Op-ed: the Paradox of Crown Heights: Situation Unique, Lessons Universal

The black-Jewish tensions that exploded in Crown Heights over the past year represent a nadir in the relationship between the two groups.

It was the largest eruption of violence involving our communities and perhaps the only time in American history when Jews have been subjected to mob violence while the police dragged their feet in stopping it.

To evaluate the impact of Crown Heights on black-Jewish relations generally, four key points are central. The first is a paradox: While some aspects of Crown Heights are representative of common problems in black-Jewish relations, others are clearly unique, unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

Crown Heights is the only neighborhood in America where a large Hasidic community lives side by side with an African American community in an economically depressed area.

Moreover, the black community there has its own distinct and powerful Caribbean American identity. The result is that the cultural and religious walls between the two communities are extraordinarily high and not easily ameliorated by traditional community relations techniques.

One important reflection of the uniqueness of the Crown Heights situation is that, in contrast to the explosion of tensions in cities across the nation after the Rodney King verdict, neither the riot, Yankel Rosenbaum’s murder, nor Lemrick Nelson’s acquittal have yet caused ripples of black-Jewish tension beyond New York.

For Jews, one painful consequence of Lubavitch’s distinctiveness was the difficulty of the mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish communities to comprehend its pain, needs, fears, and frustrations.

The lack of interaction between the broader Jewish community and the Hasidic community resulted in a slow communal response to the first tumultuous days after the tragic accidental death of Gavin Cato and the Rosenbaum murder.

This alienation has resulted in lasting divisiveness among New York’s Jews, which has made it far more difficult to find cohesive, coordinated ways to respond to the crisis.

The paradox: Crown Heights was unique, yet its problems were exacerbated by classical conditions for ethnic/religious/racial tensions: little social, professional, or organizational interaction between the communities; major social and economic neighborhood problems; beliefs in each community that the other was the recipient of special privileges and benefits from which they were excluded; a woeful inadequacy of planning on the part of the authorities, particularly the police, as to how to address explosive situations.

These are prototypical inflammatory conditions. Indeed, tensions between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights had been high for years. The spark of a dramatic tragedy will often ignite such a tinderbox of tensions, despair and suspicion.

This was similar to the situation between African Americans and Koreans in South Central Los Angeles, where the police acquittal in the Rodney King case – - an event that had nothing to do with Korean-black relations — led to explosive violence.

Second, irresponsible media coverage of the crisis in Crown Heights greatly exacerbated the situation. Sadly, this is symptomatic of tensions between black and Jewish communities nationwide.

Media coverage, obsessively fixated on the negative aspects of our relationship, feeds the suspicion and mistrust which often plague our communities. When, in the very early days of the Crown Heights crisis, black leaders first gathered at City Hall to condemn the violence, there was virtually no coverage — leaving Jews to feel a sense of betrayal by the silence of old friends. When, recently, Rev. Calvin Butts and Rev. Jesse Jackson raised serious concerns about the justice system in the wake of Lemrick Nelson’s acquittal, there was virtually no coverage.

When black and Jewish leaders work together to ameliorate Crown Heights tensions, there is little coverage.

Conversely, constant coverage of the extremists in our communities creates the distorted filter through which the public views the crisis. Such reporting soon creates its own negative reality.

It is time for responsible leaders of both communities to call the press to task.

Third, viewing the general state of black-Jewish relations in America through the filter of Crown Heights is a serious factual and tactical error.

Despite ongoing problems, the reality is that across the nation, black and Jewish leaders and groups work together daily to confront homelessness, hunger and crime in their cities.

The Congressional Black Caucus is strongly supportive of Israel and Soviet Jewry. Jewish members of Congress have been leading opponents of apartheid.

Both groups work together daily on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans. Blacks and Jews vote for each other’s candidates at extremely high levels and both groups’ overwhelming support for Gov. Bill Clinton helped elect him president.

Just a few months after the violence in Crown Heights, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism joined in publishing “Common Road to Justice: A Programming Manual for Blacks and Jews.”

Drawing from successful programs in almost every major community in America, it delineated over 250 successful efforts of blacks and Jews to deepen understanding between the communities and to address common concerns together.

This cooperation is, in part, being fueled by a growing determination on the part of almost all national Jewish organizations to address more assertively the domestic agenda, and in particular, the urban crisis.

