A police officer closes off the entrance at Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island while crews investigate after a bomb threat was called in Feb. 27, 2017. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
A typical evening at the Stroum Jewish Community Center turned terrifying on Feb. 27. About 250 people at the Mercer Island center — including children — were busy taking classes, swimming laps, lifting weights and engaging with other folks in the neighborhood when a staff member picked up the phone. On the other end, a voice delivered a bomb threat that sent the center scrambling to evacuate everyone.
This community religious center, which provides a safe space for family, friends, and neighbors to gather and learn from one another, was suddenly swept up in an unfortunate story that has become all-too-common across the nation.
It doesn’t seem like something that would happen in America. How did we get to the point where places people come to take an aerobics class or drop a child off for Hebrew school become flashpoints of hate? It’s especially striking when you think about how much good Jewish community centers do. These are places where Americans come explore their faith, learn a new skill, study their religion, get some help with the kids, join a book club, or work on a jump shot.
In fact, these are centers that practice the ideas that tolerance and diversity are what makes our communities stronger. They play a key role in binding people closer together.
It doesn’t seem possible that these community centers could be viewed through the lens of hatred or that they could become sources of controversy. But since the start of 2017, there have been at least 126 bomb threats called in to 85 Jewish community centers across the country.
Someone who would call in a bomb threat to any faith-based organization seems to have forgotten our country was founded on the freedom of religion. They don’t understand that America is a place where those fleeing terror, dictatorships, and religious persecution have a chance to flourish. When someone makes threats of violence against people or places just because of religious beliefs, they do not deserve to be left unpunished.
Even though these criminal acts are motivated by religious hate, someone who makes these threats against a Jewish community center or other community religious center can’t be charged with a hate crime under current federal law.
That must change. We need to push back against attempts to unleash fear and division in Washington state and across the country. It’s pretty simple: If you make a bomb threat or any credible threat against religious community centers, the United States government should be able to charge you with a hate crime.
That’s why I’m introducing a bill that ensures anyone who makes a credible threat of violence against a community religious center can be charged with a hate crime. In addition, any violators who are found to have issued a threat that led to the damage or destruction of property could face up to five years in prison.
Communities of faith are looking around and feeling increasingly under attack. When someone tries to terrorize Americans based on their faith, we need to stand up and do something about it. We can’t do that when faith-based organizations are being threatened on a routine basis.
Our First Amendment has created an American tradition of practicing and learning about faith from one another. Making threats based on religious hatred, creating fear and chaos, is counter to that American ethic. Individuals who are seeking to do harm to others simply because they don’t agree with their religious beliefs need to know there will be consequences.
Gandhi once remarked, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”
We must embrace our common humanity and ensure America is a place where we can talk to each other civilly and respect one another — no matter the God to whom we pray.