In what is the closest he will probably ever come to an apology, Al Sharpton (onetime firebrand turned soon-to-be MSNBC host) writes in today’s Daily News about his conduct during the Crown Heights riots that “our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about.”
Even a partial acknowledgment of some responsibility is a significant move for Sharpton, especially after he recently pulled out of an event at the Hamptons Synagogue to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots after the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, the rabbinical student killed during the violence, criticized Sharpton for his role in sparking it.
Still, having recently immersedmyself in the history of what happened in Crown Heights in 1991, I can see in the third paragraph of Sharpton’s piece a line that will be a deal breaker for those Jews who are still bearing grudges. Sharpton says that on the night he arrived in the Brooklyn neighborhood, he could “see brick-throwing on all sides.” This interpretation of what happened will not go down well with many Jews who have come to see what happened as a “pogrom” and not violence committed by both sides.
In addition to regretting that he used inflammatory rhetoric, like using the funeral of Gavin Cato to talk about “the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights,” Sharpton also laments:
The other thing that we should have expressed more clearly was the precious value of Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed by a mob that night. The fact that I was not anywhere near Crown Heights and knew nothing about the events did not mean I shouldn’t have addressed that in my eulogy — because the real lesson of Crown Heights is that we can’t keep choosing between whose life is of more value and who is a greater victim. All these years later, there are still those who would rather choose victims than help all of us as a society choose constructive problem-solving over rancor and violence.
The piece ends on a surreal note with Sharpton recalling how he was taken to the Jewish Theological Seminary after Martin Luther King’s assassination to meet Abraham Joshua Heschel, King’s friend and fellow civil right activist. Heschel sermonized a bit for the young activist with the James Brown hair, telling him: “Young man, only big men can achieve big things. Small men cannot fulfill big missions. Dr. King was a big man.”
This is the story Sharpton said he would have liked to have recounted at Cato’s funeral. But instead of being a big man, he was all too little back then.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman