Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice-president, had been investigating the possibility of charging the murderer of Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights Riots in 1991 with having violated Rosenbaum’s civil rights. Zwiebel raised the issue with Attorney General William Barr in 1992 and assiduously pursued that possible course of action after the jury’s acquittal.
For a crime to qualify as a civil rights violation would mandate a federal investigation – never a simple endeavor. The Feds would require incentive to investigate the matter, and “justice” – as disheartening and un-American as it sounds – was not sufficient motivation. The political climate also wasn’t right for a federal investigation. Zwiebel’s dealings had been with Attorney General Barr, a member of the Republican administration which was voted out of office and replaced by the incoming administration of Democrat Bill Clinton. Dinkins was also a Democrat.
If secular Jewish groups refused to get involved with the Crown Heights Riots because it was so politically incorrect – “chassidim victimized by African-Americans” – how much more so would the Democrats wish to steer clear?
Nonetheless, an uphill battle never daunted Norman Rosenbaum, and he was assisted by a legal dream team composed of Roger Adler, Ben Brafman, David Edelman, Frank Snitow, and ultimately one of the foremost Supreme Court litigators in the history of the court, Nathan Lewin. Beth Gilinsky led the Jewish Action Alliance that put together a petition for the case to be tried on the grounds of a civil rights violation, and they were aided by the Jewish Community Relations Council. The petition secured nearly 200,000 signatures.
Simultaneously, New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato put himself and the prestige of his office firmly behind the pursuit of justice for Yankel Rosenbaum. “The Justice Department’s failure to investigate the horrors of what took place in Crown Heights,” he declared, “is a national disgrace.” He spearheaded a Senate resolution to investigate the events in Crown Heights which was bi-partisan and apolitical, and passed 97-0 with three abstentions.
Attorney General Janet Reno vacillated, as the issue was a political hotcake and evidence of a civil rights violation was not open and shut. Nat Lewin penned a letter to Reno that was so compelling that in just a matter of days, Reno agreed that a race crime had been perpetrated and instructed the federal government to prosecute.
The federal jury found Nelson and Price, respectively, guilty of wielding the knife and inciting the mob to attack Rosenbaum in violation of his civil rights. That verdict was vacated on appeal, but Price subsequently pled guilty and Nelson was convicted in a second federal trial in May 2003.
The Rosenbaum family had a modicum of solace that Nelson and Price were eventually punished for their crimes. But only a modicum. There are still nearly 30 other assailants who abetted and assisted in the crime and have averted justice for almost three decades – not to mention the leaders who encouraged a climate which resulted in such an eventuality.
Rabbi Zwiebel wondered, “Had the circumstances been reversed – had chassidic Jews been allowed to rampage through the streets for 72 hours, terrorizing a local African-American community while the police adhered to a clearly inadequate policy of ‘containment’ – isn’t it likely that there would be some degree of professional accountability? Wouldn’t somebody lose his job? Wouldn’t somebody pay some price?”
Mayor Dinkins eventually admitted that the police had made serious mistakes in their handling of the riot, yet made no effort to identify and hold accountable those responsible for the police failure. Nor did he support a full federal probe into those who had obstructed law enforcement officials in their attempts to curtail the riots. Ultimately, this cost him the next election, and the newly elected mayor, Rudy Giuliani, issued a formal apology to the citizens of Crown Heights for the botched police work. This helped bring a measure of closure to the matter.
Finally, we have arrived where I have been driving for the last four weeks. The ending of this story would have been so different, so depressingly despairing, if not for the tireless efforts of one individual alone. With all of the pain and all of the frustration, it would have been so much easier for Norman Rosenbaum to bemoan the events and resume his prosperous life.
And here is the take-home message for all of us: The easy way out was the one path that Norman did not select. Some noble people might believe that they too are committed to avoiding the easy way out – in the absence of financial hardships or strain on others that would result from their decision. And this is where Norman raised the bar up to the highest reaches of the stratosphere.
Despite a successful legal practice in Melbourne and a coveted position on the University of Melbourne’s Law School faculty, not to mention family responsibilities, Norman Rosenbaum traveled to New York City from Australia nearly 70 times in the next decade, staying at times for weeks on end.
Needless to say, significant international travel, loss of income, and doing the work that the NYPD was supposed to do required a lot of money – and there was no one to pick up his tab. It also necessitated an inestimable amount of time. None of these hardships could deter Norman, for he realized that if he would not undertake the task, it would not be done.
This is precisely the attitude that we all must adopt toward the challenges that we encounter, be they small or large. And this was not a lesson that he taught once or twice. Every single day he encountered a fresh obstacle and set about tackling it.
Fundamentally, Norman Rosenbaum proved himself fearless of the press and the government, and indeed of anyone who wished to stand in the way of his quest for justice. In 1993, he was invited to speak at Brooklyn College. The invitation was subsequently rescinded when Brooklyn College claimed that it could not provide adequate security to ensure his safety.
Norman was championing a cause and saw this as an opportunity; he was loathe to miss out. Norman said that he was willing to speak at the college and would provide his own security.
But how, pray tell, could he pull this off when he was strapped, pouring every penny into the investigation? Norman brilliantly turned to Curtis Sliwa, the famous anti-crime activist and founder of the Guardian Angels. He could not have sought out a better address. The Angels deployed a platoon of 40 men whose towering presence made large Norman Rosenbaum feel like a midget. This story is illustrative of the fact that whenever attempts were made to hamper Norman, he would not buckle.
Thus, against overwhelming odds, a city administration bent on disarming him and Jewish organizations (except Orthodox ones) that wished to dismiss and discredit his work, he remained defiant. Acquiring justice for those responsible for his brother’s murder became his personal crusade, and he fought nobly and gallantly, to a large extent achieving his goal, and making New York City a safer place in the process.
Not that the City of New York was inclined to show any appreciation, or even a token whisper of gratitude. Indeed, the city desired to bury the entire affair, and it was Norman Rosenbaum, of blessed memory, who would not allow that to happen. His tenacity, wisdom, and willingness to assume responsibility made him a hero. And I, for one, when I sing this hymn on Chanukah, also have him in mind:
They penetrated the walls of my towers and dishonored all of the oils; but from one remnant of the flasks a miracle was wrought…