As antisemitism rises in U.S., Michigan leaders fight hatred at home

Lawmakers, civil rights officials denounce alleged antisemitic attack at Oakland County synagogue

By: - December 7, 2022 2:43 pm

“Take on Hate” rally in Dearborn, Aug. 29, 2019 | Allison Donahue

As questions remain concerning the police response last week to an incident at an Oakland County synagogue, public officials have universally condemned the antisemitic threats prosecutors say were made toward Jewish parents and their children.

Hassan Yehia Chokr, 35, of Dearborn, was arraigned Sunday on two counts of ethnic intimidation after allegedly threatening families and security staff Friday morning at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said.

After being stopped by Bloomfield Township Police, who had been alerted by the temple’s security staff, Chokr live streamed the interaction with law enforcement. A video posted on Twitter showed an officer fist-bumping Chokr after asking him not to return to Temple Beth El. “I won’t,” responded Chokr. “God bless you boys…Get the real bad guys.” Police then permitted him to drive away.

Dearborn police took Chokr into custody on Saturday after the discovery of a video posted by Chokr of the Friday incident at Temple Beth El.

McDonald then authorized the ethnic intimidation charges.

“Antisemitic and racist threats or ethnic intimidation of any kind, will not be tolerated in our community, and every such incident will be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said McDonald. “Our office created Oakland County’s first Hate Crimes Unit a little over a year ago to give us the resources needed to call out, investigate and prosecute these serious crimes.”

When Chokr was arraigned on the charges via video Sunday, he called Magistrate Julie Nelson-Klein a ‘fu***ng Jewish b**ch” before flipping her off and threatening her that “God’s going to judge you the way you’re judging me.”

Nelson-Klein ordered Chokr held on a $1 million bond.

Then, on Tuesday, Chokr proceeded to moon Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Regina Thomas in a separate case that involves charges of assaulting and resisting a police officer two years ago.

Following the incident at the historic synagogue, a chorus of public officials have spoken on the incident, all expressing deep concern. A number of leaders noted that Chokr’s arrest comes at a time when antisemitism is on the rise in the United States. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there were more reports of harassment, vandalism and violence committed against Jews in 2021 than any other year on record. The ADL found there were 2,717 antisemitic incidents reported in 2021, a 34% increase over the prior year. The group reported that number could increase in 2022.

Antisemitic vandalism at the Kent County Democratic Party, Nov. 14, 2022 | Facebook photo

Michigan had the fifth-highest number of reported antisemitic incidents in 2021, according to the ADL. The state’s 112 incidents took place across 32 cities, including the neo-Nazi group Folksfront spreading extremist propaganda all over the state, a swastika formed from wood chips in Birmingham and a Jewish restaurant owner receiving threats and anti-Israel reviews on social media after posting his support for Israel. Antisemitic incidents have been reported across Michigan throughout 2022, including the Kent County Democratic Party’s headquarters being vandalized in November with antisemitic graffiti, including swastikas.

John E. Johnson, Jr., executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), on Sunday issued a statement saying no one should have to worry about ethnic intimidation at their place of worship or anywhere else. 

“On Friday, people in Oakland County’s Temple Beth El synagogue – including small children – came face to face with hate,” said Johnson. “While we are grateful no one was physically hurt in this incident, we must respond quickly and forcefully wherever and whenever people are targeted with hate. We are grateful for the quick response of the Dearborn Police Department in taking the individual responsible into custody, and for the Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney for bringing these charges.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), Aug. 16, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

U.S. Representative Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) noted that her grandparents had helped support construction of the temple’s current building.

“It’s where I had my bat mitzvah, and my brother attended the preschool in question,” she tweeted. “It’s a place to which I feel deeply connected.”

Slotkin said there were two lessons to be learned from the incident.

“First, leadership climate in this country and in our community is set at the top,” Slotkin said. “When government and cultural leaders feel free to express anti-semitism, it becomes normalized — and no one should be surprised when that hatred shows up at our doorstep. Secondly, people who are obsessed with hating others climb a ‘ladder of escalation.’ They may start with hate online and climb to hate in public places — and ultimately it can end up in violence, as we have seen in so many places across the country.”

