From the January 11, 1993 issue of New York Magazine.
On a cool, sunny Saturday near the beginning of October, 12-year-old David was in synagogue studying, singing, and hanging out with his friends. At around 5:30, having spent the entire afternoon indoors, he desperately wanted to get some air. David grabbed his coat and two friends, and they took off into the streets of Riverdale to salvage the last piece of a perfect fall day. Just before six, his companions thought they should get back, but David hesitated. He wasn’t quite ready. The early-evening air felt too good on his face, and the streets looked too inviting in the soft twilight. “Go on,” he told them. “I’ll meet you at the synagogue in ten or fifteen minutes.”
David had barely walked one block by himself when he approached the intersection of 236th Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway. It was quiet. Though it wasn’t quite dark yet, David noticed that some streetlamps were just beginning to flicker purple. At the corner, a black Toyota Camry was parked by the curb, and five teenage boys were sitting inside—three whites, one Asian, and one black. When David reached the car, one of the whites got out. “Hey, Jew boy,” he yelled. David kept walking. “Hey, don’t ignore me, you dirty Jew.” David walked a little faster and told the teenager who was following to leave him alone. David didn’t panic—he had been taunted and even chased before. Quite a few times, in fact. Still, this was the first time he’d had to face it alone.
When he crossed the street, the teenager ran after him, grabbed him, and hurled him against the wall of an apartment building. “F—ing Jew,” he screamed as he started punching. David began to fight back, and three more teenagers jumped out of the car. They dragged him into an alley between two buildings and beat him—punching and kicking him in the face, the stomach, and the ribs. “You’re not so tough now, are you, Jew boy?” said the original attacker. When they’d had enough, they turned and walked away, leaving David in the alley, badly bruised but not seriously injured. The shirt and tie he had on for the Sabbath were soiled and torn, and his black suede yarmulke was on the ground next to him.
On the morning of that same day—October 3—someone had burned Nazi symbols into a hallway carpet in a Roosevelt Island apartment building. On October 6, a man was leaving a Brooklyn synagogue with his wife and daughter when they were approached by two men. One of the assailants slapped the man’s yarmulke off his head and yelled, “Gotcha.” He “yoked” the man and cut him before running away down Avenue H when the man’s wife shrieked. On October 10, at 5 P.M., a 24-year-old woman was walking near the Henry Hudson Parkway with her 7-year-old brother, who was wearing a yarmulke, when a car with six men inside pulled up. The men screamed, “F—ing Jew!” and threw a lighted cigarette at the woman. Later that day, a Hasidic man was walking in the Westwood area of Staten Island when two men tried to drag him into the blue Jeep they were driving.
The next night, the attacks continued. A 27-year-old woman was stopped at a traffic light in Greenwich Village when four people in a BMW pulled alongside her, yelled anti-Semitic epithets, and threw a tire iron through her rear window. Two days later, a 23-year-old Hasidic man was walking on Carroll Street in Brooklyn when someone asked him for a cigarette. When he said he didn’t have one, the man knocked him to the ground and pummeled his face, calling him a “dirty Jew.” Indeed, during a three-and-a-half-week period that began on September 27—the day that marked the start of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar there were nineteen criminal acts of anti-Semitism recorded by the Police Department’s Bias Unit.
For many, the hatred reached its dénouement at the end of the month in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. At 5:20 on October 29—following a delay of more than two hours so that several hundred police officers could be brought in—a jury of six blacks, four Hispanics, and two whites announced that they had found 17-year-old Lemrick Nelson Jr. not guilty of killing Australian Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum during the rioting in Crown Heights (sparked when Gavin Cato, a black child, was accidentally struck and killed by a Hasidic driver). And in that singular moment, when the results produced by the criminal-justice system disappointed and devastated so many people, Jews in New York suddenly knew that what they had sensed for so long but rarely talked about was true: Attitudes were changing, intolerance was on the rise, and they were becoming strangers in their own city.
