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What Caused The Crown Heights Riots?

What Caused The Crown Heights Riots?

‘Crown Heights was about ‘black anti-Semitism’!” Twenty years later, I still hear the trope.

The Crown Heights riots have resonated for years as a “flashpoint” between blacks and Jews in New York. Indeed, “Crown Heights” has become a code word for intractable neighborhood tension arising out of anti-Semitism emerging from the black community.

There is no question that a serious anti-Semitic outburst occurred in August 1991 — an anti-Semitic murder was committed. But what were the conditions in Crown Heights that led to the riots and the murder, beyond the striking of little Gavin Cato by a car in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade? The key question with respect to Crown Heights is not what happened there, but why; and whether the dynamics that caused Crown Heights were and are to be found elsewhere. Was Crown Heights sui generis? Or ought Crown Heights be extrapolated to the black population in general, and to other communities around the country?

The August 1991 events in Crown Heights had more to do with longstanding “tribal rivalries” — rivalries of real estate, power, culture — than with a deep-seated anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism that indeed may not have been present in the black population, which was hardly monolithic (it was largely West Indian), in that neighborhood. The conditions that caused Crown Heights were unique to Crown Heights, and had little to do with anti-Semitism, even as anti-Semitism did become a factor in the subsequent riot.

What Crown Heights was all about was the dilemma of two groups — Jewish and black — each growing rapidly in a small geographic area with limited land, struggling over access to housing and access to political power. It was a tinderbox ready to be set off, as it eventually was. It did not take long for the situation to be exploited by individuals from outside the neighborhood who cynically used anti-Semitism to achieve their goals.

Further, what was the nature of the anti-Semitism that emerged during the riots? Was the anti-Semitism of the black street kid yelling “Kill the Jew!” in the frenzy of the riots the same as the anti-Semitism of jihadist crazies? We won’t know very much about what goes on in neighborhoods like Crown Heights — where “Kill the Jew!” was directed at the most visible manifestation of white power — until we are ready to mount a serious ethnographic study on the street.

Consider another neighborhood, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Williamsburg has many of the same ingredients as did Crown Heights — “tribal” rivalries over land and power, a well organized and politically savvy chasidic group (in this case, the Satmar chasidim), a minority group that feels it has been given the short end of the stick. Williamsburg has for years been a tinderbox that could explode as well. Same situation as Crown Heights, only in Williamsburg the community is made up of Hispanics and newly settled artists, and the streets never exploded.

Jerome Chanes was for 15 years national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC, now JCPA). He coordinated the national response to the Crown Heights riots.

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