A Mercer Island banker’s outrage over 2017 bomb threats against the Stroum Jewish Community Center led to his spearheading a proposed change to federal hate-crime laws that has passed the House and is headed toward Senate.
A proposed amendment that strengthens federal hate-crimes laws protecting religious institutions is being driven by a Mercer Island man’s outrage after the Jewish community center his family attends was the target of a bomb threat in 2017.
The threat against the Stroum Jewish Community Center (JCC) last year pushed Mercer Island banker Joseph Schocken into action. He contacted U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, an acquaintance with whom he had worked before, in an effort do something — anything — that might make someone think twice before threatening others because of their religion.
“It’s very hard to stop a threat.” Schocken said. “If some crazy wants to phone in a threat, how do you stop that?”
Schocken and Kilmer decided the best approach was to update the federal hate-crimes laws to increase the penalties for threats to deface, damage or destroy properties used by religious institutions and affiliated facilities, such as community centers and schools.
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The two came up with the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act of 2017. The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives 402-2 on Dec. 11, increases the penalty to five years in prison and a fine for threats that lead to damage. Now such crimes are a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum one-year jail sentence.
This past month, the legislation passed out of committee for consideration by the U.S. Senate. It now awaits action from the full Senate.
Making the punishment harsher was intended to show those targeted — and those lobbing threats — that there is no place for such actions, Kilmer said.
“It’s important to be able to articulate to people that our First Amendment protects a person’s right to practice their religion and a threat to a person based on their religion is counter to that American ethic,” Kilmer said.
The February 2017 bomb threat phoned into the Stroum Jewish Community Center led to the evacuation of 250 people from the JCC and a neighboring private school. No bomb was found.
Police in Israel last year arrested Michael Ron David Kadar, now 19, who holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, for making numerous threats to Jewish organizations in America, including the call to Stroum. He was indicted on hate crimes and making threats. Kadar was indicted by a federal grand jury in February for hate crimes.
After the bomb threat, the JCC worked with local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security to ensure the facility was secure, yet still open and inviting for everybody, said Amy Lavin, the community center’s CEO.
“Making sure we create environments that make people safe and secure is vital to everything we do,” she said. “That is something we hold dearly.”
The JCC threat happened during a nationwide spasm of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents.
Hate fueled threats and violence are up slightly, according to the FBI. In 2016, the most recent data available, shows 6,121 reported incidents, up from 5,850 in 2015. In Washington state there were 387 incidents reported in 2016 and 275 in 2015.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has tracked anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since 1979, found such incidents increase from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 2017, a jump of 57 percent.
Schocken’s personal experience is reflected in the rising FBI and ADL numbers. He said he’s never experienced the present level of open hostility toward Jews, Muslims and other minority groups and communities.
For Schocken, who is the president of the Seattle-based merchant bank Broadmark Capital, what happened at the JCC was personal.
“Its scary,” Schocken said. “I have grandkids who attend classes at the JCC. And until you really look into this you don’t appreciate the impact of these kinds of threats. The impact on young kids.”
Both his and his wife’s parents fled Europe to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis. Much of his family didn’t make it, he said.
His family’s history added weight to the work he did helping craft the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012. Schocken was seated next to President Barack Obama for the signing.
“You have no idea the goose bumps, the feeling I have, to be able to walk into the White House after that kind of family experience. And then to be facing it again, I don’t get it. I don’t get anti-Semitism, I don’t get racial bias.”
If the Senate passes the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act it can be used as a deterrent against threats and a teaching tool, Schocken said.
“My notion was could you go out to these white supremacists organizations and just say, ‘I’m sure nobody would ever think about doing anything like this but just in case the thought ever crossed your mind it is three years or five years of hard time if you get caught doing something like that.’ That was the idea.”