Attorney Michael Lesher submitted the comment below in response to the Frum Follies post, I Hope Thompson Is Merely Clueless About Witness Intimidation.
In Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals (Brandeis University Press, 2009), Amy Neustein and I argued that the use of black hat-on-black hat violence – or even the threat of it – against a victim of abuse, or a potential witness at trial, constitutes a federal crime if it’s part of an attempt to interfere with that person’s use of the criminal justice system. This is because Title 18, Section 245(b)(2) of the U.S. Code makes such force (or threat of force) a crime when the interference is “because of his [the victim’s] race, color, religion or national origin.”
When Orthodox Jews are the victims of such attacks, it’s their religion that makes them a target – in this case, not because the attacker is from a different religion (and is acting out of prejudice against the Jewish victims), but because the attacker is from the same religion and singles out his coreligionists as traitors if they resort to secular courts. True, the law has never been applied in this way, but there is no logical reason it should not be. To be subjected to violence or threats specifically because one belongs to an Orthodox Jewish community, and is seeking the benefits of the court system, is a serious civil rights violation regardless of whether the attacker happens to be Jewish or anti-Semitic.
I’m repeating this argument in my forthcoming book on sex abuse cover-ups in Orthodox communities, to be called Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co.), which is supposed to appear this summer. I mention it now because I think persuading federal officials to prosecute under this law, in appropriate cases, would be one important way to break the Brooklyn deadlock. We all know what it means for a local state official to take on the whole Orthodox rabbinate. But the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Eastern District represents a much larger constituency and is less susceptible to rabbinic pressure.
This won’t happen by itself. It will take organization and sustained effort, and it should not be the only thing we try to do. But I think it’s an important goal, because it can outflank the D.A. and ultimately shame him (or her) into doing the job a D.A. is supposed to do. Look at the record. Only federal prosecutors got the Shai Fhima case moving; the Brooklyn D.A. logrolled it. Only a federal prosecution got Israel Weingarten a 30-year jail sentence; Rockland County officials wouldn’t touch him.
And once we get a successful federal civil-rights prosecution for such a crime, we can next make formal complaints to New York’s Attorney General about the failure of the local D.A. to pursue the same matter under state law – as he should have done. This approach would, again, outmaneuver the centers of entrenched rabbinic power and shame high state officials into action – for instance, appointing a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute other crimes against sex abuse victims, advocates, witnesses or supporters. Who knows where that would lead?