Bonfire In Crown Heights

As an uneasy truce prevailed in New York City's Crown Heights neighborhood last week, it was tempting to see the conflagration as the latest chapter in the tangled history of black-Jewish relations. Or as the inevitable end of a jobless summer in which scores of black youths had nothing better to do than throw rocks. Or as Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" come to life. The ingredients were all there: a fatal car accident in a troubled neighborhood, fiery preachers, angry black mobs and ineffectual city officials. But more than anything else, the rioting in Crown Heights was the clash of two disparate worlds sharing the same streets, each viewing itself as victims. Resentment had long simmered between the Orthodox Lubavitcher Hasidic sect and the neighborhood's black majority. Each responded with the rhetoric of age-old oppression. "We in Crown Heights have seen a pogrom with our own eyes," said Rabbi Shmuel Butman, speaking for the Jewish community. Countered black activist Alton Maddox Jr.: "New York is the Mississippi of the '90s. "

The uproar began on the evening of Aug. 19 as police escorted the 89-year-old Lubavitcher Grand Rebbe on his weekly visit to his wife's grave. The last car in the small motorcade allegedly ran a red light and swerved onto the curb, killing 7-year-old Gavin Cato and critically injuring his cousin Angela, also 7. A rumor spread that a Hasidic-run ambulance, arriving first on the scene, had tended to the Hasidic driver and ignored the black children. Police later explained they had told the ambulance to extricate the driver from the angry crowd that had gathered and that city paramedics would treat the kids. But that mattered little to the mob. Rioting ensued and three hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic scholar from Australia, was fatally stabbed in apparent retribution for Cato's death.

For the next three nights, police and black protesters skirmished on the streets as angry mobs torched cars, looted stores and set fire to buildings. Hasidim occasionally joined in the rock-throwing. At one point, Mayor David Dinkins was pelted and booed by black demonstrators. Only after 1,500 riot-clad police took back the streets did quiet return, leaving 163 people arrested, 66 civilians and 173 cops injured, and 28 police cars damaged.

Tensions had flared before between the two groups, but never with such force. Blacks have long charged that the Hasidim use their political clout to win a disproportionate share of community services and receive preferential treatment. "I have to dodge bullets and they get a police escort to a cemetery," said one angry black woman. Hasidim insist that special arrangements like closing streets during holidays are necessary for their religious practices-and complain that black violence has made the area unsafe. Each side found justification for anger in the recent events. Jewish leaders said the chants of "Heil Hitler"--and Rosenbaum's death--were evidence of anti-Semitism. Black activists demanded that the Hasidic driver be arrested. If not, warned the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, "it will be one more example of the Hasidic community getting away with murder."

That demand may well go unsatisfied. While a 16-year-old black was indicted in the Rosenbaum stabbing, another grand jury was still weighing evidence against the driver, Yosef Lifsh. City officials took pains to explain that running a red light and causing a fatality is not usually enough by itself to warrant a criminal indictment in New York State. Black activist attorney Colin Moore claimed witnesses could attest that Lifsh was intoxicated and speeding, and that results of his breath test had been rigged. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes called such charges baseless. Black leaders demanded that Hynes be removed from the case, on the ground that he has close ties to the Jewish community.

The Crown Heights violence could easily flare again, particularly if the grand jury declines to indict Lifsh. "Regardless of what is done, at least one community will be upset," said Hynes. Black activists demanded a full investigation into Hasidic privileges; Jewish leaders called for a federal probe of alleged civil-rights violations. With rhetoric fast outrunning reason, the two sides seemed destined to remain worlds apart.