Crown Heights riots panel postponed due to furor

Synagogue cancels event featuring activist who blamed “diamond dealers” for death of black boy during 1991 unrest.

'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK - A panel on the 1991 Crown Heights riots criticized for the inclusion of African-American activist Rev. Al Sharpton that was set to take place in Westhampton Beach on New York’s Long Island on Sunday has been postponed, The Jerusalem Post learned on Thursday.
A source close to Rabbi Marc Schneier, who organized the event, confirmed rumors that the discussion slated to take place at the Hampton Synagogue on the 20th anniversary of the third and final day of the riots that shook the mixed Brooklyn neighborhood had been canceled.
Controversy erupted earlier this week when the family of Yankel Rosenblum – a Jewish Australian murdered in the riots – learned of the decision to invite Sharpton, 56. They accuse him of inciting violence during the unrest in the Brooklyn neighborhood two decades ago.
Isaac Abraham, a Jewish activist and a confidante of the family, told the Post that Sharpton’s participation was an insult and called Schneier a “putz” for inviting him.
“I have no objection to having a panel on what happened, why it took so long to react and what we learned, but most people don’t get it,” Abraham said. “This was not a disruption between the African-American community and the Jews. It was a race riot.
It was incited by goons, thugs who started chasing Jews, found Rosenblum and lynched him. And Al Sharpton was the one who inflamed it even more, and a person like that should not be on a panel. Without insulting Rabbi Schneier, I don’t understand how he can have him on that panel, it’s an insult.”
The story was picked up by several media outlets and Sharpton’s attendance was called into question.
“[I] may or may not go,” Abraham told the New York Daily News on Wednesday. “I refuse to play into their extremism.”
The panel moderated by Schneier was also to have included Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council and City Councilwoman Letitia James of Crown Heights. The Hampton Synagogue’s website, which on Wednesday still promoted the event, was down throughout Thursday.
The Crown Heights riots erupted in August 1991 when a Jewish driver in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, then-leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hassidic sect, accidently ran over Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old child of Guyanese immigrants.
Rumors that the boy had been deliberately killed or had been neglected by medical services because of his race quickly spread, drawing African-American and West Indian protesters to the streets.
Jews were beaten by rioters, property looted and Rosenblum was stabbed to death.
Sharpton has been blamed for inflaming passions by organizing marches through the Jewish third of the neighborhood and saying “diamond dealers” were responsible for the death of Cato.
Abrahams on Thursday said he didn’t believe that Sharpton would use the platform at Hampton Synagogue to apologize for his conduct during the riots or to try and mend relations with the Jewish community.
“Knowing Sharpton, it’s hard to believe,” he said. “If he does that we’d be ready to see what’s behind it in between the lines. But let him say it first.”
Schneier has been active in recent years in trying to bridge gaps between Jews and Muslims. Before the controversy erupted, he said he hoped the panel discussion would help break new ground in relations between the Jewish and black communities.
“They freeze on where he [Sharpton] was 20 years ago,” Schneier told The Jewish Week this week. “People do evolve and grow. These are the topics that are going to be discussed. It’s going to be a watershed event.”
Schneier was unavailable for comment at press time.