August 10, 2011

Crown Heights - too early to celebrate

When I hear the word "pogrom", I think of a populist and systematic attack on Jews and their property, instigated by political interests and enabled by official negligence and neglect, appealing to the basest emotions of greed and anti-Semitism, with the stated goal of killing Jews. 

Twenty years ago this month, a mini-riot following a fatal car accident led to such a pogrom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The simmering racial tensions were hardly one-sided, but it's the Jews who were systematically attacked, and it was a young Jewish scholar -- Yankel Rosenbaum -- who died after a brutal gang attack. It was the authorities who took their time and tried to understand the anger of the perpetrators rather than protect the innocent. It was mainstream Jewish organizations that did not do enough, quickly enough. 

The Jews in Crown Heights dressed and behaved like the the ultra-Orthodox newcomers in a scene out of Philip Roth, an embarrassment to their well-assimilated but chronically insecure suburban cousins. And in the case of the Crown Heights pogrom, not enough of the other Orthodox groups acted swiftly enough when lives were literally hanging in the balance.

Fast forward to 2011: Events are being organized to mark the two decades of "progress" since Crown Heights. Perhaps everyone really is getting along, after all. But can there really be constructive progress without a full accounting on all sides? Panel discussions have now been organized to continue the path toward harmony, but mostly without those who were directly involved. One invitation talks about a "celebration". But there has not been progress, people have just moved on -- no confrontation, no reconciliation.

Certainly, lessons must have been learned -- lessons like the importance of communication and relationship-building, early-warning and robust intervention, vigilance and persistence, and the truth that all Jews and all New Yorkers deserve equal and immediate protection from harm. Presumably, the Mayor who lost his re-election learned some lessons...

Jews just concluded the 25-hour fast of Tisha b'Av, mourning the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and of so many Jewish communities throughout the centuries. We are very good at moving on, because we have had to be. But that's not the same as closure. 

Perhaps by the time of the 25th anniversary, there can be an inclusive process of real truth and real reconciliation, in a way that finally begins to heal the deep and painful wounds. Meanwhile, the riots in England reflect, among other things, a breakdown of the social contract, with or without anti-Semitism. We might want to speed up the process at our end.

Either way, it seems a bit early to celebrate.

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