Opinion: Can we feel safe and secure?

The room was packed at the Chattanooga Jewish Federation's panel discussion on safety and security. Nerves were on edge. Some participants chose to attend virtually as they were unsure of their safety. Given the number of law enforcement officers in the room, they needn't have worried. But the Hamas-Israel war has embedded anxiety into the Jewish and Muslim communities, and beyond. How can it not?

Advocacy groups are reporting a spike in hate incidents against Jewish and Muslim individuals since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The Anti-Defamation League reported an almost 400% increase in antisemitic incidents since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, with 312 incidents between Oct. 7-23 compared to 64 incidents over the same time frame in 2022.

And the daily intimidation aimed at Jewish students on college campuses is now spiraling into death threats and physical attacks.

That's why it was heartening to hear from the law enforcement panel facilitated by Michael Dzik, the federation's executive director. Panelists included Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett; Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy; Scott Davis, FBI assistant special agent in charge; Trey Hamilton, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee out of Knoxville; and Coty Wamp, Hamilton County district attorney.

The community support was obvious in the crowd, too, with County Mayor Weston Wamp, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson, Jordan Hadfield, FBI supervisory senior resident agent, a representative from Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's office, and more than a dozen local and state law enforcement officers attending.

For Murphy, the primary goal was to reassure the community.

"Collaborating with our partners, we have intelligence gatherers to monitor what is happening," she told the audience. "We don't see anything now, but we have increased the the units involved."

Law enforcement is cognizant of what is happening on college campuses, officials said.

Hadfield noted the FBI would reach out to any faculty member who receives a threat .

"The collection of information is a primary focus," he said. "There's a lot of hate speech and we're looking at the loners who are motivated and energized by it."

Garrett reminded the crowd not to let their guard down and to be mindful of what is going on around them. Talking with community members is essential.

"To dispel the fear, we need to have these conversations," he noted.

Hamilton talked about differentiating free speech and hate speech while encouraging the reporting of any potential hate. There's an online FBI "E-tips" where you can type in your issues and questions. There was general agreement on reporting: "See something, say something."

We, as individuals, can take security measures at our homes including installing cameras and alarms.

The federation's response was noteworthy. Past President Austin Center shared, "The threat feels real to our community. This dialogue is necessary and reinforces what the federation is doing."

There's no doubt that reassurances from these high-level officials reinforced our attempts to combat hate together. The audience mix of community advocates, religious leaders, government representatives and law enforcement was impressive. Perhaps it is time to revive former Mayor Andy Berke's Council Against Hate. This seems like the right time to bring together diverse sectors of the community on a regular basis to address an increasingly hostile environment.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@ diversityreport.com.