Writing in an op-ed piece that was published by the N.Y. Daily News on Sunday, Rev. Al Sharpton has admitted to having made "mistakes" during the Crown Heights riots in August 1991. He also stated that his alleged description of ultra-orthodox Jews as diamond merchants had been deliberately distorted by extremists.
Sharpton had been criticized for flaming mob violence, following an incident in which Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Afro-American child was killed in a car accident, when hit by a vehicle in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson.
During the rioting that followed, Sharpton led a march through the streets of Crown Heights to the Lubavitcher movement's world headquarters. That night an Australian student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was fatally stabbed by a mob. Later, at Cato's funeral, Sharpton allegedly referred to the ultra-orthodox Jewish residents of Crown Heights as "diamond merchants."
This past Sunday Sharpton had been scheduled to speak at an event hosted by the Hampton Synagogue entitled "The State of Black-Jewish Relations: Twenty Years after Crown Heights." But he withdrew after Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, criticized Sharpton’s participation in the event.
Writing in the N.Y. Daily News, Sharpton stated that he regretted not mentioning Rosenbaum’s death at Cato’s funeral. He also suggested that tensions were equally heightened by Jewish and Afro-American "extremists," a claim that has been rejected by Jewish residents of Crown Heights.
"Twenty years later, I have grown," Sharpton wrote. "I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum."
Sharpton wrote that "extremists" had deliberately misinterpreted his "diamond merchants" comment. “In the eulogy I said we must stop blacks who commit criminal acts such as snatching bags on Eastern Parkway, and we must
also deal with the likes of the Oppenheimer family, which at the time was trading diamonds with apartheid South Africa. Extremists seized upon that to say that I was calling all Jews diamond merchants, and I spent years defending the statement rather than recognizing that in hours of tension, one must be clearer than at any other time,” Sharpton wrote.
Why Sharpton chose to parallel bag snatching with diamond merchants at the time of Crown Heights riots was not clear from his op-ed article. For the record, the Oppenheimer family was not trading with South Africa because it is South African, and the family is not Jewish, although it does have Jewish roots.