Crown Heights in the Mirror

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, August 18, 2011

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.

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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