Two decades after the Crown Heights riots of August 19-21, 1991, the focus in much of the reporting on the anniversary of the violence centered on the importance of healing racial tensions, with the clear implication that the rioting was the culmination of long-simmering tensions between the black and Jewish communities.
Yes, healing racial tensions in Crown Heights is imperative. Both groups certainly need to engage in more dialogue and interracial activities. Both groups share a history of persecution and need to stand together. In fact, on August 25, 1991, right after the Crown Heights riots, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in looking toward the future, told then-Mayor David Dinkins that the black and Jewish communities are “one side, one people, living in one city.”
With that said, there was no mutual culpability for the riots. Gavin Cato was killed in a tragic automobile accident that had nothing to do with his race. Nevertheless, leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton equated Gavin’s accidental death with the 1963 murders of four young black girls in a church in Alabama and made wild accusations that the Brooklyn DA had a pro-Jewish bias.
To Sharpton’s credit, he recently expressed regret for making such inflammatory references. A grand jury, composed mostly of minorities, saw no cause to indict Yosef Lifsh, the driver, finding that what occurred was an accident even though a tragic death resulted.
This is not to say there aren’t racists in the Jewish community. There have been instances of racially motivated mistreatment of blacks by individual Jews but, as the evidence clearly showed, the untimely death of Gavin Cato was not one of them.
Even if Hatzolah had failed to treat Gavin, as witnesses on the scene contended, that was no excuse to cast collective blame on the Jewish community. Gavin’s parents could have brought a claim against Hatzolah if in fact the ambulance service was negligent in not treating him, though media reports at the time indicated that the police blocked Hatzolah from treating Gavin and that Hatzolah had to attend to the driver of the car, who at that point was being threatened by a mob yelling anti-Semitic epithets.
By all accounts volunteers from a second Hatzolah ambulance helped Gavin’s sister, who was injured, until a second city ambulance arrived and took her to the hospital. Given the circumstances, there is no basis to believe Hatzolah purposely refused treatment to Gavin.
But the tragic accident that left young Gavin dead is not the moral equivalent of the vicious stabbing of Yankel Ronsenbaum by a marauding mob shouting “kill the Jew.” One case is negligence or an accident, the other is an intentional hate-based homicide.
It is disturbing that the murder of Yankel is equated with the horrible accident that took Gavin’s life. Representing the story as a race riot between blacks and Jews is inaccurate and irresponsible. Of the 152 police officers and 38 civilians injured, how many were hurt by Jews? How many Jews were involved in the looting or burning of stores? How many of the 27 vehicles destroyed were trashed by Jews? Of the 225 cases of robbery and burglaries, how many were committed by Jews?
A Jew was murdered by an anti-Semitic mob, and similar mobs then spent the next two full days rioting and pillaging because of a tragic accident. The responsibility is fully on the shoulders of the rioters, not the Jewish victims.
Eliyahu Federman is an executive at an e-commerce company. He is a graduate of the City University of New York School of Law, where he served as an executive editor of the law review. He resides in Crown Heights with his wife and daughter.