This Day in Jewish History

1991: Blacks in Brooklyn Riot Against Lubavitchers After Fatal Car Accident

With Al Sharpton fanning the flames, a road accident turned into three days of attacks on ultra-orthodox Jews in Crown Heights.

Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian graduate student doing research at New York's Yivo Institute, an ultra-Orthodox but not a Lubavitcher, was beaten and stabbed during the first day of the Crown Heights rioting, and died of his injuries that night.
AP

A fatal car accident on the evening of August 19, 1991, was the prelude to three days of interracial violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, during which members of the neighborhood's Lubavitcher community were attacked by their black neighbors.

The accident involved the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which ran over and killed a black child and badly injured another. Outraged neighborhood residents then targeted and murdered a young man whose only crime was to be dressed like a Haredi Jew. Three days of additional unrest then followed, described by some Jews as a pogrom.

'Pogrom' in Crown Heights

At 8:20 P.M. on August 19, a Monday, Rabbi Schneerson, 89, was being driven back to Crown Heights after his weekly visit to the grave of his late wife in Queens. His car was accompanied by another Chabad vehicle, with the convoy being led, as always, by an unmarked New York police car, with a flashing light on its roof.

When the cars, driving on President St., reached Utica Ave., the driver of the third and final vehicle, Yosef Lifsh, was confronted with a yellow light. Lifsh ran the light and hit a car driving along Utica Ave., before veering onto the sidewalk and trapping two children beneath his station wagon as he crashed into an apartment building.

One of them, Gavin Cato, died, while the other, his cousin Angela Cato, was severely injured. Both children were seven years old, black and the children of immigrants from Guyana.

Police and emergency medical teams quickly appeared, as did a large crowd of onlookers, some of whom began to assault Lifsh. City ambulances evacuated the Cato children, and the police asked volunteers from the Jewish Hatzolah rescue crew to remove Lifsh and his passengers, for their protection.

A rumor quickly circulated, however, that the Jewish rescue team had refused to tend to non-Jews.

Later that evening, a group of some 20 young neighborhood men surrounded and attacked Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian graduate student doing research at New York's Yivo Institute.Though he was not a member of the Lubavitcher community, Rosenbaum was dressed like an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and the rioters beat and knifed him. Rosenbaum died later that night of a fractured skull and stab wounds.

'Diamond merchants'

In the three days of unrest in Crown Heights that ensued, with homes and businesses of Jewish residents (at the time, the Chabad community numbered an estimated 20,000) being attacked and in some cases looted.

Most of the injuries, however were among the police, though it is generally agreed that the initial police response was not sufficiently aggressive. David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, has vehemently denied that he had ordered the force to hold back.

In the meantime, outside activists, including the provocative black nationalist minister Al Sharpton, carried out a neighborhood march in which anti-Jewish calls were voiced. Sharpton also spoke at Gavin Cato’s funeral, drawing a connection between "the diamond merchants here in Crown Heights" and "Oppenheimer in South Africa."

"The issue," argued Sharpton, "is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid.”  

For the neighborhood's Lubavitchers, the rioting constituted a "pogrom." They were joined in that opinion by many Jewish journalists, as well as former mayor Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, the man who would defeat Dinkins for the mayoralty two years later.

The analogy was an overreach, however, if only because the violence was not encouraged by the government. For his part, Dinkins characterized the murder of Rosenbaum a “lynching,” making a parallel between racially motivated group violence of one era with that of another. For his part, Rabbi Schneerson, who died a year later, was not heard from.

There is still disagreement regarding the roots of the violence – anti-Semitism, racial or economic inequality, political incitement – but in the immediate aftermath of the events, members of both the Jewish and black communities worked hard to improve mutual relations. There was no flight of Lubavitchers from the neighborhood, and even if it is natural for the two communities to be in competition for real estate and political power, both have since made great efforts to keep things civil.