Of equal consequence, this path to cooperation is being cleared by the growing willingness of African American leaders to condemn extremists in their own community.

It is not that things are rosy. The reluctance of responsible black leaders to confront the anti-Semitism of the Steve Cokelys and the Louis Farrakhans and the anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in New York remain a source of grave pain to Jews.

But the past several months have witnessed startling changes. Numerous African American officials rallied around Bill Clinton’s attack on Sister Souljah’s words, as many continue to do now against the hate lyrics of other rap stars.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s long piece in the New York Times, supported by a growing number of black academics, served as a moral challenge to address black anti-Semitism.

In recent months, Rev. Jesse Jackson, long an irritant in black-Jewish relations, has made rapprochement between our communities a hallmark of his message to Jewish — and more importantly — to black groups.

Whatever the motives, it reflects a growing recognition among African American leaders that in order to make it in American public life, you cannot be seen as anti-Semitic. And, that should be a source of enormous optimism to Jews. Where else in Jewish Diaspora history has that been true?

Finally, what can we do? The Anti-Defamation League’s recent study on anti- Semitic attitudes offers guidance.

The fact that the rate of anti-Semitic attitudes is over twice as high among African Americans as among the general populace helps explain one source of black-Jewish tensions in Crown Heights and elsewhere. Thankfully, however, the ADL data also provides us with a blueprint on how to address the problem of black anti-Semitism.

First: Education. Contrary to widely held assumptions, anti-Semitism among African Americans declines with higher levels of education. We have a common stake in reversing the deterioration of America’s public schools, whether our own children go to them or not.

Second: Interaction. Cooperative endeavors and friendships between African Americans and Jews serve as an antidote to racism and anti-Semitism, and become invaluable when misunderstandings — or even racist or anti-Semitic incidents – - do occur. Programs that enhance mutual understanding and respect for the distinctive character of each community are indispensable.

Third: Economic justice. Economic distress leads to bitterness and despair, which in turn lead to resentment and hatred. Where economic opportunity thrives, the divisive words of cynical demagogues — black and Jew — fall on largely deaf ears.

Moreover, by working with African Americans to build housing, reduce crime, eradicate poverty, end hunger and in other ways mend the world, we build and strengthen friendships that last long beyond the completion of this project or the passage of that bill.

In this context, there are some hopeful signs in Crown Heights.

In recent months, black and Jewish clergy in Brooklyn have set up dialogue programs, the Crown Heights Youth Collective is bringing black youth together with Hasidic and mainstream Jewish youth and Mayor David Dinkins has led other black leaders in participating in joint forums of blacks and Jews aimed at creating greater tolerance and cooperation among all involved.

Yet, ultimately, dialogue and rhetoric are not enough. The problems of Crown Heights requires assertive actions.

First, black and Jewish leaders need to work with the media to diffuse inflammatory reporting.

Second, more black leaders need to join the call, visibly and vocally, for reconciliation, and to condemn any further instances of anti-Semitism. Without this, no Jewish effort at rapprochement can succeed and Crown Heights will leave permanent scars on our relations.

Third, responsible Jewish leaders must condemn the divisive tactics of those in our own community who recklessly scapegoat the mayor and the mainstream Jewish organizations as the source of all the problems.

Most particularly, we must condemn those Lubavitch members involved this past month with the beating of a black man behind their headquarters. The police have labeled this a bias crime; Lubavitch insists their members were stopping a break-in.

Neither explanation justifies the beating of one by many more, or, should it prove true, the use of the racist epithets that were targeted at him. It is a violation of the deepest Jewish values and interests.

Fourth, and most important, the black and Jewish communities of Crown Heights must join together to address the severe problems in their common neighborhood. Both need more social services, more economic programs, more education and more police protection. If the two communities are reduced to squabbling over the crumbs of a shrinking pie, then both will lose.

If the two communities join forces to take advantage of the opportunities the Clinton era offers for addressing their common urban concerns, it can be the start of healing between these communities.

We must never forget that only the enemies of social justice are elated when Jews and blacks square off against each other. Our common task is to address the poverty, disease, crime, ignorance, bigotry, discrimination and joblessness that endanger us all.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

CORRECTION: A Dec. 15 JTA story on Clinton administration appointments incorrectly stated that Roger Altmann, named deputy treasury secretary, is Jewish. JTA has confirmed that he is not.

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