As it turned out, however, the Nelson verdict was not the climax, only a beginning. Just last month, the religious violence continued. At 9 P.M. on Saturday, December 12, 62-year-old Rabbi Shaya Apter was attacked in front of the synagogue where he lives, on the Lower East Side. A Romanian who escaped the Nazis, the rabbi was stabbed twice in the stomach by a lone Hispanic man. Several hours later, in Borough Park, a gang attacked three 18-year-old Jews in a parking lot, pulling one from his car and punching him in the eye. Earlier in the day, in one of the stranger episodes, a 14-year-old Staten Island girl had shouted anti-Semitic slurs at 33-year-old Yechiel Leiter and then ordered her dog to attack him (the dog failed to respond). The girl struck again on Sunday, this time successfully, when she instructed her dog to maul a 15-year-old. The boy fell to the ground when the dog bit him, and the girl kicked him in the head. On December 14, Joseph Fredrich, a 29-year-old Hasidic man visiting from England, was robbed as he emerged from the subway at Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway at 11 P.M. Two blacks held a knife to his throat, yelled, “Kill the Jew!,” and took his cash, his watch, and some Chanukah gifts he was carrying.
“During the Jewish High Holidays, there were nineteen criminal acts of anti-Semitism in the city.”
“Some of us at one point believed,” says Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “that we were going to come up with the antidote, the panacea for anti-Semitism. Realistically, however, what we’ve learned is that the best we’re going to be able to do is to keep a lid on the anger and the ugliness. But right now, for some reason, the sewer covers have come off.”
That Jews should now feel threatened, unwelcome, even powerless, in what in terms of sheer numbers has always been the most Jewish of American cities—the most Jewish city in the world—is perhaps the best measure of just how deep the new anti-Semitism reaches.
The bias attacks were occurring at such a quick clip that Mayor David Dinkins’s office was having trouble keeping up. “This was more than just the usual holiday bump-up,” says Herbert Block, the mayor’s assistant for Jewish affairs. “There was one Sunday when we were trying to put out a statement on an incident that happened Saturday night, and literally, as the statement was being written, reports about two other incidents came in within half an hour of each other.” But if the numbers are cause for concern, they tell at best only part of the story. Tracking anti-Semitic attacks is one thing; examining their nature and character is something else entirely. Though any bias crime is obviously a hostile act, these most recent episodes were particularly vicious and personal. As long as anti-Semitism was reflected in crimes of property damage—swastika graffiti, knocking over gravestones, and the like—it was an issue but not necessarily a serious one. As often as not, these acts could easily be dismissed as the work of teenagers emboldened by alcohol. Suddenly, the problem was no longer that simple. “The quality of the attacks has clearly changed,” says New York City Human Rights Commissioner Dennis deLeon. “In the past, there were more anti-Semitic incidents of property damage than any other kind. Now there seem to be more one-on-one personal assaults.”
With the volume already turned up too high, activity during the second half of October pushed the decibel level even further. A poll released by the American Jewish Committee revealed that nearly half of all New Yorkers believe that Jews have too much power and influence in the life and politics of the city. Fully 66 percent of New York’s Hispanics and 63 percent of blacks said they believed this to be true. Conducted over the summer by the Roper Organization, the poll also revealed—perhaps not surprisingly, given the other results—that 37 percent of the Jews in New York believe that anti-Semitism is a major problem, and 58 percent said it has gotten worse during the past year.
This was no longer simply about the murder of a 29-year-old Hasidic Jew from Australia who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nor was it any longer about the seven women and five men on the jury who believed that nine cops from three different commands had somehow concocted their stories. And finally, it wasn’t even about what Mayor Dinkins did or didn’t say after the verdict, and what he did or didn’t do during and after the riots. As painful as it was for his fellow Hasidim, and for Jews all over the city, to imagine Yankel Rosenbaum lying on the hood of a Lincoln Continental on a hot August night bleeding to death from a stab wound, the murder had become only one piece of a much larger picture. Crown Heights was now a symbol for Jews—as Yusuf Hawkins and Howard Beach were for the black community—of alienation and anger that had been building for some time.
“Crown Heights prompted the Jewish community to put things together,” says Dr. Diane Steinman of the American Jewish Committee. “It was a watershed event… . It’s almost like we’ve reached the mountaintop and it’s a blizzard up there, and we’d better find a way to get down, because it’s dangerous.” Jews were now regularly giving voice to their disaffection and to their belief that the city didn’t work for them anymore, just as blacks in Crown Heights claimed they weren’t getting their fair share.
