Home Subscribe Services Support Us

Verbal Violence
Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Crown Heights riots of 1991 have been characterized by The New York Times of late with an intriguing phrase: "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews." The paper has twice invoked the phrase in the context of the appellate court reversal, on technical grounds, of Lemrick Nelson Jr.'s federal civil rights conviction for the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum during those riots.

Maybe I'm overly sensitive to such matters these days, but the word "between" struck me as implying that the violence of those days was essentially a mutual affair, not at all what I recalled. So I contacted the reporter whose byline appeared on the reports.

When he admitted that his choice of phrase had "not been the wisest," I responded that I appreciated his honesty and was satisfied to know that a more appropriate description of the events would be used in future reports. Well, he said, he didn't know about that. The phrase, in the end, he insisted, was "not really inaccurate."

"How so?" I asked.

Well, some people, he suggested, might consider the car accident in which a Jewish driver had hit and killed a black child - the tragic mishap that set off the rioting - to itself constitute violence.

I interjected that most people would not describe an accident as an act of violence.

And what was more, he continued, ignoring my response, there was the matter of the interaction of Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Nelson. He seemed to remember reports of the former in some way attempting to hurt the latter.

It was then that I slipped, letting honesty get the better of diplomacy. "I think those justifications are rather outrageous."

He took great umbrage at my choice of adjective and told me he did not want to continue the conversation. I apologized and asked if he would please just elaborate on the assertions he had made. He refused and told me the conversation was over.

After hanging up, I typed up the details of our conversation while they were still fresh in my short-term memory, and then I consulted the United States Court of Appeals' "findings of fact" regarding the events that led to Mr. Rosenbaum's murder. That document made clear not only that the vehicular death was the result of an accident but that the subsequent incitement that followed was entirely the effort of blacks against Jews.

At the scene of the accident, the court found, while some members of an African American crowd attempted to aid the injured, others "began to attack the driver of the car."

"In the meantime," the document continues, "a crowd of several hundred people" gathered, some of whom "complained about Jews. At about eleven o' clock, a bald, African-American man" addressed the crowd; his "angry and aggressive" speech, on videotape, was reported to have included the exhortation "Let's get the Jews," a chant taken up by the crowd, which proceeded, at the bald man's urging, to move toward Kingston Avenue.

It was nearby where Mr. Rosenbaum was murdered. According to the document: "A group of ten and fifteen people, including Mr. Nelson, then began beating him, knocking him to the ground and striking him repeatedly."

As to violence on Mr. Rosenbaum's part, the judicial findings are rather clear. As a police car approached the scene, "Nelson attempted to flee with the rest of the crowd, but. Rosenbaum grabbed hold of Nelson's T-shirt and prevented him from making good his escape. After trying unsuccessfully, by other means, to induce Rosenbaum to let him go, Nelson. stabbed Rosenbaum and fled."

I faxed the reporter those findings, along with my detailed recollection of our conversation, and informed him that I withdrew my apology for calling his contentions outrageous - for that was precisely what they were. I reminded him that he, not I, had ended our conversation, and informed him that I would be happy to resume it if he pleased.

When he didn't respond, I sent a copy of the correspondence to the Times' Executive Editor, Howell Raines.

A few days later, I received a written reply from Senior Editor Bill Borders, who did not address the reporter's justifications but offered instead one of his own. He cited an August 21, 1991 report in his paper describing "blacks and Hasidim throwing bottles and rocks at each other" on August 20.

"None of this, of course," he wrote, "is an attempt to discover who started the violence or who was ultimately responsible, but it certainly seems clear that it involved both sides."

Yankel Rosenbaum, however, was murdered on the 19th, before any bottle or rock throwing by any of the area's Jews. I noted that fact to Mr. Borders, and informed him that, thus, the phrase ".he killed a Hasidic scholar. during violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews" remained both inaccurate and misleading.

As to the import of "who started the violence or who was ultimately responsible," I suggested he consider the case of a rapist who was subsequently scratched by his victim. Would the Times ever describe such a crime as "violence between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones"? I managed to restrain myself from referring to the nasty "violence between Nazis and Jews" in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The New York Times has come under attack in recent months for its Middle East coverage, by critics who accuse it of favoring a perversely "balanced" portrayal over true fairness and accuracy.

My recent interaction with the paper has nothing to do with the Middle East. But one might be forgiven, I think, for wondering about the fact that there nevertheless seems to be a disturbing common denominator.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



View Complete List

Too Perfect
Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann - 5759

In a Heartbeat
Rabbi Label Lam - 5769

Unity With Caution
Rabbi Berel Wein - 5766

Looking for a Chavrusah?

Intellectual Beliefs
Shlomo Katz - 5758

Parshas Noach
Shlomo Katz - 5772

New Stage, Old Actors
Rabbi Pinchas Winston - 5762

> The Ideal Way of Life
Shlomo Katz - 5768

Noach - A 'Standard' Tzaddik
Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann - 5764

The Sign of the Olive
Rabbi Naftali Reich - 5767

Frumster - Orthodox Jewish Dating

Noah's Spiritual Leadership
Rabbi Berel Wein - 5771

It's All About Redemption Part II
Rabbi Aron Tendler - 5766

Did The Animals Come Or Did Noach Have To Bring Them?
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5773


Sins Committed In Private Ultimately Lead To a Violent Society
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5765

The Meaning of Noach
Rabbi Berel Wein - 5770

Ark D'triumph
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky - 5758

Certain Things Noach Did Not Have To Worry About
Rabbi Yissocher Frand - 5775

Project Genesis Home

Torah Portion

Jewish Law



Learn the Basics




Ask The Rabbi

Knowledge Base


About Us

Contact Us

Free Book on Geulah! Home Copyright Information