The ‘Race Riot’ That Wasn’t

The ‘Race Riot’ That Wasn’t

The Crown Heights riots, one of the most traumatic events in American Jewish history, still elicits shivers and arguments as if it were yesterday, rather than 20 years ago. What was clear from the Girgenti Report, commissioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo, is that the riot was not a “race riot” but an anti-Semitic riot.

Many Jewish organizations were hesitant to condemn the mayor’s handling of the riot or to label it for what it was — something reminiscent of a pogrom. To give these Jewish organizations the benefit of the doubt, it was a week of shock and disbelief. But even before that August was over, Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times that his hesitancy had been a mistake.

“Anti-Semitism is all over the place in Crown Heights,” said Foxman that summer. “It is ugly, it is crude, it is classical and it is deadly. And the fact that it is American and it is black should not make it invisible or tolerable.”

When confronted with tragedy, personal or communal, we look for reasons. Did the blacks of Crown Heights have grievances? Perhaps. There were charges that Lubavitchers were granted preferential treatment in the neighborhood. But the killer of Yankel Rosenbaum wasn’t even from Crown Heights; he was visiting his girlfriend in the neighborhood. He had a knife — inscribed “Killer” — at the ready in his pocket when he joined a mob that was shouting “Kill the Jews.”

One lesson of Crown Heights must be to recognize that good people with grievances don’t stab a passerby or break down doors and attack someone’s wife or daughter. The pogromists of Kishinev had grievances, too. It’s a dangerous mistake to analyze anti-Semitic terror in search of a legitimate grievance.

On the one hand, Jews have a civil right to feel protected by the police and not be stereotyped and scapegoated by their neighbors, whatever their “grievances.” On the other hand, as Tevye would say, knowing something about pogroms…

No, said Tevye, there is no other hand.

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