Twenty years ago a tragic car accident in Crown Heights Brooklyn escalated into a pogrom against the Jewish people. The media described it as violence between the area’s blacks and Jews. However the violence was not two-sided. The Crown Heights riot was an attack on the Hasidic community by some in the Caribbean community fueled by rumors and anti-Semitism.
In spite of the strong Jewish participation in the civil rights movement, the transformation from the peaceful marches to Black Power introduced considerable friction into African American-Jewish relations, especially within the “Black Muslim” movement.
During the 1970s and 1980s African-Americans stopped looking at Jews as their allies but as their oppressors. The Jews were seen as having the political power that the African-Americans desired. Leaders, such as Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson, went public with anti-Semitic remarks.
Adding to the hatred were the leaders of the South African anti-Apartheid movement who traveled throughout the United States as conquering heroes, and spreading Jew-hatred. For example, Rev. Desmond Tutu, in 1984 publicly complained about American Jews having “an arrogance—the arrogance of power because Jews are a powerful lobby in this land and all kinds of people woo their support.”
Jewish/Black relations rocky as NY City began the summer of 1991.
On July 20, 1991, Leonard Jeffries of City College who had a history of anti-Semitic slurs presented a two-hour long speech claiming “rich Jews” financed the slave trade, control the film industry (together with Italian mafia), and use that control to paint a brutal stereotype of blacks. Jeffries also attacked Diane Ravitch, (Assistant Secretary of Education) calling her a “sophisticated Texas Jew,” “a debonair racist” and “Miss Daisy.”
Jeffries’ speech received enormous negative press during the first weeks of August especially from leaders of the Jewish community who wanted Jeffries fired on account of his bigoted statements.
With each new criticism of the professor, leaders in the African-American community rushed to Jeffries’ defense. NYC’s two black newspapers as well as black radio station WLIB; joined activists such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Colin Moore, C. Vernon Mason, Sonny Carson, and Lenora Fulani to showcase their approval of Jeffries’s “scholarship” and to denounce the people who criticized Jeffries’ anti-Semitism as race baiters.
The Rev. Sharpton is credited with saying, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house” as a response the Crown Heights riot. But this is a fallacy; he made that threatening comment to the Jewish community about the growing Jeffries controversy on August 18th the day before the riots began. Clearly something bad was coming.
Jeffries was fired because of his bigoted speech and pressure from the Jewish community (he was later reinstated and won a court case regarding his firing) leading to further resentment of the Jews from a black community already being barraged with anti-Jewish incitement from the African-American media.
Crown Heights Explodes:
On Monday, Aug. 19, a station wagon driven by Yosef Lifsh hit another car and bounced onto the sidewalk at 8:21 p.m. The station wagon was part of a three-car motorcade carrying the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe was in a different vehicle.
Horribly, the station wagon struck two black children, 7-year-old cousins Gavin and Angela Cato who were on the sidewalk. Lifsh immediately got out of his car and tried to help the children, but the gathering crowd started to attack him.
Within minutes, an ambulance from the Hasidic-run service arrived, quickly followed by two more from NYC’s Emergency Medical Service. Concurrently, the gathering crowd was becoming unruly. The police at the scene radioed for backup, reporting the station wagon’s driver and passengers were being assaulted. Police officer Nona Capace ordered the Hasidic ambulance to remove the battered Yosef Lifsh, and his passenger from the scene.
The injured children took the NYC ambulances to Kings County Hospital. Gavin Cato was pronounced dead; his cousin survived. A rumor began to spread that the Hasidic ambulance crew had ignored the dying black child in favor of treating the Jewish men.
Charles Price, an area resident came to the scene of the accident and incited the masses. “The Jews get everything they want. They’re killing our children,” he argued. Price later pled guilty for inciting the crowd to murder Yankel Rosenbaum.
On that first night, the New York Times reported more than 250 neighborhood residents participating in the riot, many of them shouting “Jews! Jews! Jews!”
A rumor spread that Lifsh was intoxicated. A breath alcohol test administered by the police proved his sobriety. Other falsehoods were circulated; Lifsh did not have a valid driver’s license; he went through a red light; the police prevented people including Gavin Cato’s father, from assisting in the rescue.
Ignited by these falsehoods, the simmering resentment exploded into violence. Groups of young black men threw rocks, bottles and debris at police, residents and homes.
Part Two will appear in next week’s issue.
Jeff Dunetz is the Editor/Publisher of the political blog “The Lid.” Jeff contributes to some of the largest political sites on the internet including American Thinker, Big Government, Big Journalism, NewsReal and Pajama’s Media Jeff lives on Long Island.