Saying he feared that a planned discussion Sunday of the Crown Heights riots of 20 years ago would turn into one of "division and distortion," the Rev. Al Sharpton withdrew from the event Thursday and the event was immediately canceled.
In a letter to Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I., which was to host the discussion, Rev. Sharpton said also that he was bowing to the wishes of Norman Rosenbaum, who had objected to him being invited in the first place. Rosenbaum’s brother, Yankel, a scholar visiting from Australia, was stabbed to death during the first of three nights of rioting by blacks against Jews.
Rosenbaum was quoted this week as telling the New York Post, "It’s just an absolute disgrace; his vile rhetoric incited the rioting."
The program was also to have included Rabbi Robert Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council, City Councilwoman Letitia James of Crown Heights and Rabbi Schneier, who is also founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Rabbi Schneier said on Thursday he decided to cancel the entire event rather than continue wi "to have a discusion on the state of black-Jewish relations without the participation of Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the preeminent African American leaders, would not meet our objective."
It had been scheduled to be held just two days after the 20th anniversary of the start of three days of violence against Jews in the chasidic community that followed the death of a black child, Gavin Cato, who was struck by a car in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade.
Many residents of Crown Heights as well as leaders of major Jewish organizations fault Rev. Sharpton, who entered the neighborhood after the murder, for further agitating the situation with marches and fiery rhetoric rather than calling for the restoration of calm.
As a result, most Jewish organizations have refused to have any official contact with Rev. Sharpton, calling on him to apologize for his behavior during that event and another four years later when street protests against a Harlem Jewish merchant culminated in a shooting and arson spree that left eight people dead.
But in his letter to Rabbi Schneier, Rev. Sharpton insisted that his actions during the rioting in no way contributed to the disorder.
"Gov. Mario Cuomo commissioned a state study on Crown Heights … [that] made it clear that I had no role in any violence," he wrote. "In fact, the night that Yankel Rosenbaum was viciously killed I was at home in New Jersey and did not know that any violence had occurred. I came to Crown Heights and eulogized Gavin Cato at the request of his family and led peaceful protests. If people disagreed with my language or reasons for painful protests, that is why you have dialogue, which we have had in many forums about over the last 20 years."
"I have made mistakes in my career," Rev. Sharpton wrote, "but the allegations around Crown Heights, which is proven to be patently untrue, was not one of them …."
Rev. Sharpton went on to say that despite the "ugly things" Norman Rosenbaum has said about him over the last 20 years, he realizes he "speaks from his pain, a pain I feel has been misinformed and manipulated. You and I should separate the demagoguery of some from the pain of a brother if we are to be the leaders we seek to be. … We must seek to heal people’s pain and not just seek to defend ourselves. Since the event has now been distorted and would cause pain to him, I, out of respect to his request, have decided to decline to partipate in Sunday’s event."
He added that he would like to see the event rescheduled at a time when there could be "a conversation where true leaders can talk about our true differences and need for reconciliation to further progress between black and Jewish communities."
Rabbi Schneier responded by expressing "regret" with Rev. Sharpton’s decision.
"Dialogue on matters of deep controversy are especially necessary," he wrote to Rev. Sharpton, who is founder of the National Action Network. "I will continue to dedicate my time, energy and resources to the strengthening of relations between our two communities even when it is controversial. Let us consider how to strengthen dialogue in the future and to act in ways that will heal rather than divide. … I look forward to rescheduling our forum at a later date."
Although Rev. Sharpton opted to bow out of this event, he has accepted other opportunities to discuss his role in what has been called the Crown Heights pogrom, such as in a 2001 debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and in interviews with The Jewish Week.
Before Rev. Sharpton withdrew from the event, Rabbi Schneier told The Jewish Week that many in the Jewish community do not recognize that the activist has severely moderated his tone in the decades since the events in Crown Heights.
“They freeze on where he was 20 years ago,” he said. “People do evolve and grow."
Rev. Sharpton made the same point in his letter to Rabbi Schneier, writing: "My language and tone at times has been questioned and at times has been over the line. … Clearly, the Al Sharpton of 2011 is not the Al Sharpton of 1991."