This sudden, sweeping identification with the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum was an astonishing development. “You know why?” asks Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, the chairman of Brooklyn Community Board Nine in Crown Heights. ” ‘Cause we ain’t like them [mainstream Jews]. Somebody said to me in a meeting recently that he never thought he’d see the day when he’d be defending Lubavitcher Hasidim.
“Except for the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council, where were all the Jewish organizations up until now? Where were they during the riots? As far as I’m concerned, they’re worthless. They struck out. They’re only out here now because their membership wants to know what they’re doing about Yankel Rosenbaum. This is no longer an issue of ‘Oh, those Hasidic people, they’re not like us.’ This has now turned into an emotional Jewish issue because for the first time, Jews feel a threat.”
In the middle of November, the Anti-Defamation League released a study of prejudice in America, yet the results were all but lost in the daily thicket of news related to Crown Heights. The first comprehensive, nationwide survey of its kind since 1981, it found that one in five American adults—nearly 40 million people—holds anti-Semitic beliefs. Numbers aside, the salient finding of the ADL study, like that of the Roper poll done in New York City, is that anti-Semitism has a new character and a new set of rules. In the past, American anti-Semitism was essentially a social disease, a prejudice that found its expression in predictable forms—not wanting to live next door to a Jew, work with a Jew, marry a Jew, and so on. But now, according to the studies, the number of people with these feelings is negligible. Anti-Jewish attitudes have instead become more insidious, resembling the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Europe in the first part of this century. The charges: Jews have too much power and are more loyal to Israel than to America.
Norman Podhoretz, the editor-in-chief of Commentary and a leading neoconservative intellectual, points out that these feelings have been “percolating in the culture” for more than twenty years. “The idea that Jews in America have too much power first arose in the late sixties. It was associated with the idea that justice is a proportional distribution of the goods of this world, in accordance with the size of the group an individual belongs to. Quotas is what it came down to. It was then that this notion arose that Jews, who were 2.5 or 3 percent of the population, were getting more than their fair share.”
What the recent studies really don’t explain—perhaps because there is no cogent explanation—is the enduring nature of anti-Semitism. How does one make sense of the fact, for example, that the ADL study finds that contact with Jews does not affect the anti-Semitic beliefs of respondents? In his recently published book Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, historian Robert Wistrich writes, “Free-floating antisemitism, for which the actual presence of Jews is almost immaterial, thrives on archetypal fears, anxieties and reflexes that seem to defy any rational analysis.”
What also seems to defy rational analysis is the degree to which expressions of hate and intolerance have become acceptable. In Crown Heights, it took days before the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum was even called a crime of bias. In pop culture—rap music and heavy metal in particular—hostility toward Jews, blacks, gays, women, and virtually anyone who is not like “us” routinely goes unremarked upon. In the political season just past, appeals to the darker side of voters’ primal instincts seemed almost as common as the basic stump speech.
What did Republican national chairman Rich Bond mean exactly when he said of the Democrats, “They are not America”? What was Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown thinking about when he stood outside the New York Stock Exchange last April and said in hauntingly familiar language—as reported in The New Republic—that he would “drive the moneylenders out of the temple”? Or former Secretary of State James Baker, who, when asked at a meeting of high-level administration officials about his hostility toward Israel, said, “F— the Jews. They didn’t vote for us anyway”?
Vice-President Dan Quayle made his contribution with his now-infamous frontal attack on the “cultural elite.” Whatever one’s view on the issue, the vice-president’s tone as much as his phrasing made many people uncomfortable, clearly echoing the populist anti-Semitic rhetoric that began in the thirties and would for several decades wrap Hollywood, Jews, and Communism into a neat little anti-American package. Many people simply saw cultural elite as a euphemism for Jewish elite. Addressing a Clinton fund-raising dinner, in fact, director Mike Nichols opened by saying, “We can drop the Republican code for ‘cultural elite.’ Good evening, fellow Jews.”
Then there’s the vexing case of Pat Buchanan, onetime candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and full-time bellicose columnist and talking head. “Friends, this election is about much more than who gets what,” he said when he addressed the Republican Convention last August. “It is about who we are … what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
Buchanan’s “religious war” and his attitudes toward Jews and Israel are so troubling for the conservative wing of the Republican Party—not only because of the right’s sordid history of anti-Semitism, dating to Father Coughlin and others in the thirties, but because of the critical question of who will control the party’s future—that William F. Buckley Jr. devoted an entire issue of the National Review last year to the subject. The response was so overwhelming, he devoted a second issue to the ensuing debate. All of this has now been collected in a book, In Search of Anti-Semitism, in which Buckley concludes, “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said amounted to anti-Semitism.”
