Hillary 'Banned' In Crown Heights

The First Lady's embrace of Former Mayor David Dinkins ignites an orthodox Jewish backlash

A flip-flop by Mrs. Clinton on the issue of David Dinkins seems out of the question. But even if the First Lady were to make contradictory statements about Dinkins's role in Crown Heights to placate the Hasidim, he would still be held responsible by a community that, in Sperlin's words, "went through a holocaust for four days and nights."

"We know exactly who David Dinkins is," Sperlin insists.

In August 1991, racial tensions exploded after a Hasidic driver in a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe accidentally struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old African American child. Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian rabbinical student, was fatally stabbed during four days of clashes between blacks and Lubavitchers.

Last year, the city paid $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Rosenbaum's family, several people who were injured, and three Jewish institutions that claimed property damage. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also apologized for the actions of his predecessor, who was blamed for not ordering a quicker and tougher police response. Although Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, and then police commissioner Lee Brown, who is black, both denied that a "no arrest" policy was in place during the riots, Giuliani's criticism of their handling of the crisis contributed to Dinkins's defeat in 1993.

Sperlin calls Dinkins a "racist," reiterating that Dinkins "did not do anything the first night or the second or third night after school buses got burned, people got hurt, windows got shot out, and the police put their hands in their pockets."

Dinkins says he did nothing wrong and points to the conclusion of a federal judge who found that he and Brown "acted reasonably" in their efforts to end the violence.

"The same thing that he did the third night he could have done the first night, and if he couldn't do it the first night he definitely should have done it the second night," Sperlin argues. "He waited and let them [blacks] riot for three nights. We will never forgive Mayor Dinkins for that."

So it is obvious who the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council intends to throw its support behind in the upcoming Senate race.

"Our community has a close relationship with Mayor Giuliani, and we're gonna do what the mayor wants us to do," Sperlin offers. "He is a friend in good times and bad times. And we've only had good times with the mayor."

Sperlin denies that as a result of the apology and settlement, Giuliani has inflamed tensions between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights. He says Giuliani remains optimistic that the neighborhood's two dominant ethnic groups will patch up their differences. Sperlin recalls that at a picnic sponsored by the 71st Precinct in 1995, Giuliani turned to him and said, "Mr. Sperlin, we have to seek to build a bridge together with African Americans."

He says one has been built and is being fortified by events that rarely get reported by the media. "I speak to my neighbors," he says. "I have a lot of African American neighbors: 'Good morning Rose, can I help you?' There is another lady, Ira, an old lady across the street, who my wife checks up on every couple of days. We have very nice African American neighbors. Every Friday afternoon, from spring to summer before the Sabbath, black and Hasidic youths play baseball. This is something the mayor initiated. The mayor built this bridge."

But at least one associate of the mayor refuses to cross that bridge. Early this summer, Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani's political action director, declared that the advisers surrounding Mrs. Clinton are the same people who advised Dinkins when he was mayor, suggesting that in a potential Senate contest involving Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton, Jewish voters won't want to return to "failed policies" of the past.

The impact of the Lubavitcher backlash, according to Sperlin, will reverberate among African American candidates seeking an electoral edge in 2000.

He claims that last year Assemblyman Clarence Norman was able to beat back a strong challenge— defeating former cop James Davis 55 to 45 percent— after Norman made a desperate appeal to the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council for votes. At the time, Norman was overseeing a bitter race between Councilmember Martin Maleve Dilan and Dilan's onetime close friend, Assemblyman Daryl Towns. The race reportedly was fueled by a rivalry between Towns's father, Congressman Edolphus Towns, and Dilan's sponsor, Norman. Dilan lost his primary battle against Towns, 57 to 30 percent. "I told Clarence Norman that my community was behind him and they were," Sperlin says. (Norman did not return a Voice phone call for comment.)

But feisty Councilmember Una Clarke, who represents parts of Crown Heights, says that regardless of what the Jewish Community Council demands in return for its support she won't grovel. "They wouldn't dare ask me to condemn David Dinkins," says Clarke, who is mulling a run in the 11th Congressional District against veteran lawmaker Major Owens. "I was in the streets for four days and four nights [during the racial upheaval]," she adds. "It was not a one-sided affair and I am not in the business of condemning others so that I can be promoted."

Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir

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