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Looking Back, From Addis Ababa To Crown Heights
Tue, 08/09/2011
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Two very different landmark events in black-Jewish relations took place in 1991, one tragic and one thrilling. Twenty years later, the repercussions are still being felt.

On Aug. 19, 1991, a car accident in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn launched a perfect storm of violence, transforming a longstanding resentment among some blacks of Jews in general and neighborhood chasidim in particular into three days of rage and riots that some historians have called the worst case of anti-Semitism in American history.

The memory of the accidental death of 7-year-old Gavin Cato, son of Guyanese immigrants, who was struck by a car driven by a young Lubavitcher chasid, and the subsequent mob-driven fatal stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Lubavitcher chasid from Australia who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is still sharp and shocking two decades later.

(Our series of reports this week explores the impact of the tragedy.)

Perhaps most galling is the attempt by some in the media and city government at the time to equate the two deaths in some way and to describe the riots as a clash between neighborhood Jews and blacks rather than a 20th-century American pogrom. It was initiated by calls among angry black teens after the car accident — “Let’s go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew” — and later stirred by outside activists, resulting in marches and rallies with banners and calls for “death to the Jews.”

Worst of all was the violence, which was extensive and frightening. Jews, and their homes and businesses, were attacked, with angry crowds seeking out mezuzahs on neighborhood doorposts in a reversal of the biblical Exodus story, where the sign of a Jewish household meant protection.

In the aftermath, city politics took a sharp turn to the right, with Rudy Giuliani defeating incumbent David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, in 1993. The Republican victory was seen as due in large part to the way the Crown Heights riots were dealt with, or not dealt with, by City Hall and the NYPD. (Dinkins is the last Democrat to have been elected mayor of New York.)

The lengthy legal battle over the fate of the youth charged with the Rosenbaum stabbing further alienated the Jewish community and others when a largely African American jury found Lemrick Nelson Jr., the 16-year-old defendant, innocent of murder in 1992, despite strong evidence of his guilt, including being identified by a dying Rosenbaum as his assailant.

Nelson was later convicted of violating Rosenbaum’s civil rights, served a 10-year jail sentence, and in 2003 admitted and apologized for his role in the fatal stabbing.

The only positive result from all this human tragedy was that relations between blacks and Jews in the neighborhood have improved, thanks in part to the formation of what came to be known as the Crown Heights Coalition, a group headed by black and Jewish communal leaders, which aired and dealt with social issues.

The neighborhood is quieter now, with residents aware of the dangers of unbridled resentments and the need to preserve communal tolerance, if not open harmony.

Far from the streets of New York, in the spring of 1991, the government of Israel undertook a dramatic, secret rescue of endangered Ethiopian Jews, bringing more than 14,000 “home” in just 36 hours of non-stop airlifts in late May.

The world was mesmerized by footage of black Jews, seemingly from a past century, stepping off the giant airplanes in flowing robes and being embraced by enthusiastic Israelis.

Makeshift donation centers were soon overflowing with clothes and household goods for the newcomers, as Israelis took pride in the dramatic, color-blind welcome of their African brethren. The powerful message was that religious and historical bonds trump racism, and that a Jew is a Jew, whatever the color of his or her skin.

Inevitably, though, euphoria gave way to reality, and the absorption of Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli society has been especially difficult.

The tight-knit community not only had to adjust to a new country, language and customs, but to a modern, largely urban society after centuries of tribal life. Further, there were ongoing questions about the authenticity of the new immigrants’ Jewish heritage. And racial bias was never far from the surface.

Even today, Ethiopian Jews lag far behind other segments of Israeli society in terms of educational achievements, but, unfortunately, lead in terms of poverty, unemployment and juvenile delinquency. (See the Aug. 15 issue of The Jerusalem Report for a series of thoughtful articles on their progress and setbacks, 20 years after Operation Solomon.)

There have been a number of noteworthy individuals from the Ethiopian community who have overcome a variety of societal challenges and taken on leadership positions in Israel. No doubt they serve as role models for many, and their achievements underscore the Zionist belief that Jews from anywhere in the world can lead free and fruitful lives in the Jewish state, with the understanding that full absorption is a process, and perhaps an ideal. Progress has been made, but at a painfully slow rate.

If there are parallel lessons to be learned from the Crown Heights riots and the rescue of and efforts to absorb Ethiopian Jews in Israel it is that dramatic events capture the imagination but give way to the daily grind of incremental adjustments and accommodation. Sharing space with “the other,” whether it’s Jews and blacks in crowded Crown Heights or Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society, calls for understanding and acceptance — qualities far easier to identify than to attain.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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It is amazing that someone who claims to be black compares a lynching to a car accident. (Na'amah on Fri, 08/12/2011 - 09:40). My Aunt was killed in a car accident by a black driver who was never charged. If I had killed an innocent black person, a friend or family member of hers 3 hours later would Ms Na'amah try and justify it? Na'amah, the driver was aquitted of wrongdoing because despite what you said, it was an ACCIDENT, and he did not do wrong. There are thousands of black folks who kill innocent people each year, including Jews, and are never brought to justice. Do people have the right to kill innocent black folks over that? You apparenly have learned nothing from your own suffering. Smh. Emit Till would be disgusted at how some black folks try so hard to excuse lynchings. You of all people should know better

Why is this rabbi rosenberg always blowing his own horn??

