NEW YORK (JTA) — Rev. Al Sharpton says he made "mistakes" during the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago.
Sharpton has been faulted for playing the role of agitator during three days of riots in which African-Americans rampaged through a Brooklyn neighborhood, killing a Jewish student, after a black boy had been struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a Chasidic Jew. During the unrest, Sharpton led a march of hundreds shouting "No justice, no peace" through the streets of Crown Heights to the Lubavitcher movement’s world headquarters.
The riots started after Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old African-American child, was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson, in August 1991. Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish scholar visiting from Australia, was fatally stabbed later that night by a mob. After the riots had subsided, at Cato’s funeral Sharpton referred to the neighborhood’s Chasidic Jews as "diamond merchants."
This week’s admission of mistakes came in an Op-Ed published in the N.Y. Daily News on Sunday, the same day Sharpton had been slated to participate in at an event hosted by the Hampton Synagogue titled "The State of Black-Jewish Relations: Twenty Years after Crown Heights." He withdrew from the event last week after Rosenbaum’s brother, Norman Rosenbaum, criticized the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, for hosting Sharpton.
“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," Rosenbaum told reporters last week.
In the editorial, Sharpton wrote he was initially unaware of Rosenbaum’s death, and that he regretted choosing not to mention him during the funeral. He also suggested that tensions were equally exacerbated by both Jewish and black "extremists."
Jewish residents of the area maintain there was no extremism from the Jewish side during the riots, just defense against what amounted to a pogrom. Ari L. Goldman, who covered the riots for The New York Times, recently wrote an essay in the N.Y. Jewish Week asserting that reports of violence by Jews were fabricated, as far as he knew.
"Twenty years later, I have grown," Sharpton wrote on Sunday. "I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum."
He also wrote that "extremists" had deliberately misconstrued his "diamond merchants" comment, which he claimed referred only "to the likes of the Oppenheimer family — which at the time was trading diamonds with apartheid South Africa."
"I spent years defending the statement, rather then recognizing that in hours of tension one must be clearer than any other time." he said.