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."