Hillary's Crown Heights Problem

If Rudy Giuliani plays the race card, he most likely will try to attack Former Mayor David Dinkins's legacy in one of the city's ethnic hotbeds

Kovner said that since the tragedy, Jewish leaders like Martin Bresler, Diane Steinman, Martin Begun, and Howard Teich have reached out— to their own detriment— to the family of Gavin Cato.

All four, portraying themselves "as representatives of the Jewish community, paid a visit to Gavin Cato's father to express the community's profound condolences," Kovner noted.

"I was proud that they did so and deeply regret that I had not done so myself," he added. "When the group arrived, they were received in an African American restaurant only to find that, in appreciation, the family had arranged for a kosher dinner to be served. But their visit drew a barrage of vicious racist threats upon those attending. Some members of the delegation who paid that condolence call, particularly Howard Teich . . ., had their homes and offices picketed, with signs far more offensive than those criticized [by the Giuliani administration] during the recent demonstrations regarding the killing of Amadou Diallo."

Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights
photo: Meg Handler
Holding the Race Card: Jewish Demonstrators in Crown Heights

Kovner said that compassionate Jews today are doing a lot more than paying condolence calls to African Americans. They are, he added, becoming more deeply involved in the struggles for racial justice led by black leaders such as Dinkins and Sharpton.

"Police violence had reached epidemic proportions in our city and, as is too often the case, only the minorities and the dispossessed could be heard to address this critical condition," Kovner declared. "Some would say that this was not an issue for the Jewish community. After all, Jews are not frequently victims of police violence, at least not for many, many years. The city's crime rates are down and those injured have plenty of leaders who are heard frequently and vociferously. Unfortunately, that view, widely held, ignores our collective history, in which our families knew all too well what it was to live in fear of the police— to walk gingerly in their presence.

"When thousands— hundred of thousands — of our fellow New Yorkers now have reason to fear the police, given our history, you would have thought that the organized Jewish community would have been the first to protest the wave of police violence and racial profiling. Unfortunately, you would have been wrong. It is worthy of note that the American Jewish Committee was the first Jewish organization to protest publicly. They did so at a press conference held at the steps of City Hall, which had recently been liberated for such occasions by order of the federal courts. I was proud that shortly thereafter many other Jewish groups, particularly Jews for Racial and Economic Justice— many rabbis, among others— were arrested and incarcerated for several hours in solidarity with those who organized the protest."

If Kovner's assessment of the current state of black-Jewish relations is correct, then David Dinkins indeed may have a point about Rudy Giuliani and the Crown Heights race card. Blacks, Jews, and progressive whites— who could form the backbone of a winning Clinton coalition— won't stand for it.

"What Mrs. Clinton ought to say to Rudy Giuliani's supporters," Sharpton suggests, "is 'Show me the evidence that David Dinkins led a pogrom. Show me the evidence that David Dinkins is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.' What they are really saying to her is that she should not be dealing with black issues or anybody with a strong black image."

Unlike Dinkins, Reverend Sharpton believes Giuliani will show his true colors on Crown Heights. "It's not like he's not gonna raise it," Sharpton scoffs. But he agrees that such a mean-spirited move would spell disaster for the mayor.

Sharpton recalls that during his ill-fated 1989 mayoral campaign, a desperate Giuliani, seeking to defeat Dinkins, ran a series of commercials featuring the black ultra-nationalist Sonny Carson saying he was not anti-Semitic but "anti-white."

"It backfired because David Dinkins took him head-on," Sharpton claims. "That stuff with Sonny didn't work then and it shouldn't work in 2000. Hillary Clinton cannot afford to let Rudy Giuliani scare her from adopting a black strategy. I predict that they will push this Crown Heights race button until it backfires on them."

Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir

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