Over the weekend, like many New Yorkers, I’ve been transfixed by the case of Menachem Stark, a Satmar Hasid and Brooklyn real estate guy who was abducted in a snowstorm outside his Williamsburg office Thursday night. Late the next afternoon, a gas station owner on Long Island reported a funny smell coming from a smoldering dumpster on his property. Stark’s partially burned body was found inside.
Almost from the start, reports indicated that Stark may not have been most upstanding businessman. He owed tens of thousands of dollars in fines to New York’s Department of Buildings for various violations and had defaulted on nearly $30 million in loans. He was also the subject of voluminous comments online suggesting he was not a very responsive landlord. Initial reports said he was carrying thousands of dollars on him when he was taken. On Sunday morning, the New York Post front page had a full color image of Stark in his streimel with the headline, “Who didn’t want him dead?”
The article goes on to report on Stark’s supposed money troubles. On the day he was abducted, Stark reportedly begged another Jewish businessman for a $500,000 loan. He owed money to various contractors for their services. And sources said he was involved in various “shady” business deals. “Any number of people wanted to kill this guy,” a law enforcement source said.
Much of the reporting is based on unnamed sources, but details about Stark’s financial and legal troubles are presumably drawn from public records. In 2009, he and a partner sought to rent out lofts in a sweater factory in Greenpoint that had been zoned for commercial use only. The DOB subsequently ordered it vacated. In 2011, he was arrested for allegedly touching a woman on a subway train, but the alleged victim said the charge was untrue and prosecutors declined to pursue it. The 17 properties Stark owned were the subject of hundreds of complaints and 148 violations; separately, they were cited 182 times by the Environmental Control Board. A property Stark owned in Manhattan was seized by federal authorities in 2005.
In short, there are probably at least a handful of people with series bones to pick with Stark, some of whom may even have a motive for murder.
But legit reporting and the questionable taste of a headline are, of course, two different questions. Orthodox media outlets were outraged over the headline, with some charging the Post with justifying the killing. And in a sign of the political clout of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, Borough President Eric Adams, Public Advocate Letitia James and Councilman David Greenfield held a press conference Sunday to denounce the paper.
The more responsible commentary on the Post cover has carefully steered clear of invoking anti-Jewish animus. The haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, the only major Jewish group to weigh in on the matter so far, avoided any suggestion that the cover reflected anti-Orthodox bias, something the group is typically quick to condemn. The statement condemned the Post solely on the grounds of taste and decency, accusing it of demonstrating “unprecedented callousness and irresponsibility.”
Pushing the bounds of good taste is, of course, the Post’s stock in trade. In December, the paper got in hot water for publishing a photo of a man taken seconds before he was killed by an oncoming subway train. Being cavalier about a grotesque tragedy is what the Post does. Just so happens, this time around, the tragedy was a Jewish one.