A tragedy like the death of 7-year-old Gavin Cato in Brooklyn,N.Y., is a sad event. Sadder still is the inter-communal brawl that came after, a name-calling, finger-pointing, bottle-throwing racial clash to make ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke proud.
What happened in Brooklyn is a failure of community, and its lessons for the rest of us are troubling. The hot-headed group that confronted and slew Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student who had not even seen the accident, can only be described as a mob. What started out as protests by blacks demanding the arrest of the driver who killed Gavin turned into an outbreak of racial animosity to shame the nation.
Hasidic Jews are calling for protection from the violence, and they are entitled to be protected. But unfortunately, mob violence had reared its unreasoning head in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn many times before, often not against the Hasidim.
It was deadly wrong for young blacks to attack police, the Hasidim and even New York Mayor David Dinkins, and that must be acknowledged with no provisos. With the next breath, it must also be noted that the earlier hooliganism of 80 Hasidic men who set upon a black man accused of slashing a Jewish woman did little to encourage reasonableness in settling grievances.
Other incidents had occurred. The January 26, 1989, beating of a homeless black mugging suspect by more than 30 men was actually celebrated in the Long Island paper Newsday. Columnist Denis Hamill wrote that, ''In Williamsburg [another Brooklyn section], the Hasidim sent out a message to the bad guys even if the sides weren't balanced -- if you want to hit, expect to catch the same way Frederick Pinkney did on Thursday.''
The suspect was still in intensive care weeks later, but the idea that you turn wrongdoers over to the cops instead of acting as instant judge, jury and corrections department carried little credence. The fallacious and dangerous point had been made: Hooliganism is an approved response to a just grievance. Such a flowering of deeds and reprisals always bears ugly fruit.
What really fuels the hostility in Brooklyn, and must be addressed, is the collision of two expanding populations. Eastern European Hasidic Jews, 10 percent of Crown Heights' people, are living through a population boom due to immigration and their customary large families.
West Indians, especially Jamaicans, Haitians and Trinidadians, have expanded their numbers in the U.S. in the last two decades. In Brooklyn, their Caribbean Day parades annually attract 1 million people to the country's largest black-sponsored parades.
The fault lines breaking down relations in Brooklyn, as anywhere, can and must be bridged. Blacks who complain of unfair distribution of community resources need to learn the utility of community organization to solve neighborhood problems. Ill-thought-out rhetoric about who gets what share of tax-supported development funds cannot supplant consistent, reasoned campaigns for fairer allocations. Hasidim who fight to make public schools responsive to their religious dictates need to learn the reasons behind the separation Americans place between religion and the operations of any arm of government.
Both groups clearly could benefit from lessons in U.S. history. Younger blacks are often unaware of the courage of Jewish merchants who ranged through the South carrying messages and conducting escaping slaves over the Underground Railroad. The modern heroics of people like Bernard Siegel, a Jewish Philadelphia lawyer who convinced Northern law firms to send associates to his firm's New Orleans office to defend Martin Luther King's civil-rights marchers, have escaped their notice. Did their sanitized history books pass over the backgrounds of Schwerner, Cheyney and Goodman, who died to help blacks break free of segregation?
Recent European immigrants might profit from learning about Leon Bass, a black educator who was the first U.S. G.I. to enter a concentration camp in World War II and later became a famous speaker on the Holocaust. Or Ralph Bunche, a black American who led the U.N. commission which prepared the way for Israel's birth.
Blacks and Jews have endured too much, and stood together too often, to succumb to the same prejudices that have caused so much pain. The hooliganism in New York, based on ignorance, insularity and refusals to understand people who are different, has gone on too long. David Duke, who has spewed hatred for both groups, does not need their help to spew even more.