30 Years Later: Remembering Crown Heights

Anti-police policies and anti-Semitism that fueled riots 30 years ago are on the rise again

August 19, 2021

Thirty years ago, anti-Semitic mobs plundered the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn for three days, chanting Nazi slogans, destroying Jewish homes and businesses, and lynching a young Jewish seminary student.

On the night of Aug. 19, 1991, a 22-year-old Orthodox Jewish man named Yosef Lifsh lost control of his car and skidded onto the sidewalk, killing a seven-year-old black boy named Gavin Cato and injuring his seven-year-old cousin. Rumors quickly spread that Lifsh had been intoxicated and that a private Jewish community ambulance service had treated Lifsh while refusing to treat the injured children—claims that were later determined to be false.

The neighborhood, which was majority black with a growing Orthodox Jewish minority, erupted in violence. Within hours of the boy’s death, 250 rioters descended on a Jewish religious school and set its van on fire. Mobs marched through the streets shouting "death to the Jews," smashing car windows, and beating Jewish pedestrians.

Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Jewish seminary student from Australia, was stabbed to death by rioters who shouted, "Let’s get the Jew!"

The police struggled to deal with the riots in the face of anti-law-enforcement sentiments in then-New York City mayor David Dinkins’s office and among city leadership. Department leaders "emphasized restraint, fearing that aggressive action would exacerbate already-strong feelings and make the police the focus of the crowds’ anger," according to a 656-page report on the riots compiled by Richard H. Girgenti under then-governor Mario Cuomo’s administration.

Police weren’t given helmets or shields, with the Brooklyn South chief explaining that this was "not our style of policing in New York City. We don’t use clubs or horses," according to the Girgenti report. One officer advised Jews to leave the neighborhood, telling Rabbi Joseph Spielman that the police were not able to "hold the street and guarantee the safety of the Jews in the area."

Without a strong police response, the riots raged on for three days as city leadership downplayed the unrest. Dinkins questioned whether Rosenbaum’s stabbing had anything to do with the riots, saying, "Whether that’s related, whether that’s retaliatory, I don’t know."

Self-proclaimed civil rights leaders stepped in to fan the flames. On the afternoon of Aug. 20, Al Sharpton showed up to address a growing crowd of black protesters in Crown Heights and called for the arrest of Lifsh, the Jewish driver who hit the 7-year-old boy. "We are on the verge of an explosion," threatened Sharpton, who claimed that "apartheid ambulance services" run by the Jewish community were responsible for the child’s death.

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Hundreds of rioters pelted Chabad-Lubavitch’s headquarters with rocks and bottles, chanted "heil Hitler," and burned an Israeli flag. Mobs also looted businesses and firebombed a jewelry store as police looked on, under orders from department leadership to "stand fast and not take any action."

When rioters aimed their bricks and bottles at one of the police lines, a high-ranking police official got on a megaphone and told the officers to "retreat back to the precinct," according to the Girgenti report. "Everybody ran," recalled one officer.

As the violence continued, calls poured into the 911 police emergency line.

One man called in to report that a group of rioters were "stoning the Jews on the corner of Lexington … flinging all the stones in the Jews' windows," according to a transcript published in the Girgenti report.

"These guys are beating up this Jewish lady," said another caller. "I hear the lady screaming."

One woman called in to report that rioters were "pulling people out of the cars. All the Jews that come down the block, they take them out of the car and beating ‘em up."

The operators repeatedly told callers that police were already in the area and declined to dispatch additional officers.

Many of the calls came in from Jewish homes that were being attacked by mobs wielding bricks and other weapons. One Jewish woman, returning home Tuesday night with her three small children, said she was chased to her door by a group of rioters chanting "heil Hitler" and "kill the Jews." As she latched the deadbolt, someone threw a brick through her window.

"They’re in front of my house! … Please, they’re breaking my windows!" said the woman in one of six calls she made to 911 in a seven-minute span.

The operator assured the woman that police were on their way, but they never showed up.

Many of the 911 calls were incorrectly coded as "disorderly group" or "criminal mischief," and "consequently they were handled as low priority calls," according to the Girgenti report.

"911 jobs received significantly slower assignment of police resources during the disturbance than during the preceding week," the report noted.

On the third day of the rioting, Dinkins visited Crown Heights to meet with a group of community leaders and was confronted by groups of rioters throwing rocks and bottles. That night, after eight police were shot and injured by a rooftop sniper, Dinkins changed course and ordered a stronger police crackdown.

Sharpton and other black leaders promoted anti-Semitic rhetoric, even after order was restored. At Gavin Cato’s funeral, Sharpton blamed the car accident on "the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights."

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said Jewish leaders failed to call out black leaders who tolerated anti-Semitism in their communities prior to the riots. He said he is concerned that many Jewish groups are making the same mistake today, when the majority of perpetrators of violent anti-Semitic attacks in New York are black.

"During and after the Crown Heights riots Jewish leaders refused to demand that black leaders publicly condemn members of their community for wrongly and mindlessly attacking Jews," said Klein, adding that black leaders should "publicly condemn these attacks and say they’re a disgrace to the community."

Today, with anti-Semitic attacks spiking across the United States, many of the problems that fueled the Crown Heights riots—including anti-police policies and the failure of politicians to call out anti-Semitism among their supporters—are on the rise, according to Jewish leaders.

"Today’s NYPD, diminished because of the Defunding the Police movement, is striving to be responsive to the current surge in violent anti-Semitic hate in NYC," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean and director of global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The top political leadership in New York have shown little to no interest in remembering and learning from the past, let alone consistently taking on Jew-hatred."

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Rabbi Cooper said one of the lessons of Crown Heights was to encourage outreach between Jewish and black communities and to "hold political leaders accountable" for protecting Jewish residents, something he said the current top leadership in New York has not done effectively.

"The Jewish community must work with and demand more from the next mayor of NYC and the City Council to curb anti-Semitic violence and hate," Cooper said.

Cooper also said Jewish organizations should avoid partnering with Sharpton due to his actions during the riots.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-bigotry watchdog group, has repeatedly appeared on Sharpton's MSNBC show Politics Nation to promote ADL initiatives, including a campaign to ban Donald Trump from Facebook. The ADL declined to comment on the anniversary of the Crown Heights riots when contacted by the Free Beacon.

"Rev. Al Sharpton and other inciters were not held accountable," said Cooper. "He was able to build his brand as a leader of the African-American community with the help of the media. That was a lesson not lost on other demagogues."

Read all the Free Beacon's Crown Heights coverage here.