeting the Jewish community that makes up 2.4 percent of the country’s population. “Foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS have promoted antisemitic violent extremism for decades,” he said. “They continue to target Jewish Americans in their attack plots. But we also confront the threat of people here, on our soil, whose hateful views — often paraded online — boil over into acts of violence.”
“There are too many grim examples to choose from, but consider the members of the Jewish community in Poway, California, whose synagogue was the target of domestic terrorism in 2019. The gunman in that attack, in a vile act driven by hatred, murdered one member of the congregation and wounded three others, including a rabbi.”
John Earnest, who pleaded guilty to the attack, was sentenced last December to life in prison plus 30 years. He is hailed on extremist online forums as a “saint” and wrote a manifesto stating that he was inspired by Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant and by Robert Bowers, who has been charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack. In the seven-page document, Earnest said he felt “no remorse” and “only wish I killed more”; he stated that his favorite thing to do was play piano, “however, killing Jews might change that I’ll get back to you on that one.”
Wray also cited the January attack on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, “by a perpetrator who cloaked himself in a different motivation — he referenced violent jihad.” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who welcomed Malik Faisal Akram into Shabbat services and offered him a cup of tea before Akram pulled a gun and took the rabbi and three others hostage, was appointed a Special Advisor on Security to ADL in July.
“It demonstrates the tragic reality that the Jewish community uniquely ends up on the receiving end of hate-fueled attacks from all sides,” Wray told the ADL audience. “And I’d venture to say no community feels more threatened by that boiling over into violence than yours.”
The director emphasized that the Bureau has “designated civil rights, specifically including hate crimes, as a national threat priority.”
“That means we’ve surged more agents and analysts to work those cases across the country. And on the counterterrorism front, with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces we run out of all 56 of our field offices, we have nearly 4,500 agents and state and local law enforcement partners working counterterrorism,” he said. “And in 2019, we established the Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell, bringing together experts on both. That team addresses the intersection of domestic terrorism and hate crimes, and they share information and resources with our partners in real time. And the fusion cell’s efforts are bearing fruit.”
Last year, Richard Holzer was sentenced to more than 19 years behind bars for hate crime and explosives charges in a plot to bomb the Temple Emanuel Synagogue in Pueblo, Colo.
“Holzer told undercover agents he wanted to do something that would tell Jewish people in the community they weren’t welcome in the town,” Wray said. “But thanks to the work of our fusion cell, instead, we disrupted his plot before it occurred, and for the first time in recent history made a proactive arrest on a hate crimes charge.”
“So whether we’re confronting the threat through a hate crime or counterterrorism lens — or both — our focus is on preventing violent attacks. And within the bounds of the law, we’re creative in how we do that.”
After attacks do occur, he noted, the FBI will “move heaven and earth to find those responsible and to help heal the victims, their families, and their community, much like we did four years ago this October, after the horrific attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.”
Wray said that when he visited the synagogue and saw the scene firsthand, “I was struck not just by the evil done to individuals that day but by the depth of the wound to that community.”
“It made me angry,” he added. “It left me feeling the steel in our commitment to battle hate-fueled violence everywhere it touches Jewish Americans.”
These threats “increasingly require a whole-of-society approach,” Wray said, including through the FBI’s Hate Crimes Awareness Campaign launched in 2021. “And we’ve been engaging the public’s help, too. That includes community leaders, mental health and social services professionals, faith communities, and civil rights and minority groups.”
Wray added that his agency’s mission “is both to protect Americans and to uphold the Constitution, and both aspects are equally important.”
“We can’t stop people from thinking or saying hateful things. But there is a right way, under our Constitution and within the rule of law, for someone to express their beliefs, whatever they may be. And violence ain’t it,” he said.
“So what we can do — and will always do — is bring the full force of the FBI and our partners to bear across the country, and in every community, when someone threatens or commits violence, we don’t let up. And — like the Nazi hunters in OSI — our memory is long. We never forget.”