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There Was More to David Dinkins Than ‘Crown Heights’
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There Was More to David Dinkins Than ‘Crown Heights’

The deadly riots of 1991 eclipsed the late mayor's history of support for Jewish causes.

Former Mayor David N. Dinkins, seen with Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim, president of MTA New York City Transit, takes part in the inaugural ride of the Second Avenue Subway, Dec. 31, 2016. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)
Former Mayor David N. Dinkins, seen with Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim, president of MTA New York City Transit, takes part in the inaugural ride of the Second Avenue Subway, Dec. 31, 2016. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

Herb Bock first met David Dinkins as a 12-year-old political columnist for a neighborhood Jewish paper, and would became a trusted and loyal aide to the man who could become city clerk, Manhattan borough president (on his third try) and ultimately New York’s first African-American mayor.

Block was among the mayor’s closest Jewish advisors, but also a friend and virtual family member. Both men attended each other’s milestone celebrations, including bar and bat mitzvahs for Block’s kids and kept in close touch.

Block last spoke to Dinkins, who died Nov. 23 at 93, about a month ago following the passing of former first lady Joyce Dinkins. Block got the news of his friend’s passing like everyone else, via the news late at night.

Block notes that, like many a New York politician, Dinkins knew the “alphabet soup”of Jewish organizations, knew his way around customs and holidays and had a solid track record on Jewish issues. Though faulted by some for his ties to Jesse Jackson, who had made controversial remarks about Jews, Dinkins also rallied for Soviet Jewry and during his time as city clerk denounced  Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism so strongly that a veiled threat from the Nation of Islam leader merited police protection. He visited Israel three times, once during the 1991 Iraqi Scud missile attacks.

That’s why it “pained him deeply that his sole legacy might be about” the 1991 Crown Heights riots,  referring to the nadir of the Dinkins mayoralty, as well as a low point in the city’s history. A Jewish man was killed and many others injured during what some have described as a “pogrom” directed by Blacks against Jews; the unrest went on for three days amid repeated, widespread demands for Dinkins to put an end to it.

“He is someone who would still, 25 years after leaving office, go to Jewish events, pro-Israel events, with no reason other than that he cared about these causes, and even though he knew people who were critical of him are regulars at these events,” said Block.

In his uphill 1993 re-election bid, in a state investigation of the riots, and in a civil suit by the Crown Heights Jewish community, Dinkins had to repeatedly defend against allegations that he allowed the unrest to continue in order to let the rioters “vent” anger over the shocking accidental death of a child struck by a car in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade. Dinkins’ equivocal reaction to prior, months-long nasty protests outside a Korean deli in Brooklyn had already painted the mayor as adverse to confrontation.

Mayor David Dinkins, center, looks on as a Jewish man and a Black man argue during riots in Crown Heights in 1991. (New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

The state’s Girgenti Report on the violence said that while Dinkins did not restrain the cops, neither did he act decisively to end the unrest, even as Al Sharpton and others fueled the protests, until the fourth day. The mayor never denied making mistakes, but he bristled at the restraint allegation.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that I held the police back — and there never will be,” Dinkins said in a speech at the Jewish Theological Seminary more than a year after the riots, according to JTA. “And every time this utterly false charge is repeated, the social fabric of our city tears just a little bit more. It must stop.”

Block notes that the mayor had a good relationship with the Rebbe, carried a keychain with his picture on it, and maintained a dialogue with him after the unrest.

But the riots gave Republican Rudolph Giluliani, whom Dinkins narrowly defeated in 1989, a powerful weapon four years later. It would help him capture an unusually high share of the Jewish vote for a Republican (estimated at 70 percent) that would help propel him to City Hall, with prominent Jewish activists campaigning alongside him.

Standing Up for Zionism

I first met Mayor Dinkins in 1989, shortly after his upset victory over Ed Koch and other candidates in the crowded Democratic primary. As a part-time, rookie reporter at JTA, I was there to ask Dinkins about his role as co-founder of the Black American Support Israel Committee (BASIC). In 1975, BASIC took out a full-page New York Times ad, signed by a who’s-who of black elected officials and civil rights leaders, denouncing the notorious United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Following a speaking event at UJA-Federation headquarters, I asked Dinkins what BASIC had done since the ad. Finger waving and voice raised, Dinkins bristled at the implication that the ad wasn’t enough.

