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Crown Heights Settlement Provides Measure of Relief

April 7, 1998
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The four days of rioting that tore Crown Heights apart seven years ago so frightened Michoel Chazan that he fled his Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood for a week.

Some friends, he recalls, were pulled from their cars and beaten by angry blacks while others had rocks and bricks hurled through their windows.

Inspired to become politically active, the first thing he did when he returned was to join the Jewish community’s volunteer “Shmira,” or watchdog, program, which has men patrolling the community at night.

At the same time, he wanted to work to improve relations between the black and Jewish communities. He got involved with the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and the Crown Heights Coalition, which is composed of leaders from the Jewish, African American and Caribbean American communities in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Now, in the wake of an official apology and financial settlement by New York City — as well as the sentencing of one of those involved in the murder of a Jewish scholar — there is, Chazan believes, at last partial closure to what Jews in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood universally refer to as “the pogrom.”

The apology and financial settlement are “very important for the people of Crown Heights psychologically,” said Chazan, who installs security systems for a living.

In a strongly worded statement issued last week, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani apologized to the neighborhood’s Jewish residents, nearly all of whom are connected with the Lubavitch Chasidic movement.

The apology came as part of a settlement in which the city agreed to pay a total of $1.1 million to the 91 plaintiffs involved in a class-action lawsuit that had been filed after the melee in August 1991. The rioting began after a car driven by a Jew accidentally struck and killed a young black boy.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs declined to specify how they would divide up those funds.

The father-and-son pair of Isaac and Yechiel Bitton, whose terror was captured in a widely reproduced photo showing the child crouched next to his battered father lying on the street during the rioting, had filed a separate lawsuit. They settled with the city some two months ago for $200,000.

Last week’s settlement came one day after Lemrick Nelson was sentenced to the maximum term of 19 1/2 years for violating Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights when he stabbed the Australian scholar on the first night of the riots.

A 1993 report published by the state found that the city’s leaders, including then-Mayor David Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown, who is now mayor of Houston, Texas, did not adequately protect Crown Heights’ Jews.

“In the spirit of conciliation, the City of New York accepts responsibility for the mistakes that were made in August 1991, and apologizes to the residents of Crown Heights,” Giuliani said in a statement.

“The City of New York hereby reaffirms that in the future it will not allow several days of rioting without adequate response,” he said.

“There is no excuse for allowing people to victimize others based on their race, religion, ethnicity or for any other reason without a strong and immediate response from city government.”

The settlement and apology are “warranted and appropriate,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council.

To the Jews of Crown Heights, the settlement and apology “mean, finally, official recognition for the horrible, anti-Semitic violence to which they were subjected” during the riots, said Franklyn Snitow, the class-action suit’s lead attorney, who negotiated the settlement with the city.

Chazan, now a board member of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and liaison to the police precinct, said he believes that relations between Jews and blacks there are “generally very good.”

He doesn’t expect the latest developments to turn the clock backward to more tense times.

“For every one incident you read about, there are 1,000 good [interracial] incidents in Crown Heights,” Chazan said.

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