Al skips out on riot talk

The Rev. Al Sharpton abruptly backed out yesterday of a symposium on the 1991 Crown Heights riots after his invitation triggered outrage.

Sharpton said he would not appear on a panel discussing the "State of Black-Jewish Relations: Twenty Years After Crown Heights" because it would "pain" Norman Rosenbaum, whose brother Yankel was stabbed to death during four days of rioting.

After the invitation to Sunday's symposium at The Hampton Synagogue on Long Island was disclosed, Rosenbaum denounced it as "an absolute disgrace." He said Sharpton's "vile rhetoric incited the rioting."

Sharpton yesterday wrote the symposium's organizer, Rabbi Marc Schneier: "Since the event has now been distorted and would cause pain to him [Rosenbaum], I, out of respect to his request, have decided to decline to participate in Sunday's event."

Sharpton denied in his letter to Schneier that he exacerbated tensions in 1991.

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The letter also said: "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."

Schneier, who is also president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, praised Sharpton in a phone interview with JTA for deferring to the feelings of Rosenbaum, but said he "regretted the missed opportunity ... and that this important dialogue will not take place on Sunday."

"It was a chance to clear the air, to talk about the misunderstandings," Schneier said. "You don’t dialogue with people with whom you agree fully." He also argued that the forum would have focused as much on the Jewish role in the civil rights movement as on the riots.

Norman Rosenbaum had told reporters in New York on Wednesday that “Rabbi Marc Schneier should take a damn good, hard look at the videos of the riots over the three-day period, look at the media reports and he’ll see there clearly the role Al Sharpton played.”

"Sunday's focus should not have been on what was said 20 years ago," Schneier said, "but what Rev. Sharpton is saying now."

The riots started after Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child, was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson, in August 1991. Rosenbaum, who was visiting from Australia, was fatally stabbed later that night.

Sharpton was accused of fueling the three days of riots with his actions and remarks. He led a protest march of hundreds shouting "No justice, no peace" through the streets of Crown Heights to the Lubavitcher movement's world headquarters.

After the riots had subsided, at Cato's funeral, Sharpton referred to the neighborhood's Chasidic Jews as "diamond merchants."

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