This isn't about you, rabbi!

I respectfully disagree with your use of the term 'black-Jewish' relations...I commend you for stating that the two events are very different but I find the term 'black-Jewish' relations unsettling. Secondly, I think it is inappropriate to compare two very different events and two very different groups with unique experiences, history and narratives, to wrongly place them under a general header of ‘black-Jewish’ relations.

First off, words matter; words are powerful so using the term ‘black-Jewish relations’ somehow lessens or even isolates Ethiopian Jewish narrative from the broader Jewish narrative.

The term 'black-Jewish relations' contributes to the idea that blacks (in this case, Ethiopians) are "not quite Jewish" or not "Jewish enough,” or not part of the normative (or what is typically thought of as “Jewish”) because that term implies that they are not one and the same (as the rest) but 'different' from the other, more ‘widely accepted’ Jewish communities.

Secondly, from my own experience, Ethiopian Jews (and other Africans) have an *entirely* different concept of race because they were always the majority in their native countries and did not feel 'marginalized' due to race--than blacks here in the States (native-born blacks or traditional blacks--African Americans--who have a history of civil rights). To attempt to lump the two groups together, simply with a sweeping generalization of how "black-Jewish" relations look like or simplify how the relationship may be viewed is inaccurate since "blacks" are not a monolith.

We may share the same skin color but we do not think the same way, neither do we react the same way to issues of race or racism. I appreciate your perspective and your viewpoint but quiet frankly, comparing an event with Africans born in Africa (Jewish or not) or Africans born in Israel to the African diaspora in the United States (where race and racism is more overt)---even if it is reaction to an event or simply an analysis, is simply, an incomplete assessment.

African-born(in this case Ethiopian-born or Ethiopian diaspora) and African diaspora (African Africans) come from different experiences and view the world differently...The African American relationship with Jews is very different from the Ethiopian-born or Ethiopian diaspora's relationship with the rest of the Jewish community...collectively they cannot be called 'black-Jewish' relations. Instead, I think it would be helpful to analyze how Ethiopian Jews fit within the broader Israeli society or how the African-American community relationship with Jews or Guyanese-American relationship have changed or improved within the largely white Jewish community in Crown Heights...With due respect, the broad term of 'black-Jewish' relations is incomplete, inaccurate and misguided.

If it wasn’t apparent, I do like reading your newspaper. Opinions are opinions after all…

Why does Al Sharpton get a show on MSNBC even though he never apologized for the comments he made during this time period.

I am an African American Jew. This story hurts both ways. What happened to the young Lubavitcher chasid? Did he ever try to make amends with the Cato family? Was there any jail time for him? I remember this story. And if I'm correct there was not jail for this person who ran over a child on the sidewalk. The death of Yankel Rosenbaum got some justice. Lemrick Nelson Jr. served 10 years. It should of been longer, a lot longer, but at least there was some justice. What did the young driver get? Was he convicted for vehicular manslaughter or even wreckless driving? Did he serve time or was even given a fine?
Both deaths were tragedies. But it seems only one has an attempt at closure. This article doesn't even want to mention the name of this young Ludavitcher chasid, as if he is being protected. I think the name of the person that runs over a child on the sidewalk and kills him should be mentioned and remembered. Just as Lemrick Nelson Jr. should be mentioned and remembered.
There might continued tension in Crown Heights because of the murders and because of racism on both sides.
A Jew is a Jew until you come across a Jew that think your skin is the wrong color. And Black is Black until you come across a person that looks on you like a trader to the race because your a Jew.

Gut Shabbos.
Na'amah

I was in Crown Heights during the riots. The Lubavitcher driver was never charged because it was an accident witnesses claim he was actually hit by a taxi (driven not by a Jew who fled the scene). The driver tried to help the child trapped under the car but the blacks who showed up robbed him! They also threw bottles at the Hatzolah ambulance that was first on scene. The driver did meet with the Cato family on more than one occasion. To compare the driver to the murderer of Yankel is shameful.

As one who has served as interfaith clergy president four times during my rabbinical career and human rights chairman for ten years, I can tell you that when all is said and done and after all the verbal platitudes we Jews have to fight are own battles. Do not fool yourselves. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

How about reprinting the JW coverage of Crown Heights from August 1991. Or was it too much like your vulgar coverage of the Shomrim?

Thank you for your thoughtful article. As an actor I confronted a group who were performing FIRE IN THE MIRROR...a play by Anna Devere Smith, that claims to be about the Crown Height Events. The play was performed very Antisemitically. An African American Woman who was from NYC stood up with me and confront these naive actors and the University staff that let this warped thing be performed. The audience/performer participation segment of the program was filled with people making Antisemitic comments. This woman and I, reminded these people that the Poor Jewish community and the Poor Of Color Communities in Crown Heights were fighting over the same crappy piece of the Municipal Pie. And that the Rosenbaum family has never ONCE gotten an apology from the rabble rausers in the situation; including the ubiquitious Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sadly, the last time I was in Crown Heights I saw very violent graffiti scrawled with the words: JEWS OUT. Some folks never learn. Sigh.

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