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Crown Heights in the Mirror

On the evening of August 19, 1991, the three-car motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, entered the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. Struck by another vehicle, the third car jumped the sidewalk, injuring Gavin and Angela Cato, two seven-year-old African-American cousins.

Relevant Links
Telling It Like It Wasn't  Ari L. Goldman, Jewish Week. Twenty years after the notorious anti-Semitic riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a former New York Times reporter relates how his paper stubbornly persisted in mischaracterizing the events as a “racial clash.”
Explaining the Crown Heights Riot  Philip Gourevitch, Commentary. In the post-mortem search for the “root causes” of the rioting, one heard little mention of anti-Semitism. (1993)

A crowd attacked the car's driver. Gavin Cato was treated by a Lubavitch ambulance crew and was transported to the hospital, but didn't survive. Three hours later, twenty black men attacked 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum, who was stabbed to death. Then, for three days, African-American mobs marched through Crown Heights, looting stores, burning cars, and shouting "death to the Jews."

Twenty years later, the motives for the Crown Heights riots are still unclear—to some. Why, exactly, did the crowds shout "death to the Jews"? To journalist Jim Sleeper, black anti-Semitism in Crown Heights in 1991 was oversold by Jewish "neoconservatives," and cries of "death to the Jews" or "Hitler should have finished the job" had meanings other than the literal ones.  To Jerome Chanes of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Crown Heights riots were the result of erupting "tribal rivalries" between the Jewish and black communities, "each growing rapidly in a small geographic area with limited land, struggling over access to housing and access to political power." For Chanes, too, cries of "kill the Jews" were not anti-Semitic but simply "directed at the most visible manifestation of white power."

But, why, as Edward Shapiro asked in Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot (2006), when black teenagers were killed by Italian-Americans in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst in the late 1980's, did no one cry "death to the Italians"?

By contrast, Ari Goldman, who reported on the events from Crown Heights for the New York Times, has now made clear in the Jewish Week that his former editors refused to describe the events as a one-sided riot where blacks attacked Jews. The Times editors' devotion to "evenhandedness" dictated a canned narrative of ethnic competition in which only "powerful" outsiders bore responsibility. Goldman's reports were rewritten; "assaults" became "clashes," erasing both the culpability and the motives of the perpetrators.

Goldman suggests that his protests did eventually shift the Times' framing of the Crown Heights violence, as did columns in the Times by A.M. Rosenthal, the paper's former executive editor, and in Newsday by Jimmy Breslin. The New York Post, however, characterized the events in Crown Heights from the start as a black anti-Semitic riot. Some, indeed, went further; along with Rosenthal, Eric Breindel of the Post, and, later, Rudy Giuliani referred to it as a "pogrom."

Putting events and participants into familiar or prejudicial categories was inevitable. Rosenbaum became a "talmudic scholar" martyred by "Cossacks."  The city's black mayor David Dinkins vacillated for three days and four nights before increasing the police presence (and then only after he himself was threatened by the rioters for accurately calling Rosenbaum's killing a "lynching").  Freelance racial provocateur Al Sharpton railed at "the diamond merchants here in Crown Heights." As Goldman notes, the Times' carefully-crafted narrative juxtaposed the deaths of Cato and Rosenbaumone, the victim of an accident; the other, the victim of a murderto fabricate a story of shared misfortune.

But is all victimhood really on the same plane? Is anti-Semitism an epiphenomenon, a manifestation of other political or socio-economic pathologies, which arises spontaneously among the masses or is used instrumentally by schemers and ideologues? Or is it an autonomous dimension of human culture with its own unassailable logic, a malevolence arising independently in countless societies and carried from place to place? When rioting mobs cry, "death to the Jews," should we take them at their word?

Clarity is hard won, but a look into the Crown Heights mirror suggests that however much some persist in pointing to the plain facts of the matter and the plain meanings of words, the impulse to deny and to turn away remains perilously strong.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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Independent Patriot on August 18, 2011 at 8:00 am (Reply)
I remember Crown Heights and its aftermath. The discussion of antisemitism as a manifestation of socio-economic issues misses the point that the only community in which antisemitism is growing in the US is among the highly educated middle-class and wealthy African American community. It is time to stop apologizing for antisemitism and condemn it for what it is, hatred of Jews pure and simple. There is no excuse for it and that the Jewish community gives a pass to those anti-Semites like Sharpton, the Reverand Wrights (and his church members) of the world and race baiters like Cornell West is repugnant.

