Ari L. Goldman in a recent article in The Jewish Week tells us about the cover-up of anti-Semitism by the New York Times in 1991. He attributes this to the importance of the “frame” (or framing) in journalism. Journalists framed the story as a “racial” conflict and failed to see the anti-Semitism inherent in the riots.
One of the few exceptions was A.M. Rosenthal who wrote in his column for the New York Times two weeks after the riots ended “The press treats it all as some kind of cultural clash between a poverty-ridden people fed up with life and a powerful, prosperous and unfortunately peculiar bunch of stuck-up neighbors — very sad of course, but certainly understandable. No — it is an anti-Semitic pogrom and the words should not be left unsaid.”
The Crown Heights event occurred in August 1991 in the Crown Heights neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Crown Heights was and currently remains a primarily West Indian and African American community; however, it has a large minority of Jews. In the Jewish world it is known as the location of the official headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the world's larger and best-known Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism.
On August 19, 1991, Yosef Lifsh, a Lubavitcher Jew, lost control of his car while driving through the intersection of President Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, hitting and killing a seven year-old boy of Caribbean descent as he was playing on the sidewalk with his cousin. This event sparked rioting in Crown Heights, lasting for three days.
About three hours after the riots began, a group of approximately 20 young black men surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Lubavitcher Jew, a student at the University of Melbourne who was in the United States conducting research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him severely, fracturing his skull. Before being taken to the hospital, Rosenbaum was able to identify 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. as his assailant in a line-up shown to him by the police. Rosenbaum died later that night. Nelson was charged with murder and acquitted, but later convicted of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights; he eventually admitted that he had indeed stabbed Rosenbaum.
Ari L. Goldman reported from the scene for three days, working 12 hours shifts and only going home to sleep. He saw and heard many terrible things: police cars set on fire, stores being looted and people bloodied by Billy clubs, rocks and bottles. But when he picked up the paper, the article he read was not the story he had reported. He saw headlines that described the riots in terms solely of race. “Two Deaths Ignite Racial Clash in Tense Brooklyn Neighborhood,” the Times headline said. And, worse, he read an opening paragraph, what journalists call a “lead,” that was simply untrue: “Hasidim and blacks clashed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn through the day and into the night yesterday.”
Ari tells us that in all his reporting during the riots he never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. On Aug. 21, as Ari stood in a group of Chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. “Heil Hitler,” they chanted. “Death to the Jews.” Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing. Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward them and a Chasidic man just a few feet away from him was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most ran for cover.
Ari ran for a payphone and, “my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss. ‘You don’t know what’s happening here!’ I yelled. I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.”
Other reports from the scene describe someone shouting at about 11:00 PM of the first evening, “Let's go to Kingston Avenue and get a Jew!" A number of black youths then set off toward Kingston, a street of predominantly Jewish residents several blocks away, vandalizing cars and heaving rocks and bottles as they went. Jews were injured, stores were looted, and cars and homes were damaged. The rioters identified Jewish homes by the mezuzot affixed to the front doors. Rioters marched through Crown Heights carrying anti-Semitic signs and an Israeli flag was burned.
One of the bystanders, a woman identified as Sarah, remembered those days quite well.
“I had just returned home from Israel where I spent 6 idyllic weeks traveling the country and I returned home to fear and terror. My parents forbade us from leaving our home, especially at dusk. One Russian lady jumped to her death from her apartment, fearing the pogroms had followed her here to Crown Heights. Busloads of angry rioters were brought in to Crown Heights to add to the havoc, something that was not reported on at all but we saw the buses... It was a terrifying time for us and the scariest part was how no one seemed to care. Not the police, not the press, and not the broader Jewish community.”
On September 5, two weeks after the riot had been controlled, Anthony Graziosi, an Italian sales representative with a white beard dressed in dark business attire, was driving in the neighborhood. As he stopped at a traffic light at 11 p.m., six blocks away from where Yankel Rosenbaum had been murdered, a group of four black men surrounded his car and one of them shot and killed him. It was alleged by Graziosi's family and their attorney, as well as some well known political figures, that Graziosi's resemblance to a Hasidic Jew precipitated his murder. The New York Police Department, the Mayor, and the U.S. Justice Department did not agree. The murder was not treated as a bias crime.
Jews did not flee from Crown Heights after August 1991. The Lubavitch population of Crown Heights increased after the riot, and the area in which they reside has expanded.
But the inability of the media to recognize anti-Semitism when it is screaming at them remains a continuing problem for the Jewish People.