The Justice Department’s decision to launch a federal investigation into aspects of the 1991 Crown Heights disturbances is being hailed by the Jewish community, but not without reservations.
While many Jewish leaders have long been pushing the Justice Department to pursue a federal investigation into civil rights violations committed during the Crown Heights riots, some expressed disappointment that the proposed investigation would not be broader in its scope.
Others criticized the Justice Department for not having made the move sooner.
It came Tuesday, when Attorney General Janet Reno wrote to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, stating that the Justice Department was willing to empanel a federal grand jury to investigate the death of Yankel Rosenbaum.
Hynes held a news conference in New York on Tuesday afternoon to announce that he had accepted Reno’s offer.
Rosenbaum, a Chasidic Jew, was killed in the three days of violence that rocked the Brooklyn neighborhood in August 1991.
“We are prepared to use a federal grand jury to continue the investigation into the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum,” Reno wrote to Hynes, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We would use the grand jury in the same manner we use all investigative grand juries: to find the truth and to determine if there is credible evidence to support a prosecution,” she wrote.
Representatives of the New York Jewish community reacted with some disappointment that the investigation would focus only on Rosenbaum and not on the entire Crown Heights Jewish community.
Judah Gribetz, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, called Reno’s decision “an important first step in the long overdue federal civil rights inquiry” into the Crown Heights riots.
Gribetz’s organization has corresponded for over a year with the Justice Department, urging a broad federal prosecution of the riots that would go beyond the Rosenbaum killing.
In a statement Tuesday, Gribetz noted that William Barr, who served as attorney general in the Bush administration, had mentioned the idea of a broader investigation in a Jan. 15, 1993 letter to Mary Jo White, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
David Zwiebel, general counsel for Agudath Israel, an organization that has long been urging the Justice Department to embark on a broad investigation on federal civil disorder grounds, said he was “pleased there will be some meaningful federal investigation into the Rosenbaum murder.”
But he added, “I continue to be disappointed by the narrow focus of the Justice Department.”
“What’s getting lost is the much larger focus on three days of uncontrolled riots,” Zwiebel said.
Rabbi Joseph Spielman, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, went further, calling Reno’s letter “totally insufficient and totally disappointing.”
“Reno is focusing only on Rosenbaum, not on the many others who were victimized for 80 hours,” he said.
“While I wholeheartedly commend the Justice Department’s decision, it is a job half done,” Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn, said in a statement.
“What about the civil rights of the entire Crown Heights Jewish community?” he asked.
Here in Washington, members of the New York congressional delegation had mixed reactions to the latest development in the long-running Crown Heights saga.
Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) criticized the Justice Department for taking what he considered a long time to announce its decision to investigate.
“It’s a tragedy that an outraged public had to struggle so long to get the Justice Department to do just the bare minimum in this case,” the senator said in a statement.
But New York’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, argued that “although the Justice Department intends to limit the federal investigation simply to the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, this is nevertheless a welcome step in the right direction.”
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was “delighted to learn of Janet Reno’s decision to empanel a grand jury in the case of Yankel Rosenbaum.” But he added: “I only regret that it’s taken over two years to get to this point.”
“It’s about time,” echoed Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) “After months of inaction, and at long last, the Justice Department is moving ahead to find the killers of Yankel Rosenbaum. This is good news for all of us who have been seeking justice in this case.”
Rosenbaum was killed Aug. 19, 1991, in rioting that broke out after a 7-year- old black boy, Gavin Cato, was killed by a car driven by a Chasidic driver.
Rosenbaum, who had been visiting New York from Melbourne, Australia, to do research, was surrounded by a group of black teen-agers, some of whom were yelling, “Kill the Jew.”
In her letter Tuesday, Reno told Hynes he had the option of proceeding with a state homicide investigation, but that if he preferred, the Justice Department would take over the investigation.
The Brooklyn district attorney decided to take Reno up on her offer of a federal investigation because he believed “a federal prosecution would represent the most effective prosecution,” said Hynes’s spokesperson.
“It’s a major step forward,” he said, that the “federal government has now decided to conduct a federal grand jury investigation.”
Back in early September, Reno was expected to announce that she would not pursue a federal investigation of the riots, but she postponed her decision at the urging of Schumer and Hynes.
In late September, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to urge the Justice Department to investigate the riots.