There is also one aspect of the Crown Heights riots that everyone conveniently forgets and that is the reaction of the "Upper West Side" and organized liberal Jewish community and their failure to condemn the pogrom for what it was. Instead they blamed the Hasidic community and especially Schneerson for this evil. The lone voices that were mentioned in the above article were specifically that, lone voices calling Jew-hatred for what it was. The "NYC Jewish community" was too afraid to be seen as racist and did not even condemn Dinkins' slow and obvious refusal to call out the police to help the innocent members of the Crown Heights Jewish community.

Having live among them for the better part of two decades,I have experienced the fact that these Jews have not changed in the past ten years. In fact their Orwellian sense of themselves has only grown exponentially. They should be held up to the ridicule that they deserve and should be widely condemned. Their acquiescence in the attacks and murder of their fellow American Jews shows just how divorced from reality they happen to be. Their refusal to acknowledge antisemitism for being antisemitism is not just directed at Israel and its fight for survival, but is manifest in their disdain for any Jewish individual who is not part of their insular little group of politically liberal, manifestly reform (if they practice at all) and morally subjective coterie.
Ellen on August 18, 2011 at 8:47 am (Reply)
I trace the despicable reporting of the NYT and equally despicable behavior of rich, liberal Park Avenue Jews to 2 very positive trends that occurred in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots. The first was the virtual death of limousine liberalism in NYC. It is impossible, even in liberal circles today, to find anyone who has a nice thing to say about the black underclass, its behavior and its so-called representatives. These riots were the turning point in making even white liberals ashamed of their own excuses and prejudices (ie, the soft bigotry of low expectations).

Secondly, it showed beyond a shadow of a doubt, that religious and conservative Jews needed to organize themselves in their own organizations to represent their interests - as the only Jews in the entire metro area who live in close proximity to blacks and hispanics. These Jews realized they had to stop relying on Jewish organizations staffed by the most affluent part of the Jewish population that paid lip service to racial integration while fleeing the destruction of these old neighborhoods to live in gated communities or pent house apartments while sending their children to private schools or push public schools.

The organized Jewish community in NY today increasingly represents all social classes, mostly the more religious and conservative parts of the Jewish population, with the former limo liberals increasingly disappearing into their country clubs and other venues, completely divorced from Jewish life. This is how it should be. That is why Ari Goldman dares to publish piece today, and not 15 years ago.
Sam Schulman on August 18, 2011 at 10:39 am (Reply)
Both IP and Ellen are right. Ellen's comment about it not being safe to publish such a piece 15 years ago made me go back and look up the "scandal" of February 1994, when Amity Shlaes, then a WSJ editorial page staffer, published a personal piece in the London Spectator about what it was like to be a white person in Brooklyn, unprotected by the police and among people who hated whites with similar passion but less violence than the recent LIRR shooter. The act of saying this, even in the pre-Internet ere, was considered unquestionably racist by the bien-pensant WSJ news-side reporters, and they rose up against her (here's a contemporary report by New York Magazine And yet after the Giuliani election later that year, so much changed merely because someone - not the Jewish community! - stood up and said that violence and threats would not be tolerated, or placed to one side until root causes were completely solved. I think Ellen scants this change - it's not the Upper West Side attitudes among Jewish liberal changed, or that they moved, but that they accepted Giuliani's changes and the racial peace and radical drop in crime they brought about (crime of which blacks, not Jews, were the vast majority of victims), and denounced the new Mayor for "censoring" art. Bloomberg is the successor that liberal Jews deserve - he daren't change the policing regime, but he talks in meaningless platitudes and has instituted a stop-and-frisk regime against upper-middle-class dinner plates to balance the way that New Yorker's poorer residents are now protected by police.
jim sleeper on August 18, 2011 at 10:45 am (Reply)
Alex Joffe attributes something to me that I never said or wrote when he writes that "To journalist Jim Sleeper, black anti-Semitism in Crown Heights in 1991 was oversold by Jewish "neoconservatives," and cries of "death to the Jews" or "Hitler should have finished the job" had meanings other than the literal ones."

