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Twenty years ago this weekend, the neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn erupted in a vicious riot between members of the Jewish community and members of the Black community after two related incidents sparked the fury. As Wikipedia explains,

Crown Heights was and currently remains a primarily West Indian and African American community; however, it has a large minority of Jews. The riot began on August 19, 1991 after the child (Gavin Cato) of two Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of a prominent Hasidic rabbi. During the riot, an Orthodox Jew (Yankel Rosenbaum) was killed.

The riot unveiled long simmering tensions between the Crown Heights’ Black and Jewish communities.

It also had an impact on the 1993 mayoral race, and ultimately led to a successful outreach program between Black and Jewish leaders that helped improve race relations in the city.

Rev. Al Sharpton, who was the most powerful voice for Black New Yorkers during that time, led many peaceful marches following the riots and also spoke at the funeral for seven year old Gavin. As part of the 20th anniversary of the riots, a synagogue led by Rabbi Marc Schneier (President of the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding) in West Hampton invited Rev. Sharpton to speak at the temple this Sunday. 

As word spead that the Rev would be speaking, controversy erupted when the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum publicly objected to Al Sharpton’s participation in the forum at Rabbi Schneier’s synagogue.  

GlobalGrind has exclusively obtained a letter that Rev. Sharpton sent to Rabbi Marc Schneier this morning addressing the latest controversy.



Dear Marc: 
I realize that for the last two days the people in my office at National Action Network have been working with your office to adjust the times of Sunday’s scheduled event so that it can be earlier in the day so as to not conflict with my live radio show.

Over the last twenty-hours I have been made aware of local detractors of yours and mine that want to engage in the business of division and distortion rather than respect your work and attempt to have dialogue even among those that may disagree.

I remember when the Government of Israel invited me into the country in 2001. In a meeting with then Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres who hosted my trip, he encouraged and arranged for me to bring my message against terrorism (in the wake of the 9/11 attack) to Yasir Arafat.  You very publicly said I should never meet with Arafat, even if Peres sent me. However, you have also stood with us when injustices and intolerance occurred.

It is for that reason I accepted your invitation and tried to adjust my schedule because over the years you have been that leader that national figures respect to be a healer. One who can provide a fair forum even if your congregants may question or disagree with the speaker, whether it’s Hillary Clinton coming to your Synagogue after kissing Arafat’s wife’s cheek or Glenn Beck last week. Please do not let shallow petty people reduce you from your coveted role in this nation.  However, there are those who want to distort and rewrite history for their own purposes. 

Governor Mario Cuomo commissioned a state study on Crown Heights that painstakingly examined all sides.  Even that report made it clear that I had no role in any violence.  In fact, the night that Yankel Rosenbaum was viciously killed I was at home in New Jersey and did not know that any violence had occurred.  I came into Crown Heights and eulogized Gavin Cato at the request of his family and led peaceful protests.  If people disagreed with my language or reasons for peaceful protests, that is why you have dialogue, which we have had many forums about over the last twenty years.  Putting aside the demagoguery, Norman Rosenbaum, who I have never met or talked to lost his brother. Despite the ugly things he has said about Mayor David Dinkins or me down through the years, he speaks from his pain, a pain I feel has been misinformed and manipulated. You and I should separate the demagoguery of some from the pain of a brother if we are to be the leaders we seek to be.

The same year of the Crown Heights riot, a white man stabbed me in my chest while I was leading a peaceful march in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn while protesting the racial killing of Yusuf Hawkins. I went to that man’s trial and stood before the judge and forgave him. I later visited him in jail. I must look at that scar every morning to this very day. I did it to be a better leader and a better person.

It is in that spirit that I seek to respect Norman Rosenbaum and the pain he must feel, even though in my opinion he has been exploited and misled about me, Mayor Dinkins and others in our community. We must seek to heal people’s pain and not just seek to defend ourselves. 
Since the event has now been distorted and would cause pain to him, I, out of respect to his request, have decided to decline to participate in Sunday’s event.

In fact, I recommend that you reschedule the event to a time that is not confused with a rehashing of what happened, which would only lead to unhealthy demagoguery seeking to distort the events around Crown Heights. There should be a conversation where true leaders can talk about our true differences and need for reconciliation to further progress between Black and Jewish communities.

I have made mistakes in my career, but the allegations around Crown Heights, which is proven to be patently untrue, was not one of them and I seek to continue to grow as I hope you will. My language and tone at times has been questioned and at times has been over the line. I wish to discuss this openly so that others may grow by my example. Clearly, the Al Sharpton of 2011 is not the Al Sharpton of 1991.

Next weekend I will be part of the ceremony for the unveiling of the monument dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I will lead a march on that Saturday for jobs with his eldest son Martin Luther King, III. I hope you will join us, as Jewish leaders joined Dr. King 48-years-ago. There were extremists in both communities at that time that attacked Dr. King and those leaders that stood with him anyhow. None of us are even remotely near being a Dr. King, but even flawed men can walk in his path and in walking in his path you must stand against those who are in the business of division. In doing so, however, we must not step over those in genuine pain.

Yours In Progress,

Reverend Al Sharpton



Rabbi Marc Schneier responded with a letter this afternoon to Rev. Sharpton:

Dear Al,

I appreciate the courtesy of your letter.  While I understand the reasons you give for not being able to participate on Sunday, I still strongly believe in the power of dialogue.  This is true as to the points with which we agree as well as those of which we disagree.  Dialogue on matters of deep controversy are especially necessary.  I will continue to dedicate my time, energy and resources to the strengthening of relations between our two communities even when it is controversial.

Let us consider how to strengthen dialogue in the future and to act in ways that will heal rather than divide.  I regret this very important dialogue could not be held this weekend, but I look forward to rescheduling our forum at a later date.

Yours truly,


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