Through my work for several public officials and the Queens Jewish Community Council, I have known every mayor of the past 40 years. Each had his strong points and his shortcomings. The nicest one on a personal basis was David Dinkins, who died last week. David Dinkins was a gentleman who conducted himself with grace and dignity. To him, all the people in what he called “the gorgeous mosaic” of New York mattered. In Yiddish, we would call him a mentch.
David Dinkins was a friend of the Jewish community. In October 1985, Louis Farrakhan spoke at Madison Square Garden. Dinkins was the highest ranking African American and one of the few who denounced Farrakhan as “blatantly anti-Semitic.” Farrakhan responded in his speech by calling out Dinkins by name, and said, “When the leader sells out to people, he should pay a price for that, don’t you think so? Do you think the leader should sell out and then live? We should make examples of the leaders.” When others were silent, or even defended Farrakhan, David Dinkins had the courage to speak out at great risk to his own safety.
When SCUD missiles launched by Iraq rained down on Israel during the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, Mayor Dinkins went to Israel to show solidarity and to demonstrate that travel to Israel was safe.
Unfortunately, his record will forever be tarnished by his poor handling of the Crown Heights pogrom of 1991. On the night of August 19, 1991, Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old African American, was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l. Later that night, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew who was in New York doing research for his doctoral dissertation, was fatally stabbed by a group of young black men. Three days of anti-Semitic rioting followed. Urged on by Al Sharpton, Sonny Carson, and others, rioters shouting “death to the Jews,” hurled rocks and bottles, burned motor vehicles, and attacked Jews. It should be noted that there were also African Americans who pleaded for an end to the violence and who protected Jews.
A common fear during riots is that television images of police cracking down can incite riots in other neighborhoods and that it is best to allow the rioters to vent their rage. People in the Jewish community accused Mayor Dinkins of ordering the police to stand back in the hopes of confining the anti-Semitic violence to Crown Heights. A report by Richard Girgenti, the Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice, cleared Mayor Dinkins of the charge of allowing the rioters to vent, but said, “the Mayor did not act in a timely and decisive manner in requiring the Police Department to meet his own stated objectives ‘to protect the lives, safety, and property of the residents of Crown Heights and to quickly restore peace and order to the community.’” Mayor Dinkins’ poor handling of the Crown Heights pogrom was a key factor in his losing his bid for re-election to Rudy Giuliani.
There are a number of lessons we can learn from the life of David Dinkins, a good and decent man who courageously stood against anti-Semitism in his own community, but whose failure to act decisively allowed the worst anti-Semitic riot in history to rage for three days at a devastating cost to the Crown Heights Jewish community.
Public officials and other people who accomplish significant things often have a mixed legacy.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower led the Allied forces that ended the Holocaust by liberating many of the concentration camps during World War II. He made a point of inspecting every inch of the camps and bringing in the press to document Nazi atrocities. Realizing that there would be a time in the future when the Holocaust might be denied or forgotten, he wanted to ensure that its memory would be preserved “in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.” In 1956, Israel responded to Nasser’s use of the Sinai Peninsula as a base for launching terrorist attacks and blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, by moving into Sinai. Eisenhower, as President, threatened a fatal breakdown in US-Israel relations and forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai without obtaining a peace agreement with Egypt.
President George H. W. Bush played a major role in enabling Ethiopian Jews to make aliyah to Israel. Yet he denied loan guarantees to Israel in to protest Israeli settlement policies in Judea and Samaria. He defended his policies by saying he was “one lonely guy” defending the national interest against “1,000 lobbyists.”
President Barack Obama signed the memorandum of understanding that provides Israel with $3.8 billion in military and economic aid, making Israel by far the biggest recipient of American foreign aid. Security and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel reached record levels during the Obama administration. He approved the sale of bunker-busting bombs to Israel and worked with Israel to develop anti-missile defense systems like the Iron Dome and David’s Sling. On the other hand, the Iran nuclear deal granted Iran relief from sanctions while allowing Iran to resume nuclear activities after the deal expires and failing to address Iran’s development of long-range missiles and support for terrorism in the region.
Sometimes, support comes from what seems like the unlikeliest places. Richard Nixon was the only president to resign when he faced impeachment and removal from office due to his role in covering up the involvement of his campaign in a break-in to the Democratic National Committee offices. Tapes showed that he frequently used foul language and anti-Semitic slurs in referring to Jews. But when Israel faced a very real threat to its existence during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon came through in a big way. His airlift of military supplies turned the tide and helped save Israel.