In the piece Joffe links, I never even make any reference to Crown Heights or black "cries" against Jews there that he cites. I do criticize liberal Jews' "compulsive professions of 'understanding'" of anti-Semitic black rhetoric, but also some other Jews' equally compulsive equations of that rhetoric with anything more than the opportunism that much of it really is. I drew the necessary distinctions in The Closest of Strangers and other work in the 1990s. May I suggest that readers who click Joffe's link to my column also click the link -- in that column's third paragraph -- to one of my must succinct essays on black anti-Semitism at that time.

I do think that Jewish fears of black anti-Semitism now are overblown and that we have far less to fear from it than from what's coming from the right-wing, white populism with which too many neo-conservative Jews allied themselves so uncritically after 1981.
Sam Schulman on August 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm (Reply)
Granting Jim Sleeper his defense of his contemporary writing (although drawn from a piece he published 10 years after Crown Heights - he doesn't link nor do I recall in detail what he wrote at the time) he goes on to make two glaring misjudgments. One is that Jewish fears of black anti-Semitism are overblown. I would say that they're not blown at all - it's simply not a topic that concerns Jews, even though they are aware of polling numbers that show, in attitude, that anti-Semitism readings are relatively high. But because these feelings are not acted upon, they don't matter and nobody thinks they matter.
Second - his completely laughable and sincerely desired construct: anti-Semitism coming from "right-wing, white populism." First of all, polling does not show more anti-Semitism among - I'm not sure how he would find this group demographically - these folks: they are more rural, more devout, and have more allegiance to their own neighbors and church than they do to others who have no neighbors and no church. Second, "we," if he means by that we, American Jews in particular and Diaspora Jews in general, have enormously more to fear from ultra and even moderate left-wing activists and fellow travelers and members of liberal mainline churches than we do from Tea Party members or southern conservatives. It is from them that the calls come for denying rights of nationhood and free speech for Jews come, that the characterizations of Jews as grasping, brutal, and genetically allied with capitalism and globalization. From them that the demands that Jews dissociate themselves from any fellow-feeling for Israel, or they will deserve what they get - as do the Israelis. As someone who cheered on Yale's destruction of its Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism because it was not leftist(see the link he recommends that we read), he probably has more citations for this than I do.
Ellen on August 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm (Reply)
"I do criticize liberal Jews' "compulsive professions of 'understanding'" of anti-Semitic black rhetoric, but also some other Jews' equally compulsive equations of that rhetoric with anything more than the opportunism that much of it really is. I
I do think that Jewish fears of black anti-Semitism now are overblown and that we have far less to fear from it than from what's coming from the right-wing, white populism with which too many neo-conservative Jews allied themselves so uncritically after 1981."

This is the standard 1960's liberal Jewish world view that anti-Semitism comes mainly from the right wing, lesser educated white social classes, rather than the social class that Mr. Sleeper is intimately familiar with - the liberal left, chattering classes and their wards, which includes in America the black underclass and its representatives. This excuse has dominated the liberal Jewish organizational world for the last 50 years which partly explains the total lack of relevance of this world to the active part of the Jewish population today. They played that card to its ultimate end, which is that liberal Jews have mostly disaffiliated from Jewish life and are now part of the social group that has no need for a Jewish state or a Jewish people.

What I would say is that the greatest irony of all is that the part of the Jewish population that never showed any enthusiasm for integration of the old ethnic neighborhoods - the moderate income, traditional minded Jews - are the ONLY part of the Jewish population today in NY and elsewhere, that lives side by side with blacks and other nonwhites, and must find a way to coexist with them. This coexistence is not based on insincere protestations of universal brotherhood, so popular in the 1960's, but on a realistic assessment of enduring cultural differences between groups that are not going to disappear through any melting pot.

The Crown Heights riots were about the social pathology of a group not held to civilized norms of behavior, while most other people are, and Jews always are. Most New Yorkers understood that, which is why after David Dinkins, New York has had a succession of Republican mayors who won't pander to the sort of mentality on display by the city's elites during that period.
nelsonsamuel on August 22, 2011 at 1:07 am (Reply)
I never lived in NYC. I don't like NYC let alone the entire state. I would not live in any state that prohibits one from owning a weapon. I have four weapons and know how to use every one of them like an expert. Anyone who would come into my area and start rioting would be dead before that person hit the ground. And I got a lot of neighbors who are well equipped to defend themselves also.

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