Surveying Crown Heights

Racial Tensions Around Civil Case Raise Concerns for Jews

On April 19 and 20 of 1903, 47 Jews were murdered and 592 injured in Kishinev, Russia, after local citizens were incited to attack their Jewish neighbors. During the course of the pogrom, 700 Jewish homes were destroyed, 600 Jewish stores were pillaged and 2,000 Jewish families were ruined.

The riots were, in part, the result of the inflammatory articles written by Pavolachi Krushevan, the Moldavian editor of the city's only daily, Bessarabetz. Krushevan leveled now-familiar accusations, unfairly implicating the Jews in the murder of two Christian children, and calling upon non-Jews for vengeance. Such a scenario--as heinous as it may be--is familiar to the European landscape. Only in the United States does our unfamiliarity with such anti-Semitic assaults on Jews also assault our moral consciences.

The rioting which was precipitated in Crown Heights in 1991 was in response to the death of a black child, Gavin Cato, who was run over by a Hasidic Jewish driver. The rioting resulted in the fatal stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic doctoral student who had no other relation to the man who accidentally ran over the child than a shared religion. For his shared religion. For his shared religious beliefs, Rosenbaum was attacked by between 10 and 15 black youths as he crossed the street.

Like those in Kishinev, the Crown Heights riots were launched on the pretext of a wrong done by Jews to their non-Jewish neighbors. In both cases, the murderers used the excuse provided by incidents of questionable relevance to launch their attacks against defenseless individuals. In both riots, the victims were identified as targets because of their Jewishness and local governments were accused of complicity, if not active support of the murderers.

In a verdict handed down from the Brooklyn Federal District Court on Monday, Lemerick Nelson Jr., who was acquitted of the murder of Rosenbaum in 1992, was found guilty of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights, giving the Rosenbaum family and the Jewish community some modicum of justice, however late. Nelson's co-defendant in the federal trial, who was not charged in 1992, had apparently called upon other blacks to "get Jews."

Until yesterday, in both the trials held in Kishinev, as well as in the trial held four years ago to prosecute Lemrick Nelson Jr., the defendants managed to escape justice. This escape reached absurd proportions in Nelson's case: after the "not guilty" verdict was returned, the "exonerated" man went to a party with the jurors who voted for him his freedom while Rosenbaum's family and the Jewish community mourned their loss.

In Kishinev, 5,000 soldiers who were in the city and could have ended the riots, were not given orders to do so. The chief of police, in fact, exhorted the rioters to attack the Jews. In New York, one reason cited for former Mayor David Dinkins' election loss to current Mayor Rudy Giuliani consists in accusations that Dinkins held back police.

The violent outbreak of disorder which ensued in the Crown Heights neighborhood has been described as "race riots" (Boston Globe) and symptomatic of a "deep racial divide" (New York Times). These terms are inappropriate because the victims were victimized specifically because of their religion and not their race. It somehow eases the consciences and sensibilities of some if they can portray a problem as a racial, rather than an anti-Semitic, one. For some, persecution of the Jews has become a cliche from which they would rather shy away.

For other groups of people, religion is viewed as an "extracurricular activity." Jews take pride, and rightfully so, in the inherent position of religion in their very identity. This confluence of nationalism and spirituality, however, must not be confused with a racial identification--conversion is not an option for members of races in the sense that it is for members of religions. This is only one of many difficulties posed for those who attempt to draw religious-racial connections and define Jews as a race.

The attempt to color Jews as a racial group was an exercise undertaken most popularly by the Nazis who sought to emphasize what they considered to be the supposedly unique racial characteristics of European Jews.

Such propaganda tactics were used effectively to set Jews apart in the most distinct manner from those whom they had considered to be their compatriots--to describe them as foreign elements in their own land. While many Jews may in fact be white, identifying them all as such is simply inaccurate, as born out by the plurality of Jews of all racial stripes. Religions are not the spiritual equivalent of races and the two differ in all important respects. It therefore makes as little sense to label Jews as a "whites-only religion" as it would to label Christianity and Islam as consisting entirely of white adherents.

It comes as no surprise that one argument relied upon heavily by the defendants in the Crown Heights murder was that charges leveled against them were racially motivated. Following in this tradition is the case of O.J. Simpson in which the jurors in the criminal trial apparently reached the similarly striking conclusion that race can be invoked as a credible defense for murder.

(In another display of Simpsonesque criminal trial procedure now in vogue, the latest version of the Crown Heights trial came packaged along with its very own variation on the police conspiracy them--apparently the defense argued that an investigating police officer put the bloody murder weapon into his pocket.)

Yankel Rosenbaum's murder is unlikely to cause American Jews to realign their traditionally liberal political allegiance in the way that the Dreyfus trial in France did in the 19th century. Perhaps it should. Jews, along with any group of people that prides itself upon rationality and intelligence, must reconsider its allegiance to groups and peoples who, in the most unabashed manner, do not seek to reciprocate the Jew's embrace.

Blacks have come to expect the support of liberal Jews, who find in the black American experience parallels to their own. In spite of this mis-identification, Jews might still have common cause with blacks if blacks responded to their overtures in kind. However, the cultural animosity exuded by black communities, such as those in Crown Heights and those supporting Louis Farrakhan, pose obstacles to this alliance.

The stabbing of a Jewish man entirely because of his Jewishness is the most blatant incident of anti-Semitism in recent American memory. The anti-Semitic nature of the murder is borne out by the fact that if the tragic death of the black child had been the fault of anyone other than a highly identifiable Hasidic Jew, the reaction by members of the black community would not likely have been as volatile.

All too often, incidents surrounded by a mysterious cloud of latent anti-Semitic prevent the accuser from filing formal charges. In this case, while many facts may forever remain unclear, the motive behind Rosenbaum's murder is not: he was killed first and foremost because he was Jewish. This is all the more startling given the crime was perpetrated in the last decade of 20th century America and not in turn-of-the-century Europe.

Justin C. Danilewitz is a sophomore living in Currier House.