As outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant shifts from public protest to coalition activism, the Jewish community is largely continuing its low profile.
More than 10 weeks after white cops killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets, the response of Jewish organizations has been measured. Some are analyzing and generally supporting the 10-point plan proposed by the coalition of minority and labor leaders that grew from the protest while others, such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, have remained publicly silent because there is no consensus among its member organizations on how to proceed.
The grassroots, left-wing group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, together with a few new adherents drawn to the group by the Diallo matter, remain the only presence at the coalition’s events. The group attended a planning session with the Rev. Jesse Jackson last week, and the largest protest held to date over the Diallo matter, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 15.
While numerous black leaders and public officials spoke from the podium at a subsequent rally in Manhattan, Jewish remarks were made only by Rabbi Valerie Lieber of Beth Ahavath Sholom People’s Temple in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
Leaders of the major Jewish organizations insist they have responded appropriately to the tragedy in their own way, without joining in what many see as a radical movement that has made the Diallo shooting a referendum on the performance of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his administration.
"Just because we don’t march doesn’t mean we haven’t had a very deep concern from the very beginning," said Howard Teich, president of the New York region of the American Jewish Congress, who visited with the Diallo family at a Manhattan mosque shortly after the murder.
AJCongress and the Anti-Defamation League have denounced the rhetoric at many of the Diallo protests and the use of Hitler imagery to demonize the mayor. At last week’s Brooklyn Bridge march, there were four signs likening the mayor to Adolf Hitler, one depicting him as a vampire and another branding him "a crack baby and a devil." One sign declared that the New York Police Department is a "Killer Kop Klan."
Hundreds of other signs simply declared "Enough," listing the names of police brutality victims and alleged victims.
Another factor keeping mainstream Jewish leaders out of the coalition is the central role of the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose conduct during the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the 1995 125th Street massacre has been denounced as inflammatory to black-Jewish relations.
But there is a growing perception in the black community that many Jews are steering clear of the movement to effect change in the police department out of political loyalty to Giuliani. Although his approval rating has plummeted, Jews remain among the mayor’s top supporters.
"When anti-Semitic statements are made, often [Giuliani] does not wait to join in with other advocates, but on his own has attacked these inflammatory statements," says state Sen. David Paterson (D-Harlem). "It must give a real sense of comfort to the Jewish community. It’s difficult to be critical of someone who has been that strong a supporter.
"Paterson, however, compared those who have laid off the issue to leaders of the black community who refrain from criticizing extremists in their own ranks.
"The lesson for all New Yorkers, no matter what color we are, is that there has to be consistency in condemnation," said Paterson.
Jewish leaders admit that friendship with Giuliani factors into the communal response.
"Many Jews admire Mayor Giuliani and believe he has restored a future to this city and a far greater sense of personal safety and security," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "Many Jewish organizations are reluctant to attack or criticize the Giuliani administration on one hand and don’t want to further validate or strengthen Sharptonís quest for political legitimization on the other."
Former Mayor Ed Koch, a one-time Sharpton critic who has since held meeting with the reverend, this week faulted Jews who steer clear of the police brutality debate.
"People who avoid participating and identifying with the issue are just dead wrong," said Koch, adding that he senses the city’s most affluent Jews are loath to criticize the mayor.
"I believe that the mayor is still popular with upper class and rich people," he said. "That’s my experience at the dinner tables. Middle class whites and Jews are absolutely incensed by his lack of sensitivity. But upper class, enriched people, including Jews and non Jews still support the mayor."
Even some who joined in the protests have had mixed feelings about siding with Sharpton.
"Sometimes you end up in strange company," said Rabbi Avi Winokur of the West End Synagogue as he reached the midpoint of the Brooklyn Bridge last week. "For a lot of people, getting involved with Al Sharpton is very difficult."
But the Reconstructionist rabbi said he chose not to let Sharpton’s presence keep him out of the issue. Rabbi Lieber followed a similar approach.
"I really wish the black community had a more effective organizer than Al Sharpton, but I can’t control that," said Rabbi Lieber. "As a leader of this particular movement, Sharpton has done a good job in including the Jews and not alienating anybody."
Sharpton did not return several calls for comment. But it is clear that he has counted on the minimal Jewish representation at his rallies to bolster his claim that this is not simply an issue for radical black activists, despite the mayor’s contention. At the Federal Plaza rally after the bridge march, Sharpton praised the participation of "black and white, Moslem and Christian, Jew and gentile."
The Jewish turnout at the Brooklyn Bridge march was far smaller than the hundreds who took part in the civil disobedience campaign outside One Police Plaza in late March, including 126 who were arrested. JFREJ coordinator Cindy Greenberg estimated her contingent at about 60, attributing the falloff to the time of day and the deadline for filing tax returns that day.
She denied that the passion that initially had JFREJ phones ringing off the hook is waning.
"The public debate over this is getting more people involved," she said.
But observers expect the murder indictment of the four police officers, the long wait for a trial and the increasing, unavoidable conciliation coming from Mayor Giuliani to siphon much of the wind from the movement’s sails. The Bridge march fell far short of the expectations of its organizers, who had predicted as many as 25,000. Less than half that number materialized.
The ongoing trial of Brooklyn officers accused of torturing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, however, may renew enthusiasm.
As protest turns to debate, however, Jewish groups seem to largely endorse the suggested 10 points of change in the police department.
The points include implementing recommendations proposed by various commissions on police brutality, increasing minority representation on the police force and appointing a special prosecutor to deal with brutality complaints.
"We can endorse many of the points," says Diane Steinman, regional director of the American Jewish Committee. "Many of them seem correct and reasonable."
Howie Katz, acting regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says the agency is concerned that two of the points regarding minority representation in the NYPD could lead to set-asides and quotas. Otherwise, he said "We support most of the 10-point plan and think it has a lot of sound recommendations."
Teich of AJCongress said the organization had not yet studied the proposals in depth.