By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I can’t pride myself on having a good long-term memory (as my wife can attest, that’s an understatement), but a February 1 New York Times article did spur my sluggish hippocampus.
The Times article was about Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood and it noted that “an undercurrent of unease, suspicion and resentment from some longtime residents” remains from the 1991 “riots that exploded between blacks and Hasidic Jews”-as if marauding gangs of Jews and blacks had spent four days attacking one another, when, in fact, the besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed as their non-Jewish neighbors attacked them and their property.
My flashback (well, slow dawning) was of correspondence I initiated, as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs, with editors and a reporter at the Old Gray Lady in 2002.
That year, in the context of a court reversal of the federal civil rights conviction of Lemrick Nelson Jr. for the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots, the Times similarly characterized the disturbances in two different articles, as “violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews.”
I telephoned the reporter whose byline appeared on the reports and asked him whether he felt his characterization really reflected what had happened on those terrible days in 1991.
He admitted that his choice of phrase had “not been the wisest.” I responded that I appreciated his honesty and was satisfied that a better description of the events would be used in future reports.
Well, he said, he didn’t know about that. The phrase, in the end, he insisted, was “not really inaccurate.”
“How so?” I asked.
He suggested that some might consider the car accident in which a Jewish driver had hit and killed a black child-the tragic mishap that set off the rioting-to constitute violence.
And then, he continued, there was the matter of the interaction “between” Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Nelson. The reporter thought he remembered reports of the former in some way attempting to hurt the latter.
Letting honesty get the better of diplomacy, I called such justifications “outrageous” and, insulted, he abruptly ended the call.
I immediately typed up the details of our conversation while they were still fresh in my short-term memory (which still functions fairly well), and then consulted the United States Court of Appeals’ “findings of fact” regarding the events that led to Mr. Rosenbaum’s murder.
At the scene of the accident, the court found, while some members of an African American crowd attempted to aid the injured, others “began to attack the driver of the car.”
“In the meantime, a crowd of several hundred people” gathered, some of whom “complained about Jews… At about eleven o’clock, a bald, African-American man” addressed the crowd; his “angry and aggressive” speech reportedly included the exhortation “Let’s get the Jews,” a chant taken up by the crowd as it proceeded to riot.
In the ensuing violence, “a group of ten and fifteen people, including Mr. Nelson, then began beating [Mr. Rosenbaum], knocking him to the ground and striking him repeatedly.
“Rosenbaum grabbed hold of Nelson’s T-shirt and prevented him from making good his escape… [Nelson] stabbed Rosenbaum and fled.”
I faxed the reporter those findings and, when he didn’t respond, I sent a copy of the correspondence to the Times’ then-Executive Editor, Howell Raines.
A few days later, I received a written reply from then-Senior Editor Bill Borders, who offered a new justification of his own, citing an August 21, 1991 report in his paper describing “blacks and Hasidim throwing bottles and rocks at each other” on August 20.
So it “seems clear,” he wrote, that the violence “involved both sides.”
Yankel Rosenbaum, however, was murdered on the 19th, before any bottle or rock throwing by any of the area’s Jews. And so, I wrote Mr. Borders, the phrase “…he killed a Hasidic scholar… during violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews” was clearly misleading.
More to the point, though, I suggested he consider the case of a man who assaulted a woman and was scratched by his victim during the attack. Would the Times really think to describe such a crime as “violence between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones”?
I received no response-until, that is, the indirect one on February 1.
© 2012 Ami Magazine