A bomb threat at the Stroum Jewish Community Center in 2017 prompted a Mercer Island businessman to work with Rep. Derek Kilmer to make changes to the federal hate-crimes law.
The U.S. Senate has passed a measure expanding federal hate-crimes laws to include threatening or defacing religious institutions, a victory for the Mercer Island banker who helped draft the measure after a bomb threat against a Mercer Island Jewish community center last year.
The bomb threat, which was called in to the Stroum Jewish Community Center in February 2017, propelled Mercer Island resident Joseph Schocken — president of Seattle-based Broadmark Capital — to contact Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and help draft legislation to amend federal hate-crimes laws and increase penalties for threats to deface, damage or destroy properties used by religious institutions and affiliated facilities.
The Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act increases the penalty to five years in prison and a fine for threats that lead to damage. Currently, such crimes are a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum one-year jail sentence.
“At the end of the day, hate crimes are crimes, and it is important that we have stronger laws to protect these institutions,” Schocken said.
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The bill Schocken and Kilmer crafted easily passed the U.S. House of Representatives last December, with only two members voting against it. The Senate version, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passed unanimously. A few minor changes made to help give more clarity for prosecutors and judges mean the House has to vote on the bill again.
Kilmer doesn’t think there will be any holdups in the House, where the measure has strong bipartisan support. The bill was co-sponsored in the House by Tennessee Republican David Kustoff. Kilmer said he expects the measure to be signed by President Donald Trump.
The toughening of federal laws comes as reports of hate crimes are trending upward. According to the FBI, there were 6,121 reported incidents in 2016, 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 tracks anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, found such incidents increased from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,986 2017, a jump of 57 percent.
It was against this backdrop that the threat against the Mercer Island JCC happened. After the threat was received, 250 people were evacuated from the JCC and the neighboring private school, the French American School of Puget Sound. No bomb was found.
The threat was linked to Michael Ron David Kadar in Israel. Kadar, now 19, has dual Israeli and U.S. citizenship. He was arrested in Israel for making threats against numerous American Jewish organizations, including to the Stroum community center. Kadar was indicted by a federal grand jury in February for making the threats and hate crimes.
Schocken was driven to do something after the threat against the community center used by his family. The trauma caused by a threat is real, and those at risk need to be protected, he said. “These community religious institutions are important to this country. This is a significant step toward protecting them in these divisive times,” Schocken said.
This isn’t the first piece of legislation that Schocken has helped push through Congress. He helped write the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012 and sat next to President Barack Obama for the signing. Asked if he would attend a similar signing with Trump for the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act, he said he would.
“Yes I would. I think this is terribly important public policy,” Schocken said. “I think you should be there out of respect for the office and out of respect for this important legislation.”