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Interpretations of the Crown Heights Riot

From: American Jewish History
Volume 90, Number 2, June 2002
pp. 97-122 | 10.1353/ajh.2003.0035

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American Jewish History 90.2 (2002) 97-122

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Interpretations of the Crown Heights Riot

Edward S. Shapiro*

The Crown Heights riot of August 1991 was one of the most serious incidents of antisemitism in American history. It took place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the worldwide center of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, and lasted for three days. The riot was precipitated by an automobile accident involving a motorcade carrying the Lubavitcher rebbe back from one of his periodic trips to the Lubavitch cemetery in the borough of Queens. The accident killed a young boy named Gavin Cato and injured his cousin Angelina. The riot terrorized and traumatized the 20,000 Lubavitchers of Crown Heights. Yankel Rosenbaum, a Lubavitcher from Australia living temporarily in Crown Heights, was murdered; Bracha Estrin, a Lubavitch survivor of the Holocaust, committed suicide; six stores were looted; 152 police officers and 38 civilians claimed to have been injured; 27 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed; and 129 persons were arrested. 1

While the property damage and the number of killed and injured were small compared to other riots in American history, they did not appear so to contemporaries. The extensive attention the riot received was due in part to the fact that it occurred in the media center of America, if not of the world. The riot was preceded by two other events in 1991 which, along with the riot, seemed to indicate that the liberal political alliance between blacks and Jews was unraveling and that a new chapter in the history of black-Jewish relations and of New York City had opened. The first of these was the publication of the first volume of the Nation of Islam's Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which emphasizes the involvement of Jews in the slave trade and slavery. The second was a much-discussed speech in Albany in 1991 by Leonard Jeffries, a professor at City College of The City University of New York. He accused Jews of having controlled the slave trade and of subjecting blacks to derogatory stereotyping through their control of the mass media, particularly Hollywood. Jeffries' speech created an uproar in [End Page 97] New York and was one of the factors leading to his dismissal as chairman of his college's Black Studies Department. 2

Many questions emerged in the riot's aftermath. They involved, among other things, the nature of the medical care which Rosenbaum received at Kings County Hospital; the culpability of David Dinkins, the city's mayor, and Lee Brown, the police commissioner, in the city's failure to put down the riot immediately; the extent of aid provided the beleaguered Jews of Crown Heights by the Jewish establishment; and the history of black-Jewish relations and black-Lubavitch relations in Crown Heights prior to 1991. But the most important question concerned the character of the riot itself: what precisely occurred in Crown Heights beginning in the evening of August 19, 1991?

Almost immediately after the riot a host of differing interpretations emerged regarding its nature and origins. This effort at explanation, which continued throughout the 1990s, reflected the diverse political, religious, and social circumstances, the differing ideological assumptions, and the divergent understandings of the past by the journalists, sociologists, political activists, and historians who wrote about the riot. The diversity of explanations was to be expected. As the literary historian Alan Mintz has said, all historical narratives, "from the personal story to complex novels, are not simply naive and faithful transcriptions of experience but are built around preexisting armatures or schemata or master plots. New narratives may add to, play with, and subvert these story lines, but an appreciation of their uniqueness must begin with an understanding of the preexisting models." 3

Historians have distinguished between narratives of "memory" and narratives of "history." While memory is a product of folk remembrances and is shaped by contemporary concerns, history defers to professional standards and respects the integrity and complexity of the past. In his book Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity, Stanford historian Steven J. Zipperstein argues that...