NY racial tinderbox threatens Dinkins

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The Independent Online
THE FALLOUT from a decades-old feud between a fundamentalist Jewish sect, the Lubavitchers, and blacks of Caribbean ancestry in Brooklyn, is threatening racial harmony in New York and disrupting the campaign to elect a new mayor of the city next year.

The primary political victim of the animosity between the Hasidim of Crown Heights and their black immigrant neighbours is Mayor David Dinkins, the black politician elected three years ago as a moderate healer who would unite the city after the racially divisive reign of Mayor Ed Koch.

Mr Dinkins reached the apex of his political career by being inoffensive to as many groups as possible and by harnessing the support of Jews, blacks and other ethnic groups. Elected with strong Jewish support, in the naive belief that he represented a magic formula against racial tension, the mayor is now condemned for speaking in defence of a black victim.

For all his skills at moderation, Mayor Dinkins was called an 'anti-Semite' and a 'Jew-hater' during a recent meeting in Brooklyn to discuss racial problems. His political opponents have moved to exploit the tensions in Crown Heights, at the risk of stirring up the old hatreds and jealousies in the city's ethnic communities, who are forced to share New York's 'melting pot'.

The ramshackle neighbourhood of Crown Heights is home to the relatively small but politically very active Lubavitcher sect, which believes the arrival of Judaism's Messiah is near. The community is highly disciplined, and politicians ignore it at their peril.

Two years ago the community erupted in flames when a seven-year-old black child was killed by a car in a motorcade following the community's Grand Rabbi, Menachem Schneerson. Hours later, a black mob murdered an Australian rabbinical student, and for four days the neighbourhood was wracked by violence.

Mayor Dinkins drew criticism for failing to order the police to quell the disturbance. Tensions flared up again in October, when a 17-year-old black arrested for the killing was acquitted, though he had confessed to the killing.

Trouble erupted again last week when a homeless black man was found lying beaten in an alley near the Lubavitcher headquarters and the mayor denounced what he said was a racial attack. The Lubavitchers were incensed, saying that the victim was in fact a burglar caught red-handed with a crowbar and glass-cutter.

The Mayor's condemnation was enough to trigger denunciations by many prominent figures in New York's Jewish community, including many of the mayor's traditional allies. A speech on race relations by Mayor Dinkins was interrupted repeatedly by audience members saying: 'You're guilty of the death of Yankel Rosenbaum]' - the murdered Rabbinical student.

'Let me tell you about this Jew-hater,' Mr Dinkins responded, to the jeers of a heckler. 'This Jew-hater is a founder of Basic Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee. This Jew-hater, when Ronald Reagan went to Bitburg, I went to Munich and prayed at the grave of the White Rose (an anti-Nazi student group). This Jew-hater stood alone, and denounced some of the statements made by Louis Farrakhan (leader of the Nation of Islam).'

One of Mayor Dinkins's political opponents, Rudolf Giuliani, the likely Republican candidate, has accused Mr Dinkins of favouring blacks over whites, because he himself is black. The Italian-American candidate, who is expected to run on a law-and-order ticket, outraged many by calling the Crown Heights riots 'a pogrom', playing up the fears of many New York Jews who are refugees of Nazi Europe.