When Matt Greenman heard about a pro-Palestinian rally in New York City in April, he grabbed an Israeli flag, met the demonstrators and marched ahead of them, wearing the flag like a cape.
He was attacked by Saadah Masoud — a founding member of Within Our Lifetime, a Palestinian activist group — who punched him and dragged him across the pavement, causing a concussion.
The Justice Department charged Masoud with a federal hate crime, saying he targeted Greenman, who is Jewish, because of “his perceived national origin, and actual and perceived religion.”
The case is part of a surge of federal hate-crime prosecutions this year under Attorney General Merrick Garland; in the first six months of 2022, DOJ filed 20 cases, a pace that would eclipse any single year of the Obama or Trump administrations, the Washington Post reports.
Garland announced last week that he would require all 94 U.S. attorney offices to work more closely with local jurisdictions to improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes.
Masoud’s prosecution raises questions about how these cases are chosen and what federal interests are served by pursuing them. A lawyer for Masoud said he is a fervent “anti-Zionist” who opposes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and is being unfairly prosecuted over his political ideology.
Former Justice officials said the department’s policy has been to defer to local prosecutors and step in only if localities either do not bring charges or fail to win convictions. Federal authorities look to intervene in jurisdictions that lack strong hate-crime statutes or sufficient resources to fully investigate crimes.
Jonathan Smith, a high-ranking Justice official in the Obama administration, said it makes sense that the department is taking on more cases. 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 on a more common basis is probably best prosecuted locally,” Smith said, “and you should not try to create a federalization of prosecutions that essentially gets into what one thinks of as street crime.”
Despite the DOJ push, federal hate-crime prosecutions remain rare. From 2009 to 2020, the federal government averaged about two dozen cases annually. That’s a tiny fraction of the 8,263 hate crimes reported across the U.S. in 2020, the most in two decades, according to the FBI. Experts said evidentiary standards can be difficult in hate-crime cases because prosecutors must prove a defendant was motivated by bias.