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) reposted a video of his floor speech in January following an attack on a Texas synagogue in which four people were taken hostage before the gunman was killed. 

Moss then noted that antisemitic rhetoric continues to be an issue.

Jeremy Moss | Courtesy photo

“We started this year confronting anti-Jewish hatred & are still enduring with it,” tweeted Moss. “Whether it’s Kanye/Fuentes/Trump or the recent ethnic intimidation at home in Bloomfield, it’s going to take all of us to condemn & combat anti-semitism. Hate thrives in silence.”

Former President Donald Trump recently ate dinner with white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, who organized a “stop the steal” protest at the Michigan State Capitol on Nov. 11, 2020, and Ye, the rapper previously known as Kanye West, who recently praised Adolf Hitler in an interview with far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a statement Sunday reminding residents of the work of her department’s Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit.

“Those who espouse hate and are motivated to commit crimes against specific populations or communities because of that bias threaten the values we hold sacred as Americans,” said Nessel. “My Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit works with federal and local law enforcement partners to ensure crimes of this nature are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  No one should fear for their safety because of who they are, where they worship, who they love—or any other unique attribute that contributes to the diversity of our state.” 

Meanwhile, critics continue to question why officers allowed Chokr to leave the scene considering his violent threats and the fact that he was out on bond at the time for a separate incident from 2020 in which he assaulted a Detroit Police Officer.

Following release of the video of the traffic stop, Bloomfield Township Police released a statement saying officers purposely acted to diffuse the situation.

“We are unable to comment on specific investigative techniques, but we were able to assess that subsequent to the traffic stop the subject would not be an imminent threat to the community,” read the statement.

That prompted the progressive nonprofit Indivisible Michigan to question the lack of response. 

“Unacceptable behavior by the Bloomfield @TwpPolice officers on the viral video of Hassan Chokr,” the group tweeted. “FIST-BUMPING a subject who’s saying & doing this goes WAY beyond “de-escalation.” It is inappropriate and absolutely disgraceful.”

However, Bloomfield Township Police Chief James Gallagher also told reporters that at the time of the traffic stop, there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant an arrest for ethnic intimidation.

“The ethnic intimidation has to have some kind of act with the verbiage where the individual feels threatened,” said Gallagher.

The lack of clarity in Michigan’s ethic intimidation statute is one of the urgent priorities for at least one incoming legislator.

Rep.-elect Noah Arbit | Courtesy photo

State Representative-elect Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) is the founder of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. 

Following the spray-painting of antisemitic symbols on a West Michigan Democratic Party office last month, Arbit told Michigan Advance that he believes the state’s ethinc intimidation statute is vague and insufficient.

“The law is basically not worth the paper it’s written on because prosecutors so often don’t want to charge under it because the evidentiary threshold to proving a crime of bias in court is so substantial, and the penalties are so weak, that it’s just not worth the resources to devote,” he said.

Arbit added that one area he’d like to see addressed is requiring law enforcement to have specific training in hate crimes.

“Michigan’s one of the only states that law enforcement isn’t required to have specific training in hate crimes,” said Arbit.

As to the notion police did not take the incident seriously enough, Carolyn Normandin, regional director of the Detroit/Michigan Office of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish News she is comfortable that law enforcement understood the serious nature of the threat Chokr posed. 

“Law enforcement was working behind the scenes all day on Friday,” Normandin told the publication. “There are many times when people assume that nothing is being done because they have not yet heard any developments. Law enforcement doesn’t immediately give out any details because they don’t want to hamper the investigation.”

Arbit says when incidents like the one at Temple Beth El happen, the victims are not just the individuals who were targeted.

“That is the really important thing to remember about hate crimes is that when someone commits a hate crime, there’s not just one victim, there’s an entire community that’s a victim,” he said.

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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.