In June, the Justice Department charged Masoud with a federal hate crime, saying he targeted Greenman, who is Jewish, because of “his perceived national origin and his actual and perceived religion.”
The case is part of a wave of federal hate crime prosecutions this year under the direction of Attorney General Merrick Garland; In the first six months of 2022, the Justice Department filed 20 cases, a pace that would dwarf any year of the Obama or Trump administrations.
Officials tout the prosecutions as a way the Biden administration is trying to address a surge in hate crimes, an effort the White House highlighted at a summit Thursday to counter bias-fueled violence. Garland announced at the event that his agency will require the 94 US attorneys’ offices to work more closely with local jurisdictions to improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes.
But Masoud’s prosecution also raises questions about how these cases are chosen and what federal interests are served by pursuing them. A lawyer for Masoud said his client, who has pleaded not guilty, is an ardent “anti-Zionist” who opposes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and is being unfairly prosecuted for his political beliefs.
Former justice officials said the department’s policy has generally been to give in to local prosecutors and intervene only if localities don’t press charges or get convictions. Federal authorities also seek to intervene in jurisdictions that lack strong hate crime statutes or insufficient resources to thoroughly investigate crimes.
Jonathan M. Smith, a senior justice official in the Obama administration, said it makes sense for the department to take on more cases. But with limited resources, he said, prosecutors should focus on those with a clear federal interest, such as attacks by organized hate groups whose networks cross state lines.
“A lot of what might be happening more commonly is probably best prosecuted locally,” Smith said, “and you shouldn’t try to create a federalization of prosecutions that essentially goes into what you think is street crime.” .
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, said the prosecutions are just one tactic in a broader federal strategy to combat hate and send a message of deterrence. She pointed to efforts to improve FBI data collection, an increase in federal funding for local jurisdictions, and civil remedies, such as a settlement agreement with a Utah school district where minority students faced racial discrimination and harassment.
With hate crimes, “you would naturally expect to see us prosecute more cases,” Clarke said. “This is a priority for the department: to stand up to hate, make sure victims know the federal government will respond and communities understand we stand with them, and make sure we send a strong message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable.” .
The case against Masoud has geopolitical overtones. Anti-Semitic attacks in New York and other major cities have skyrocketed in recent years, due in part, experts say, to the rise of extremism within the US and rising tensions over Israel’s decades-long occupation.
But legal experts said nothing stands out as an obvious reason the case came to federal attention. The Justice Department declined to discuss the details of why it took the case. A year earlier, three pro-Palestinian protesters assaulted a Jew in Times Square; That case he is being prosecuted locally by the Manhattan district attorney.
Gerard Filitti, who is representing Greenman on behalf of the Lawfare Project, said his client reported the assault, spoke with a New York City police detective and identified Masoud from a row of photographs. Soon, Greenman was summoned to meet with federal investigators from the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. federal prosecutors accused Masoud with attacking Greenman and alleged that he had assaulted two other Jews in 2021.
“Detectives saw this as a serious problem and that Masoud was definitely a repeat offender,” Filitti said, “so they took him to the US Attorney’s office.”
Despite the push from the Justice Department, federal prosecutions for hate crimes remain rare.
From 2009 to 2020, the federal government averaged about two dozen cases a year. That’s a small fraction of the 8,263 hate crimes reported across the United States in 2020, the most in two decades, according to the FBI. Experts said evidentiary standards can be particularly difficult in hate crime cases because prosecutors must prove the defendant was motivated by bias.
Prosecutors concluded 85 percent of their hate crime investigations without filing charges, according to a Washington Post review of federal data. Authorities cited a lack of evidence in about half of those cases; other reasons included decisions to allocate federal resources to other priorities.
Direct federal intervention has been “scattered,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism. “Prosecutors by their nature are conservative. They’re not going to get too involved in a case unless there’s a Supreme Court mandate to crack down.”