Podhoretz thinks Buchanan’s anti-Semitism—the kind cloaked in the comfortable rhetorical cloth of mainstream politics—has been seeping into the public debate for some time. “There was a growing acceptability within the culture of very virulent attacks on Israel that became difficult to distinguish from old-fashioned anti-Semitism. You saw it first with Gore Vidal on the left and then with Pat Buchanan on the right. Why has this come to a boil now? My guess is that it’s a matter of a gradual erosion of the restraints against this sort of open expression of hostility to Jews.” This erosion has occurred, he says, as the Holocaust recedes.
The restraints on anti-Semitism have also been lifted across Europe. With the collapse of Communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, there’s been a rabid resurgence of nationalism stretching from Azerbaijan to Poland—the kind of zeal for racial and religious purity that has led to the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. More surprising, however, is what’s happening in western Europe. Germany continues to struggle with the skinheads, while France has seen the rise of the rightwing National Front party, led by the vituperative Jean-Marie Le Pen. The party, whose slogan is “France for the French,” advocates a variety of anti-Semitic and xenophobic positions and got more than 14 percent of the popular vote in last year’s local elections. A survey done by the Italian magazine L’Espresso found that more than a third of its respondents believed that Italy’s Jews were not really Italians.
In the United States, there is a consensus that these are pessimistic, mean-spirited times marked all too often by the loss of civility and understanding. Where once Americans felt locked in what Dr. Martin Luther King called “a network of inescapable mutuality,” today there is a danger of what Podhoretz calls the “Balkanization of American culture”—the loss of a clear, collective sense of common cultural and social goals. Rather than an ecumenical spirit, there is only tribal hostility—something all too evident in Crown Heights. Even after federal and state authorities have agreed to investigate the riots and the murder, even after admissions that the police made errors in judgment, and even after Mayor Dinkins’s televised Thanksgiving plea for harmony, little has changed. People are still afraid, still angry, and still feel betrayed.
City councilman Herbert Berman, who represents Canarsie, Mill Basin, Starrett City, and several other mostly white areas in Brooklyn, was the first elected official to say publicly what Jews had been saying privately: “There is a sense among Jews that they are no longer welcome in the city. What frightens me is I don’t think City Hall understands. The mayor’s inability to make people feel he is truly sensitive to these issues has exacerbated the situation.”
“Jews feel unwelcome, even powerless, in what has always been the most Jewish American city.”
Crown Heights was the latest in a string of events that led Jews to believe things were changing for the worse. Most observers also point to the not-guilty verdict in the murder of Meir Kahane; the controversy about the anti-Semitic views of City College professor Leonard Jeffries and the reluctance on the part of many leaders, particularly black ones, to speak out about it; the boycott of the Korean grocer in Brooklyn, with whom many Jews empathized. And there was the fiery, often divisive rhetoric of black activists like the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the Reverend Al Sharpton (at the funeral of Gavin Cato, Sharpton called Jews “diamond merchants”), and Sonny Carson (he said at Cato’s funeral that he was proud of the rioters).
The broad gulf between blacks and Jews in the city now seems to be getting wider daily, with each new slight and every perceived insult. Perhaps the most egregious display of insensitivity in the recent battles came the very day after the Crown Heights verdict, when defense lawyer Arthur Lewis Jr. took his newly acquitted client and members of the jury out for a victory celebration. There were hugs and toasts all around. It was hard to explain the in-your-face callousness of the display, given that Lemrick Nelson—whether he stabbed Rosenbaum or not—was there that night when the hateful mob was screaming, “Kill the Jew.”
Mayor Dinkins tried to talk the problem away, appearing before countless Jewish groups throughout November, but no matter how good his intentions, the strategy wasn’t working—tempers remained short, memories remained long, and attitudes were becoming ingrained. Which, for the mayor, meant he was trapped in a kind of political purgatory, a no-man’s-land in which any overt attempt to mollify one group would surely anger the other. Haunted by the rhetoric of his own 1989 campaign against Ed Koch—”the tone of the city does get set at City Hall”—the mayor was now the symbol for Jewish rancor and rage, just as Mayor Koch had been the symbol for black rancor and rage in the aftermath of the Yusuf Hawkins murder.
