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Michigan man charged with ‘ethnic intimidation’ after harassing synagogue-goers over Israel

Local police were criticized for their handling of the incident on Friday, two days before Hassan Chokr was arrested

(JTA) — A man who was waved away by local police after hassling people arriving at one of the Detroit area’s largest synagogues on Friday was arrested Sunday on charges of “ethnic intimidation.”

Hassan Chokr was arrested Sunday, two days after video emerged showing local police questioning and releasing him, even after he said he intended to head to another synagogue.

Chokr had allegedly shouted antisemitic and racist threats outside at Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, as families were dropping children at the early childhood center on Friday morning. Beth El was Michigan’s first synagogue, and its architecturally significant building looms over the sprawl of Bloomfield Hills, one of Detroit’s most heavily Jewish suburbs.

“He was hostile and verbally abusive, shouting profanity about ‘F Israel’ and ‘F the Jews’ — and threatening people, yelling at them that if they support Israel, they will pay or he will get them,” Rabbi Mark Miller, Temple Beth El’s senior rabbi, told the Detroit Free Press. Miller said Chokr also used racist language against members of the synagogue’s security team.

The incident comes amid a spate of alarming threats to synagogues in multiple states. In New Jersey last month, an 18-year-old man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS was charged with making a broad threat that affected all of the state’s synagogues, while a man who allegedly posted threats to synagogues online was arrested after traveling to New York City and obtaining weapons.

“Anti-semitic and racist threats or ethnic intimidation of any kind, will not be tolerated in our community,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in a statement announcing the charges against Chokr on Sunday. McDonald created the suburban Detroit county’s first hate crimes office last year.

The charges followed criticism of the Bloomfield Township Police Department for their handling of their first encounter with Chokr after they responded to a call from Beth El’s security director. “The subject was released from the scene pending further investigation and was advised not to return to the Temple Beth El,” the department said in a statement posted to Facebook on Friday.

A video of the traffic stop filmed by a man identifying himself as Chokr and posted by the social media handle “FreedomFighterHassan” shows the encounter in more detail; the police indicated that the video was of the actual traffic stop.

In the video, Chokr tells officers that he does not have any weapons and that he was exercising his freedom of religion by asking synagogue-goers whether they support Israel. He also uses racist language to describe Black people and tells the officers that he did not want to get a Jewish lawyer, as he said some had urged him to, because “Jewish people are killing my people.” Agreeing not to return to the synagogue that day, he then says, “I’m headed to another synagogue.”

At the end of the traffic stop, Chokr is told he is free to go as an officer gives him a fist bump and he is told, “Do us a favor and don’t go back.”

The fist-bump and seemingly genial exchange ignited concerns from local Jews and national antisemitism watchdogs concerned that officers had not responded adequately.

“As a parent of Temple Beth El, I’m beyond disappointed with the law enforcement protocol and the little action taken,” one local woman commented on the police department’s first post. “Disappointed [is] an understatement.”

A police department lieutenant told the Detroit Free Press about the officers’ behavior, “There are some concerns about that.”

Still, the police department defended itself in a second Facebook post Sunday announcing that an arrest had been made.

“We are aware of the social media posts and videos of this traffic stop that are circulating,” the statement said. “Our officers accomplished the goal of identifying the subject while using de-escalation techniques. … 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.”

Chokr was arrested by police in his home city of Dearborn, about 30 miles from Bloomfield Hills, and will remain in custody until his arraignment on two counts of ethnic intimidation, according to the police statement and local media reports.

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