Who would have expected Donald Trump, a man who consistently behaves in a crass manner, to be the most pro-Israel president in history? His decisions to move the embassy to Jerusalem, to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and his leadership in bringing about peace agreements between Israel and several Persian Gulf states have strengthened Israel and transformed the Middle East for the better.
Our elected officials are not saviors. They are not villains. They should not be lionized or demonized. We should judge them on the totality of their records. We should make our choices in the voting booth based on the information we have, realizing that either choice is imperfect, and that well-meaning people feel differently.
In the aftermath of the Crown Heights pogrom, I was one of several Jewish leaders who met with Mayor Dinkins in Crown Heights, Gracie Mansion, and Queens Borough Hall. He said several times that he could not understand why we were blaming him for what happened, when it was the police who responded ineffectively. In his memoirs, he said that the mayor is not responsible for micromanaging the police department and blamed Police Commissioner Lee Brown for the failure to bring the riots under control.
The mayor appoints the police commissioner and is responsible for the performance of the police department. One of the most important roles of a president, a governor, a mayor, or a leader in the private sector is to be a judge of talent and to bring in the most qualified people to carry out their vision.
David Dinkins came into office pledging to be tough on crime. He increased the size of the police force. But his appointment of Lee Brown as police commissioner was a disaster. On September 1, 1992, Brown abruptly announced his resignation. Dinkins replaced him with Ray Kelly. During Kelly’s tenure as commissioner, crime began to decline. Ray Kelly would return as police commissioner and served throughout the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under their leadership, crime levels in New York went down to historic lows. Kelly is widely regarded as the greatest police commissioner in New York City history. If Dinkins had appointed Kelly as police commissioner from the beginning, it is possible that crime rates would have declined earlier and the Crown Heights riots would have promptly been brought under control. Dinkins would have been re-elected by a comfortable margin and been remembered as a great mayor. We will never know for sure. But we can say with certainty that Dinkins learned from his mistake and appointed an effective police commissioner. Crime began to come down on his watch. He deserves a share of the credit for the historic declines in crime that took place under his successors.
Troublingly, the number of shootings in New York has doubled in the past year. Robberies are taking place in broad daylight. Bail “reform” enacted by the New York State Legislature requires that judges release most defendants without bail, regardless of their previous record. The result, not surprisingly, is more criminals on the street and more crime. Police officers are afraid to act aggressively out of fear of being accused of brutality or branded as racists. Cuts in the police department budget, in response to calls to “defund” the police, have made the department less effective.
Our previous bail system – which allowed an accused murderer to be released because he could afford $100,000 bail, but forced a kid accused of stealing a book bag to languish in jail because he could not afford $100 bail – needed reform. While the vast majority of police officers are dedicated to serving the community well, there are some who misuse their authority, especially when dealing with African Americans and Latinos. Bail reform and the calls for change were well intentioned. But they have caused a spike in crime. Many of the 1,700 people shot in New York this year were African Americans. Their lives should matter as much as the ones killed by police. Leaders in state and city government need to learn from their mistakes. All of us want to see a police department that treats all people fairly and that is an effective force for fighting crime.
One of David Dinkins’ finest hours came on the night that he lost his bid for re-election. The race had been bitter and polarized New Yorkers along racial lines. Many feared that there would be riots in the wake of the election. The election was close, and many people urged Mayor Dinkins to demand a recount or to challenge the results. He knew that do so would further divide the city. Once the results were clear, Mayor Dinkins appeared before his supporters to declare, “The people have spoken,” and to wish Rudy Giuliani well as he prepared to become mayor. Dinkins’ graciousness in facing defeat is one of the reasons why many people who criticized his handling of the Crown Heights pogrom also remember his positive achievements and his sterling character.
Whatever his character flaws, Donald Trump had significant positive achievements. His conduct over the next few weeks will determine how he will be remembered by history. It would be unfortunate for him to be remembered as someone who undermined democracy and provoked polarization through baseless charges of fraud or who needlessly worsened the COVID-19 pandemic by encouraging people to ignore the guidelines of public health experts. I want people to remember Donald Trump as the man who strengthened Israel, transformed the Middle East, and whose leadership in initiating Operation Warp Speed paved the way for development of vaccines that will end the pandemic and save millions of lives. I hope his actions between now and January 20 will make that possible.