“A lot of people were silent at that time!” he said.

When I joined the staff of The Jewish Week in late 1992, post-Crown Heights, Dinkins was facing an uphill rematch against Giuliani, and Koch hadn’t helped his successor by calling the events in Crown Heights a pogrom.

But he never shied away from discussing the riots and its aftermath. In a meeting with Jewish Week writers and editors he spoke movingly about having visited Yankel Rosenbaum, the yeshiva student stabbed in the first hours of the riots, in the hospital, and his shock in learning that Rosenbaum later died of his wounds.

Over the years, I would call Dinkins many times at Columbia University, where he taught public affairs, for reaction to Crown Heights-related news. I never once got a no-comment.

When I asked in 1998 what he would have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight, he seemed to point to over-reliance on his police commissioner at the time, Lee Brown, and misplaced confidence, despite seeing the situation on the ground firsthand, that it was being handled.

“In retrospect, you do a lot of things differently when you’re smarter,” he said. “There came a time when I said to the police commissioner, ‘Whatever you’re doing isn’t working sufficiently well.’”

Aside from his Jewish legacy, Crown Heights also obscured many of his single-term policy achievements.

Mayor Dinkins joins Nelson Mandela and boxers from the United States who helped in the struggle against apartheid during an event at the United Nations, June 22, 1990. From left to right are: Mike Tyson; Jose Sulaiman, president of World Boxing Council; Mandela; promoter Don King; Sugar Ray Leonard; Dinkins, and Joe Frazier. (UN Photo/Milton Grant)

“His Safe Streets, Safe City plan increased the size of the police force to roughly 38,000 officers,” The New York Times noted this week. “Homicides … fell by 13 percent during his tenure to 1,946 in his last year in office and declined much more under Rudolph W. Giuliani, who succeeded him.’” Dinkins also began the revitalization of Times Square, won the city the Democratic convention bid in 1992, rebuilt the Queens tennis center and, not least, inspired a new generation of African Americans to seek political office.

Aside from his catchphrase that New York was a “gorgeous mosaic” of ethnic groups he was also known for his frequent entreaties to help the needy, noting that “a society should be judged by how we treat the least among us.”

 “Stylish, measured, dignified, trailblazer”

“David Dinkins got a bad deal,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf posted on Facebook on Tuesday. “He inherited the Koch significant crime increase, Koch-crested racial tension, and the reverberation from [a] Koch third term described by respected journalists as the most corrupt mayoral administration since Jimmy Walker,” who was mayor from 1926 to 1932.

Added Sheinkopf: “Economic conditions with recession were terrible with 1 million New Yorkers receiving public assistance. … [The] Crown Heights riots were a tragedy as were the Beame administration 1977 riots which helped to elect Koch,” referring to the looting that followed that year’s blackout.

But Dinkins was best known for his affable manner and calm style.

“No matter that I was part of the team that defeated him in 1993, I knew the former Mayor as a gentleman and a very decent person,” said Bruce Teitelbaum, who succeeded Block as the Jewish liaison to City Hall under Giuliani. “He was a class act who tried to elevate the debate and do good. Stylish, measured, dignified, trailblazer.”

Long before the Obamas coined the phrase “when they go low, we go high,” Dinkins responded to an attack by Giuliani on his tenure by inviting his successor to dinner at his home, which Giuliani declined. (Dinkins later noted that “Rudy and I are one and one” in electoral matchups, and what would happen in a tiebreaker was anyone’s guess.)

He also had a quick sense of humor. At a press conference at an office building endorsing one of his successor Democrats for mayor (I forget which), when the lights briefly went out leaving the event momentarily in the dark, Dinkins said “Well I knew 32BJ [the building workers union] isn’t with us. But this is ridiculous.”

At his core a people person, Dinkins loved public events, and Block suspects the pandemic isolation of the past eight months, along with the death of his wife, contributed to declining health. “His morale suffered, unfortunately,” Block said, adding: “He had a way of showing people that he really cared about you. He was truly a mensch. A gentleman in a way that is not as common these days.”

Adam Dickter reported for The Jewish Week from 1992-2014. He now works in public relations.

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