“Mayor Dinkins knows he’s very, very vulnerable politically, and he’s gonna become more vulnerable as time goes on,” says Rabbi Goldstein of Brooklyn Community Board Nine. “There’s gonna be truth squads following him around during the campaign,” says another leader, “and the mayor’s gonna be in for the ride of his life.”
That ride, it seems, has already begun. After Ralph Nimmons, a 25-year-old homeless black man with a criminal record, was beaten by a group of Hasidic Jews behind Lubavitcher headquarters in early December, the mayor immediately called it a bias attack. The Hasidim claimed they had caught Nimmons trying to rob a yeshiva, and they excoriated the mayor for responding without having all the facts. Once again in Crown Heights, it was time to pump up the volume. Speaking in Queens several days after the Nimmons incident, Mayor Dinkins was nearly shouted down by people calling him anti-Semitic. And while even a cursory examination of his record renders the charge ridiculous—in fact, in the black community, the mayor is sometimes derisively called David Dinkinstein because of his efforts in behalf of Jewish causes—it really didn’t matter.
Desperately trying to stop or at least slow the issue’s momentum, Dinkins took several dramatic steps last month. Designed to increase the peace, as the mayor is fond of saying, the moves were also calculated to decrease the heat that was now coming not only from New Yorkers but from political rivals Rudolph Giuliani and Andrew Stein as well. For the first time since the riots in Crown Heights seventeen months ago, the mayor traveled to the area to meet behind closed doors with the Hasidic leaders. Though there was no official comment after the session—whose “secret” location was known to just about every reporter in town—it was clear that little progress had been made. (The night before the trip to Crown Heights, the mayor held an authentic secret meeting with the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League. “The mayor still doesn’t get it,” says one source who knows what went on inside.)
“Mayor Dinkins on a personal level, in his private life, is a decent guy,” says Rabbi Joseph Spielman, the chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, “but that’s not the issue. The mayor’s running around trying to shore up his image by speaking to this Jewish organization and that Jewish organization and saying sweet nothings. In the meantime, the Jewish community in Crown Heights is suffering on a daily basis,” says the rabbi, whose twin sons were in the back of the car that struck Gavin Cato and were pulled out and beaten. “I need it to be clearly understood that my neighborhood has to be safe, and it’s not.”
Acrimony between blacks and jews is certainly not limited to Crown Heights. It is, however, more easily explained in this troubled area. Of the more than 235,000 residents, 80 percent are black. Only 10 percent of the population consists of Lubavitcher Hasidim, and they are virtually the only whites who live here. The culture clash between the Lubavitchers, who started settling here in 1940, and the blacks, many of whom are still arriving from the Caribbean, is head-on.
But apart from the problems that stem from cultural differences—Hasidim are forbidden to touch any women except their wives, for example, and won’t shake the hands of black women in the neighborhood—there is the critical issue of preferential treatment. Black residents argue that the Jews get better protection and attention from the police and a disproportionate share of government money and housing. “They say we get this and we get that,” says Rabbi Spielman, who denies Jews get special treatment. “All the beautiful excuses. Well, all the beautiful excuses don’t excuse throwing one stone at anyone.”
At a barbershop on Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, there is no disagreement about the troubles. “Them Jews want to control everything,” says a Jamaican man while two people get their hair cut and the television blasts The Price Is Right. “[The government] gives them too much say-so… .”
Though the shop is only several hundred yards from Lubavitcher headquarters, across the wide expanse of Eastern Parkway—where a huge white banner proclaiming MOSHIACH IS ON THE WAY flaps in the wind over four lanes of traffic—another man points out that since Rosenbaum’s murder, Jews no longer patronize the shop. “Black people support them Jews anyway—they buy everything from them,” the man says. “But they don’t give us no business. They’re just like the Chinese—I mean, the Koreans. They don’t give black people no business, either.”
