August marks the 20th anniversary of the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history: a three-day nightmare that historians and journalists call the “Crown Heights riots” and that many members of the Jewish community have called a “pogrom.”
The truth is, we’ve learned a lot from bitter experience. The incident began with a tragic car accident. A young Guyanese child was struck and killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man.
The driver, whose car had been hit by another while crossing the intersection, tried to avoid another collision by steering the vehicle toward a wall. The car continued to skid along the wall and hit the two young cousins playing there. But the black residents gathered in the area didn’t believe that. They had begun to beat him when the police and ambulances arrived on the scene.
Within hours, the streets of Crown Heights became a hunting ground ignited by calls from outside agitators to “get the Jews.”
There have been many claims that the neighborhood, long an integrated mosaic of immigrants, both black and Jewish, was wracked by unrest prior to the violence. But that’s not really true.
Although the streets were never completely quiet, Jews and non-Jews generally got along pretty well together. We shopped in the same stores together — and still do — hunting for the same bargains.
This is not to say that racial issues don’t exist — but they do not exist any more in Crown Heights than they do anywhere else. Racial tensions were not unique to the neighborhood; they were seen, in fact, citywide. It was a problem that enabled David Dinkins to win the mayor’s office, with many believing that his election to the post would bring racial harmony to the city.
But tensions rose with the temperature, and even before the accident, some black youths were unfriendly, going so far as to spit at Jewish children and adults. Anti-Semitic attacks were becoming more common. Meanwhile, each group believed the other was receiving resources that it was not getting.
Outside, anarchists loudly urged blacks to take to the streets. And after sending others to do their dirty work, these professional agitators were never held accountable.
For three days following the accident, hundreds of thugs roamed the neighborhood. A gang of blacks stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Australian rabbinical student. A police car was torched. Apartment buildings were trashed. Jews were chased and beaten up by mobs yelling “Kill the Jews!” and “Hitler didn’t finish the job!”
Jewish leaders appealed to the mayor and to Police Commissioner Lee Brown to put a stop to the violence. The police officers on the streets told us that their “hands were tied.” In fact, though many officers had radios, their frequencies were not coordinated, so they could not call for backup.
The nightmare lasted three days before police were finally allowed to take control. Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden then summoned the leaders of each ethnic community in the neighborhood to create the historic Crown Heights Coalition, a way to calm the tension and to prevent such hatred from festering again.
For the next four years, I co-chaired the coalition along with Edison O. Jackson, then president of Medgar Evers College.
The coalition created bonds that rose above our differences and brought more police to the area. It blocked City Hall from playing one group against the other when the neighborhood needed funds for new projects.
Moreover, the bright light of reality was turned on. It was no longer possible to deny that anti-Semitism had reared its ugly head, or to disguise a hate crime as anything else.
Community leaders learned one another’s culture codes. This enabled us to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings, which prevented outside agitators from taking advantage of our ignorance as they once had.
Are things perfect now, 20 years later? No. Not by a long shot. But when one walks down the street in Crown Heights today, one sees a vibrant, integrated community that is building toward a growing future. There are more youth programs, better schools, and more businesses and restaurants. One can see the improvements in apartment buildings, private homes and even the maintenance of the streets themselves.
Crown Heights is flourishing. When there is a problem, we call it what it is, and we don’t mince our words. And thanks to a tough borough president with a vision, today we also have the tools with which to solve it.
Rabbi Shea Hecht is the Chairman of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education and was co-chair of the Crown Heights Coalition.