Tension in Park Heights

Our view: Baltimore's black and Jewish communities have generally had good relations, and they need to make sure the beating of a black teen doesn't change that

December 05, 2010

Baltimore's black and Jewish communities have generally coexisted peacefully — at least compared to places like New York, where clashes between the groups led to terrible riots in years past. But the relationship is not without tension, and the beating last week of a black teenager and the arrest of a member of an Orthodox Jewish citizens patrol group in connection with the crime has brought it to the surface. Members of each community are now pointing fingers and claiming they have been targeted by the other for harassment or violence, and there is a real danger that the situation could boil over.

Much is riding on a meeting Wednesday between black and Jewish community leaders who, to their credit, seem intent on working through the problem rather than inflaming it. The solution may be simpler than they think.

The facts of the case are in some dispute, but police say that a teenage boy was walking down the street when, he claimed, a group of men belonging to Shomrim, the Jewish neighborhood patrol, followed him in their car a short distance, then jumped out and wrestled him to the ground, shouting, "You don't belong here!" After going through his pockets, they returned to their vehicle and drove off, leaving the 15-year-old with cuts to the head and a broken wrist.

Black community leaders are understandably upset over what they see as an unprovoked attack motivated by racial bias. The teen was a student at nearby Northwestern High School, which is located near the de facto boundary separating black and Jewish communities along Northern Parkway. Given the city's painful history of housing segregation and discrimination, many black leaders saw the incident as a throwback to the days when blacks could be beaten with impunity simply for being in the "wrong" neighborhood.

A police spokesman said that although Shomrim has been helpful in the past, the department would not tolerate acts of vigilantism in which citizens took the law into their own hands. Police have charged one member of the group, 23-year-old Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim, with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and false imprisonment as a result of the incident. (It is worth noting, however, that another member of the group came to the boy's aid and called police.) Through his attorney, Mr. Werdesheim, a former Israeli special forces soldier who operates a security business, claims he acted in self defense and is innocent of the charges.

Baltimore has not experienced the kind of violent clashes seen in New York City's Crown Heights neighborhood during the 1990s. Nevertheless, this incident brought to the fore resentment among many blacks at what they see as Shomrim's presumption that all black youths are potential criminals and fair game for intimidation and harassment. They want the patrols suspended pending Wednesday's meeting and a resolution of the police investigation.

Clearly, what is needed is a dialogue between the two communities, one that is ongoing and that takes up the entire range of concerns raised by this incident. Parents of black students who attend Northwestern High School need to know their children won't be arbitrarily stopped or threatened in the area simply because of the color of their skin. Jewish residents need to know they are safe in their community and can count on their citizen patrol groups to protect them by lawful means and without fanning ethnic tensions or violating others' constitutional rights. Both blacks and Jews have endured painful histories of persecution and oppression, and both recognize the legacy of bigotry and racism that have followed their paths through history. Surely, given a reasonable measure of empathy, good will and sensitivity on both sides, the recent tensions can be defused before they escalate further.

Community leaders meeting this week could make a start in that direction by a simple but pointed act of reconciliation: Instead of suspending the citizen patrols in Upper Park Heights pending a resolution of the charges against Shomrim, why not integrate them so that members of both the black and Jewish communities are represented? That would give both sides a stake in making sure everyone is treated fairly and that the concerns of all are addressed. It's an ancient but effective truth that the best way to build understanding and trust among peoples is to allow them to work together toward a common goal. Leaders on both sides owe it to their communities to give it a try.

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