Jewish-Muslim Incident Rocks Ethnic Balance

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 10, 2006, issue of November 10, 2006.
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The Voice of America recently beamed a story around the world about the Midwood section of Brooklyn, presenting the neighborhood as a model of ethnic harmony where Orthodox Jews rub shoulders with Pakistani Muslims.

Until recently, one shining example of the inter-ethnic cooperation was the Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins under the elevated subway tracks at Avenue M — owned by a Pakistani but under the kosher supervision of a local rabbi.

On the night of October 29, however, it was in front of this establishment where police reports say a group of Jewish teenagers approached Shahid Amber, a 24-year-old Pakistani, and hurled ethnic slurs at him — calling Amber a “terrorist” — before proceeding to pummel him with kicks and punches sharpened by brass knuckles.

Police booked the five teenagers — ranging in age from 15 to 17 — for a hate crime, as well as for a gang assault and criminal possession of a weapon. Since then, the teenagers have pleaded not guilty and, to the consternation of some Muslim leaders, received a show of support from the local Orthodox Jewish state assembly member, who accused Amber of instigating the beating. In the midst of it all, the multi-hued community, once a symbol of calm, has grappled with what the incident means and what exactly happened on the night of the crime.

“We have to realize that Shahid is not just the victim alone — the communities are victims, as well,” said Mohammed Razvi, head of a local Muslim social service organization, the Council of People’s Organizations, over coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts where the beating occurred. “We are trying to stand together to make sure this does not cause any tensions,” he added, “because there are no tensions between us here.”

Amber, who was beaten shortly after 8 p.m., told the Forward he was eating ice cream outside the Dunkin’ Donuts when several young men “wearing regular traditional Jewish dress” approached him and began yelling “terrorist motherf*****, you f***** our country. Why are you here? Go back to your country.”

Amber said he tried to ignore them but one spit in his face and another knocked his ice cream out of his hands, and then the beating commenced.

“As I was cleaning my face, one came at me with the brass knuckles,” Amber said during a press conference, at which he appeared with a taped nose and two black eyes. Amber came to the United States from Pakistan in 2000 and has worked as a photo lab attendant. He said he never has had any negative experiences with his Jewish neighbors in Midwood. In the current case, Amber is calling for severe punishment.

Amber’s allegations have gone largely unchallenged in police and press reports, but lawyers for two of the teenagers told the Forward that things occured quite differently.

The lawyer for 16-year-old Shulomi Bitton said that it was Amber who began “taunting and making some provocative statements.” The lawyer, Ronald Aiello, said there was a fight but his client was not involved and “saw no one with any weapons.”

Another lawyer, this one representing 17-year-old Yossi Friedman, said that according to his inquiries, Amber had instigated the fight and, in fact, had a friend helping him who had a crowbar or some similar device with which he hit one of the Jewish teenagers. The lawyer, Lawrence Hochheiser, said it was a Jewish teenager who called the cops, which Hochheiser said was evidence of the teenagers’ innocence.

Even before the first court appearance, the teenagers received support from Dov Hikind, a local state assembly member who is known for his close ties to the Orthodox community. Hikind was quoted last week in a Brooklyn newspaper, the King’s Courier, saying that it was Amber who had provoked the teenagers.

“When the whole story comes out, the entire thing is going to be considered an unfortunate incident,” Hikind told the paper.

Hikind’s views on the incident did not stop him from attending a unity rally Sunday, organized by We Are All Brooklyn, an organization dedicated to promoting cross-cultural cooperation. The Muslim organizer of the rally — Razvi from the Council of People’s Organization — said he did not believe Hikind’s account of the event but still wanted him there.

A group of national Muslim organizations took a different tack a day later, when they met without Jewish organizations and criticized Hikind for taking sides as an elected official in the case.

Hikind’s comments are one of several issues that have created fissures between the local Muslim group, led by Razvi, and national Muslim organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. While Razvi has called for a more conciliatory position, CAIR and a few other organizations, including the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, took a more aggressive stance at a Monday press conference, calling for hate crime charges to be brought by federal prosecutors.

The national groups agreed that the attack on Amber was part of a growing trend of hate crimes against Muslims. At the Monday press conference, CAIR’s representative reported that the organization’s statistics showed a 52% rise in the number of hate crimes against Muslims from 2003 to 2004 and a 9% rise last year, going up to 153 incidents nationwide.

At the same press conference, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, said that the rising number of hate crimes against Muslims can be tied to the American government’s policies and to its rhetoric toward Muslims.

Back in Midwood, many people on the street said the situation in the neighborhood had been peaceful before the recent incident. At the Dunkin’ Donuts where the attack occurred, the Pakistani manager, Qaiser Yazdni, said he has never felt unsafe working at the store.

“During the nighttime, when the kids have parties, it can get wild,” Yazdni said. But he added, pointing to one of many Orthodox Jewish customers, “I have all these customers. I know what they want.”

Intermingling between the Orthodox Jews and Pakistanis is evident on the streets surrounding the Dunkin’ Donuts, though the communities seemed more like two groups living separately but side by side. On Coney Island Avenue there is a sharp break between Hebrew-lettered signs and Pakistani signs on Avenue I. The drag where the assault took place is in the Jewish enclave.

Some locals said it was remarkable that tensions had not appeared before, given the local presence of extreme right-wing Jewish groups like the Jewish Defense League and Kahane Chai, or Kach — which call for aggressive confrontation with Muslim opponents of Israel. The mailing address for a JDL offshoot is a block from the Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Everyone coexists,” said Yehuda Frager, a 23-year-old Jewish businessman. “It’s surprising because Flatbush is probably where the highest percentage of Kachniks live in the country.”

A few doors down from the Dunkin’ Donuts, at the International News newsstand, the 21-year old Pakistani clerk was talking with a 15-year old Orthodox Jewish friend. The Pakistani clerk, Waqar Azim, said that there were only a few Jews who did not like Muslims.

“I still feel safe here,” Azim said while glancing over the stacks of Jewish newspapers he sells. “I know everyone here.”

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