The brutal beating of a Pakistani man in Brooklyn that led to the arrest of five Orthodox youths on Oct. 29 is being viewed in both communities as an isolated incident, even as leaders intensify cooperation efforts.
"It is shocking and disturbing that this incident happened," said Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "But there has been years and years of interface between the two communities without incident."
Mohammed Razvi, of the Council of Peopleís Organizations, which represents South Asian immigrants, said he had never before heard concerns about clashes between the two groups.
"There are no tensions within our community, nor should this lead to any tensions," he said. "These youths are not typical youths."
On Sunday leaders of both communities gathered for a press conference to jointly denounce the incident. "Leaders, imams, rabbis, we had one voice," Razvi said Tuesday. Witnesses cited in press reports said at least 10 people attacked Shahid Amber, a gas station attendant, as he ate ice cream outside a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet on Avenue M in Midwood, which has a heavily Orthodox Jewish population living beside a growing Muslim community. Authorities say the youths called Amber, 24, a "terrorist" while at least one pummeled him with brass knuckles, breaking his nose, and others held his arms after an altercation.
Amber said the incident began when the Orthodox teens asked him if he was a Muslim. When he answered yes, he said, the violence ensued.
Defenders of the suspects, including Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, insist there is more to the story and that the incident may not have been started by the suspects. Hikind said some of those involved called the police themselves.
Hikind on Tuesday said he had provided police and the JCRC with the name of a man who contacted his office, claiming to have witnessed the incident, which Hikind said took place at 8 p.m. "He said ‘the big guy was the aggressor, the big guy was pushing the little guy,’" Hikind said. "The story that this guy was eating ice cream and these guys just picked on him doesn’t sound right."
Police and Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes have charged the five (ranging in age from 15 to 17) with assault as a hate crime, gang assault, menacing, harassment and criminal possession of a weapon.
The suspects, from Borough Park and Midwood, were identified in published reports as Yitzi Horowitz, 15; David Brach, 15; Yossi Friedman, 17; Shulomi Bitton, 16; and Benjamin Wasserman, 16.
In condemning the incident the Anti-Defamation League labeled it a hate crime. "We condemn this senseless attack and applaud the work of the NYPD in apprehending the alleged perpetrators of this heinous assault on Mr. Amber and by extension on the Muslim community," said Joel J. Levy, ADL New York regional director.
Kaplan, the JCRC’s point man on inter-group relations, said Tuesday that he and other leaders were not taking sides on the particulars of the incident while the investigation was pending.
"We are going to respect the legal process, which is in the hands of the NYPD and the Brooklyn DA’s office," said Kaplan. "Let them follow the evidence and the legal process. We can’t try this in the press or on the streets. It has to be tried in courts."
Razvi also said he was reserving judgment. "We live in a democracy, and this will sort itself out. As time passes we will learn everything. Then we can move forward. Having leaders go back and forth is not a good thing. Whatever happened was wrong and we have to make sure it never happens again." Ravzi added that he is working on ways to deepen interaction between the two groups utilizing a community center his organization runs in a neighborhood that has many Pakistani and Jewish residents.
Kaplan added that, "considering whatís going on in the world … it’s a blessing that nothing has happened before this. There has been only one incident in memory and this is it. That itself is an incredible statement."
In the aftermath of 9/11, Kaplan and Razvi formed We Are All Brooklyn, a coalition of community-based organizations dedicated to deepening understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities. Both said they would increase their activity in the coming weeks.
Kaplan said yeshiva students roaming the streets with brass knuckles may be part of a larger issue of at-risk youth in the Orthodox world turning to disruptive, sometimes criminal, behavior.
"This is a communal challenge, something the Orthodox community has risen to on many levels," said Kaplan. "It’s not only an Orthodox problem but one across the board."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, which is involved in Jewish education through numerous yeshivas in the area, said the behavior alleged by cops sharply contradicts Orthodox teachings.
"I don’t think anything taught in our yeshivas would promote the sort of violence that has been alleged here," he said. "The facts of this case are still unclear but I can certainly say without any hesitation whatsoever that violence that is not in self-defense is not Jewishly justified. I do believe that our children are taught to respect all people."
He added, "I don’t know what happened in this particular case, but if it turns out as reported it is an aberration: one that we should take seriously but nonetheless not part of any pattern, God forbid." Good relations between the two communities were also cited by leaders in January 2003, when Syed Ali, a Pakistani immigrant working at a gas station, was hailed as a hero for calling police to prevent the torching of a synagogue in Sheepshead Bay.
Razvi said We Are All Brooklyn has started a Muslim-Jewish basketball league that has since folded for lack of funding, and that he would work to revitalize it.
"Evidently we need to continue this," he said. "These are our future leaders."