Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Latest Twist in Crown Heights Case Sparks Anger Among Jewish Leaders

April 30, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Chanina Sperlin spits out the words like a bad taste to describe Lemrick Nelson Jr., now standing trial in the 1991 slaying of a Chasidic Jew.

“This is one rotten apple that came out. So what do you do with a rotten apple? You throw it in the garbage.”

Sperlin, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, was reacting to the latest, alcohol-laced, legal twist in the infamous Brooklyn case that marked four days of race riots in New York City 12 years ago and soured black-Jewish relations for years.

Nelson, 27, is facing a retrial on civil rights charges in the Aug. 19, 1991, stabbing death of 29-year-old yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian studying in the United States.

Jews across the area widely echoed the distaste for Nelson, who at the trial’s opening on Monday admitted for the first time that he killed Rosenbaum, but insisted it was because he was drunk and not because Rosenbaum was Jewish.

“I would hope that a jury would recognize that being filled with beer doesn’t preclude being filled with hatred,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.

At the same time, Jewish leaders say the new trial and their skepticism about Nelson’s latest tack should not reopen old black-Jewish wounds.

This is the third trial in the Crown Heights saga, which began when a motorcade carrying the late Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson fatally struck a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato.

Rumors quickly spread that a Chasidic ambulance service aided the injured driver but ignored Cato and a young cousin, touching off long-simmering tensions in Crown Heights between the fervently Orthodox Lubavitch Chasidim, and Caribbean Americans and African Americans.

In a 1992 state trial, Nelson was acquitted of murder and related felony charges. Five years later, then Attorney General Janet Reno won a federal court civil rights conviction that sent Nelson to prison for 19 years.

A co-defendant, Charles Price, 47, was convicted at the same time of leading a mob, including Nelson, that shouted either “get the Jew” or “kill the Jew,” according to various reports, and hunted down Rosenbaum.

But a federal appeals court last year overturned the convictions on grounds that the judge manipulated the jury’s racial makeup, and ordered a new trial.

In the opening of the retrial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn on Monday, Nelson’s attorneys introduced a new defense.

In a dramatic reversal, they admitted that Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum. But, they said, he did it because he was drunk, not because the victim was Jewish, and therefore Rosenbaum’s civil rights were not violated.

Jewish leaders in the area insist that Nelson was fueled by anti-Semitism and not by a day of drinking 40-ounce beers.

Still, they say, blacks and Jews in Crown Heights have worked hard to foster better relations since 1991.

“The relationship has changed 100 percent, because there is communication,” Sperlin said. “You can’t compare then to now.”

For example, the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council sponsored the rehabilitation of a 112-unit low-income rental building that will largely house blacks.

Sperlin said he and other local Jewish leaders and leaders of the African American and Caribbean American communities also regularly keep in contact.

“I have their home numbers; they have my home number, my beeper number, my cell number. We are always in communication, even when we are not in crisis.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes black-Jewish ties, said the latest Crown Heights trial must be seen “on both a micro and a macro level.”

Locally, the Nelson trial is once again moving through a “tense” jury selection that should ultimately reflect the community’s demographics, he said.

Yet the case “has little to do with blacks and Jews nationally,” he added.

Since the 1991conflict, he said, “there’s been a sea change in black-Jewish relations. Most black and Jewish leaders will trust that justice will prevail and will not allow the old wounds of Crown Heights to jeopardize the process of healing that has taken place between blacks and Jews.”

One decade after the race riots, the foundation released a survey showing that one-third of both blacks and Jews believe intergroup relations had improved.

Yet the majority of both groups said relations remain unchanged.

Black-Jewish relations “are not like the heyday of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King” in the 1960s, Schneier said, “but they’re better than in 1991.”

Tensions surfaced last year in several U.S. congressional races, and relations between some black lawmakers and the Jewish community are strained on many issues.

In one instance, seven-term Alabama Rep. Earl Hilliard, an African American and sometime critic of Israel, blamed his defeat to African American challenger Artur Davis on out-of-state Jewish money.

Then the father of Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia lawmaker who was also a critic of Israel, blamed her defeat to Denise Majette, a fellow African American, to Jewish power as well.

Schneier blamed both those flare-ups in black-Jewish relations on the Jewish community’s not “laying the groundwork” among members of the Congressional Black Caucus beforehand.

Yet Schneier also lauded the Black Caucus for its support of Israel during an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, last year.

Still, in the wake of the latest Crown Heights twist, Jewish anger was apparent over the case that does not seem to go away.

In a statement, Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, called Nelson’s new defense a “cynical manipulation” of the legal system and “a cruel twisting of the knife in the back of Yankel’s family and friends.”

Schneier, too, believes it was indeed a “racial attack,” but does not want to “reopen these old wounds” by dwelling on it.

This time, “we can disagree in a respectful manner, and that was not the case in 1991,” he said.

“Thank God there are forums where blacks and Jews can express their anger behind closed doors instead of expressing that anger in a four-day riot and pogrom,” he said.

Recommended from JTA