NEW YORK (JTA) — The Rev. Al Sharpton has withdrawn from a synagogue event on the 1991 Crown Heights riots after his participation drew outcry from the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, the Jewish scholar murdered during the violence.
Sharpton was scheduled to appear Sunday on a four-person panel titled "State of Black-Jewish Relations: Twenty Years after Crown Heights" at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. The synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, was to host the event and join the panel. He said the event would be postponed until later this year.
Sharpton, in an Aug. 18 letter to Schneier, said he was pulling out of the event out of respect for Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother.
"Since the event has now been distorted and would cause pain to him, I, out of respect to his request, have decided to decline to participate in Sunday’s event," Sharpton wrote.
The letter also said: "Over the last twenty-hours I have been made aware of local detractors of yours and mine that want to engage in the business of division and distortion rather than respect your work and attempt to have dialogue even among those that may disagree."
Schneier, who is also president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, praised Sharpton in a phone interview with JTA for deferring to the feelings of Rosenbaum, but said he "regretted the missed opportunity … and that this important dialogue will not take place on Sunday."
"It was a chance to clear the air, to talk about the misunderstandings," Schneier said. "You don’t dialogue with people with whom you agree fully." He also argued that the forum would have focused as much on the Jewish role in the civil rights movement as on the riots.
Norman Rosenbaum had told reporters in New York on Wednesday that “Rabbi Marc Schneier should take a damn good, hard look at the videos of the riots over the three-day period, look at the media reports and he’ll see there clearly the role Al Sharpton played.”
"Sunday’s focus should not have been on what was said 20 years ago," Schneier said, "but what Rev. Sharpton is saying now."
The riots started after Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child, was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson, in August 1991. Rosenbaum, who was visiting from Australia, was fatally stabbed later that night.
Sharpton was accused of fueling the three days of riots with his actions and remarks. He led a protest march of hundreds shouting "No justice, no peace" through the streets of Crown Heights to the Lubavitcher movement’s world headquarters.
After the riots had subsided, at Cato’s funeral, Sharpton referred to the neighborhood’s Chasidic Jews as "diamond merchants."
Rosenbaum told the New York Post that Sharpton "did absolutely nothing then to improve black-Jewish relations — and nothing since."
Schneier told JTA that the forum will be rescheduled later this year, once the anniversary has passed.
"African-American and Jewish relationships are not a one-time event," he said. "It is an ongoing commitment." He said that Sharpton has confirmed that he would participate in a rescheduled event.
"Not to have one of the most preeminent African-American leaders would not meet our standards for discussion," Schneier said.