A review of recently filed federal cases shows that several involve harm to religious institutions, such as synagogues and churches, that are protected by a specific federal statute. Others relate to high-profile crimes, like the mass shooting at a predominantly black grocery store in Buffalo in May, which drew national attention.
The Justice Department has also begun prioritizing cases exacerbated by the pandemic, after Congress approved new hate crime statutes last year In August, federal prosecutors won a conviction against a Texas man accused of assaulting an Asian family whom he accused of spreading the coronavirus.
Experts said the Justice Department appears to be losing its historic reluctance to file hate crime complaints in cases where local authorities have already filed charges. In February, the department won convictions in the cases of three white Georgia men, who were already sentenced to life in state prison for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, in 2020.
“I think they are trying to make it clear that regardless of whether there is a local prosecution or not, there is a legitimate federal interest,” said Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Committee. “For the world at large, the intervention of the federal government gives it a certain seriousness.”
The Justice Department also steps in when smaller jurisdictions ask for help. Eric Jenkins, the police chief in little Paola, Kansas, said his department went directly to the U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute Colton Donner, a white man who pleaded guilty in February to hate crime charges for threatening a black man with a knife in 2019. Thunder what sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.
“We just would have felt the federal route would produce better results and be more appropriate,” Jenkins said. “We wanted to treat the case with the severity it deserves.”
Benjamin Wagner, who served as US attorney for the Eastern District of California in the Obama administration, said local and federal authorities were trying to work collaboratively. But in some cases, he said, if “a federal prosecutor decides he’s done waiting and needs to move faster and show that this is front and center, he can jump the line and charge the case.”
Last November, during his swearing-in as the first Black person to serve as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams announced plans to create a civil rights unitciting an increase in hate crimes against Jews and Asian Americans.
Antisemitic attacks in New York, which increased sharply in 2021, increased again in the first months of 2022.
the pro-Palestinian demonstration where Greenman was injured occurred on April 20. He started in front of the Israeli Consulate, with protesters carrying anti-Israel banners and chanting “globalize the intifada”.
videos to show Greenman with the Israeli flag and Masoud following him, and protesters trampling and setting fire to what appears to be the same flag. A separate video of the Greenman assault, captured by a passerbyit shows a man beating him, while pushing a person who tries to intervene.
The New York City Police Department declined to say why its detectives ended up working with federal prosecutors, rather than state prosecutors working for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D). Williams’ office also declined to comment. Filitti, Greenman’s attorney, said the detective Greenman was working with suggested to him that Bragg’s office didn’t seem interested.
Bragg came under fire shortly after taking office in January when he told his staff not to prosecute some lower-level crimes so he could focus on violent crime. But an official with Bragg’s office said police never brought Greenman’s case to the office’s attention, noting that Bragg successfully lobbied for $1.7 million in city funding to launch a dedicated crime unit. of hate, calling it “Maximum priority.” His office is processing a record of 103 hate crime cases, including 15 suspected anti-Semitic incidents.
“This case was brought directly to the Southern District by the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the active case. “We had no say in that.”
Rhiya Trivedi, who represents Masoud along with Ron Kuby, a prominent defense attorney and talk show host. — likened the altercation between his client and Greenman to a “bar fight” and said the federal government lacks jurisdiction to prosecute because Masoud did not assault Greenman because of his religion or alleged national origin.
Rather, he said, Masoud was reacting on the spur of the moment to Greenman’s Israeli flag, which some Palestinians see as a symbol of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
“This is ideological,” Trivedi said. “If it was a Ukrainian who captured a Russian flag, I wouldn’t be too quick to say that this is a hate crime. We would say that this is an act in an ongoing debate in an active and ongoing war. This is a very dangerous argument that the government is making.”
Masoud’s trial is scheduled for February. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison, a harsher sentence than if he were prosecuted under New York statutes, experts said. Greenman said he hoped the Justice Department’s involvement would draw attention to what happened to him.
“It shows people that this is unacceptable,” he said. “We live in a country where you can express yourself without taking a beating.”
Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.