It’s a bitterly cold December morning, and as the men speak, a handful of blacks and Jews move quickly past the shop’s window, rushing to escape the frigid air, hands shoved deep inside their pockets, shoulders pushed up against the chill, their breath a steady, retractable stream of smoke.
“Whenever them Jews act up, nobody bothers them,” says a man who speaks without looking up from his Daily News. “They raise plenty of hell, and nobody say nothing. That’s not fair. If black people did that, there’d be plenty of trouble. Look what happened the first time justice was served for a black man [Lemrick Nelson’s acquittal]. They screamed, ‘Jewish blood ain’t cheap.’ Well, ain’t nobody talking ‘bout that little boy who got killed. What them Jews really want is to buy everything and push black people out of this neighborhood.”
Most alarming is that the young black rioters in Crown Heights were running through the streets screaming, “Heil Hitler”—unaware, perhaps, that along with Gypsies, blacks were probably the only group for which Hitler had as much contempt as for the Jews. Recent surveys show that blacks are twice as likely as the rest of the population to hold anti-Semitic views, a finding that is particularly troubling to Jewish leaders. “The truth is that Jews do feel differently vis-à-vis the black community,” says the ADL’s Foxman. “There is a history, there is a kinship, and it goes beyond the rhetoric. Look, there’s never gonna be a crisis in Irish-black relations or Italian-black relations, because they have no relations. But we do.”
Lately, that relationship, which dates to the founding of the NAACP in New York in 1909, has been riven by expressions of anti-Semitism from some black leaders. The ugly discourse ranges from time-honored theories about worldwide Jewish conspiracies and traits like greediness and sneakiness to far more innovative accusations by the Afro-centrists—everything from blaming Jews for the slave trade and Jewish doctors for creating the AIDS virus to the charge that Jews are responsible for destroying the ozone layer.
Though it would be convenient to dismiss much of this as the ridiculous ravings of crackpots and over-the-top racists, the charges often come from people who are respected in parts of the black community and, in the case of someone like Leonard Jeffries, have legitimate academic credentials. It hasn’t helped matters that mainstream black leaders have been woefully negligent in denouncing the demagogues.
“We must begin by recognizing what is new about the new anti-Semitism,” wrote Henry Louis Gates Jr., an English professor and the chairman of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last summer. “Make no mistake: this is anti-Semitism from the top down, engineered and promoted by leaders who affect to be speaking for a larger resentment. Unfortunately,” he went on to say, “the old paradigms will not serve to explain the new bigotry and its role in black America. For one thing, its preferred currency is not the mumbled epithet or curse but the densely argued treatise; it belongs as much to the repertory of campus lecturers as community activists.” Gates got death threats and received virtually no public support from other black leaders.
Gates is convinced that anti-Semitism can only damage the ability of blacks to make progress. Speaking at a seminar at Brandeis University several weeks ago, the professor made perhaps the most effective argument against hate—a practical one. “Black anti-Semitism hurts black people first and foremost. In part, because it compromises the moral credibility of our struggle. But equally as important, because it leads us to the politics of distraction, the politics of distortion… . Anti-Semitism is not going to help us in the struggle against injustice, poverty, AIDS, and violence. So why make excuses for it?”
At the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street, the Reverend Calvin Butts sees things another way. “Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan [the Nation of Islam leader who called Judaism “a gutter religion”] do not speak for the broad sweep of the African-American community. I have truly never felt in this community a strong anti-Semitic sentiment,” the minister says in dulcet tones. “The fight against anti-Semitism should not be focused on African-American people—that’s not where it is. It is with Pat Buchanan—it is very deep in a kind of poor, ignorant, white America that is being led by very slick, bright, brilliant racists who hate Jews and blacks. I think it is to our advantage as blacks and Jews to sit down—and not where we’re going to talk about black-Jewish relations publicly—but sit down and take a look at what the real matter is. Because the people catching hell are blacks and Jews.”
On a damp Manhattan evening nineteen days after the Nelson verdict, several hundred Jews from around the city were gathered at the headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League for a conference, “Confronting Anti-Semitism: Practical Responses.”
For nearly two hours, the crowd sat in virtual silence as the assembled experts responded in reasoned, measured tones to the questions and the prodding of a moderator. They were dealing with a fictional scenario about a housing development where there was a series of escalating anti-Semitic incidents. The Reverend Guy Massie of Brooklyn, the chairman of the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, glowingly detailed the role his church would play; Lieutenant Thomas Burke, the head of the Bias Unit, talked about how the cops would respond; and the state’s human-rights commissioner, the city’s human-rights commissioner, Brooklyn’s deputy district attorney, and the rest of the panel made their contributions.
When the formal discussion was finished and the session was opened up for questions, it would have come as no surprise to find everyone sleeping. But as it turned out, they were only lying in wait. “I would like to know why,” bellowed a Queens man, who was first at the mike, “when there was a pogrom in Brooklyn, when a person was killed only because he was a Jew—”
“Excuse me, but that is not what this meeting is about,” interrupted the moderator. “Please limit your—”
“Let him speak,” someone shouted.
“Don’t silence him,” another yelled.
“We are not here to discuss Crown Heights.” The moderator pleaded in vain. “If you like, we can—”
“That’s what we came for,” screamed another man. “That’s what you should be dealing with now. Jews are being beaten, killed. That’s what… .” As he continued to shout, a security guard in a double-breasted, ventless suit that revealed a noticeable bulge by his hip moved toward the middle-aged man and wrapped him in a bear hug. The guard lifted him and was about to carry him out when several others started yelling.
“The traditional restraints on anti-Semitism have been lifted across all of Europe.”
“Leave him alone.” A woman who appeared to be the man’s wife shrieked, “Don’t touch him. Don’t you dare. A Jew yet. This is not Berlin. Put him down.”
When some measure of order returned, an Orthodox woman from Crown Heights began to speak. “I was a prisoner in my house for 72 hours,” she said, her whole body quaking with emotion. “I was forced to hide in the bedroom with my six children. Our house was attacked twice, and the police wouldn’t come to my family’s aid. The mayor must answer the question. Even if he didn’t hold back the police, he must answer for what happened. Why hasn’t he investigated the situation? My children have been traumatized.”
It went on like this for about 45 minutes, with every questioner tense, some on the verge of hysteria. One by one, they came to the microphones, and one by one, they pleaded for answers, help, reassurance. “What can you do,” one Crown Heights resident asked, “when bottles and bricks are flying through the windows of your house and you call 911 twice, and both times you are asked, ‘Would you like an officer to take a report about broken glass?’ No one came to help us.” An older man from Queens began to roar his statement into the microphone while the moderator was asking him to identify himself. Thinking she was trying to silence him, he just roared louder. “I don’t care about anti-Semitism. The problem is anti-Semites. All I want is to be protected from attack.”
The raw emotion and vulnerability—and the outbursts of antipathy in the weeks that followed—indicated just how long a road New Yorkers and their mayor have ahead of them. “One of the problems in dealing with this situation, if it can be dealt with at all,” says Norman Podhoretz, “is that lies are told. You get the impression from most of the coverage of Crown Heights, for example, that there’s a lot of hate, that these groups hate each other and you have to have dialogue and heal the wounds. I regard this as a lie. What you have is an aggression coming from the blacks against the Jews. It’s not an evenhanded dispute in which both sides are guilty or at fault. So all these calls for dialogue are beside the point. I think there is a serious problem within the black community, and it has to be addressed as such. Most people know this in their hearts, but very few people say it.”
Rabbi Jacob Goldstein of Community Board Nine agrees, but only up to a point. “All of the crimes here are always black on Jewish. It gets pretty exasperating. And then I hear all the time that we [blacks and Hasidim] should get together, have a social. Well, time out. That’s not our thing. We’re not gonna send our girls into their schools, and we don’t expect them to send their girls into our schools. Period, end of paragraph. Why? Our lives are driven by religion. It’s very hard for people in 1992 to understand this. But we can coexist,” the rabbi says in an uncharacteristically conciliatory tone. “We have to begin to look at what binds us together, in terms of the community, the city, and the government, instead of what divides us, which happens to be religion and skin color.”
On this point, the Reverend Butts concurs and feels strongly that it is time for both sides to let go of the incendiary rhetoric. “The Hasidim believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and they believe in assigning the blame and getting justice… . I don’t think that justice will do anything,” he says, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, “but leave us blind and toothless.” Protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews nearly 30 years ago, King also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Injustice to any people is a threat to justice to all people.”