Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bieganski in the New York Times: Ari L. Goldman on the Crown Heights Riot or the Crown Heights Pogrom


Move along. There is nothing to see here. Identified on web as a photo of a Jewish father and son injured in the 1991 Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom. 

On August 9, 2011, The Jewish Week published an article by Ari L. Goldman alleging that the New York Times, American's newspaper of record, systematically altered news coverage, not just opinion, but facts as well, in order to erase the anti-Semitic nature of what is alternately called the "Crown Heights Riot" or the "Crown Heights Pogrom."

The Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom: During three days of violence in 1991, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Lemrick Nelson, leading a crowd of African Americans yelling, "Kill the Jew," stabbed Jewish scholar Yankel Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum died.

Lemrick Nelson's lawyer acknowledged that his client stabbed Rosenbaum; Nelson himself confessed. Before he died, Rosenbaum identified Nelson as his killer. Nelson was acquitted, released, and taken out to a celebratory dinner by jurors, only two of whom were white; none were Jews.

The Crown Heights Riot is covered in "Bieganski."

Ari L. Goldman was a reporter for the New York Times. He knew the neighborhood intimately. He was an eyewitness to the riot. He reported events, in real time, while they were happening, to the New York Times. In his article, he alleges that the New York Times systematically altered material in order to downplay the anti-Semitic nature of the riot.

Goldman alleges that the New York Times, distorting his reports, published as fact material that was "simply untrue."

Goldman did not protest. From his article:

"In all my reporting during the riots I never saw — or heard of — any violence by Jews against blacks. But the Times was dedicated to this version of events: blacks and Jews clashing amid racial tensions. To show Jewish culpability in the riots, the paper even ran a picture — laughable even at the time — of a chasidic man brandishing an open umbrella before a police officer in riot gear. The caption read: 'A police officer scuffling with a Hasidic man yesterday on President Street.'

I was outraged but I held my tongue. I was a loyal Times employee and deferred to my editors. I figured that other reporters on the streets were witnessing parts of the story I was not seeing."

Goldman reached a breaking point:
"But then I reached my breaking point. On Aug. 21, as I stood in a group of chasidic men in front of the Lubavitch headquarters, a group of demonstrators were coming down Eastern Parkway. 'Heil Hitler,' they chanted. 'Death to the Jews.'

Police in riot gear stood nearby but did nothing.

Suddenly rocks and bottles started to fly toward us and a chasidic man just a few feet away from me was hit in the throat and fell to the ground. Some ran to help the injured man but most of us ran for cover. I ran for a payphone and, my hands shaking with rage, dialed my editor. I spoke in a way that I never had before or since when talking to a boss.

'You don’t know what’s happening here!' I yelled. 'I am on the streets getting attacked. Someone next to me just got hit. I am writing memos and what comes out in the paper? ‘Hasidim and blacks clashed’? That’s not what is happening here. Jews are being attacked! You’ve got this story all wrong. All wrong.'"

Why this matters to Polish-Jewish relations; why "Bieganski" covered the Crown Heights Riot / Pogrom.

"Bieganski" demonstrates, irrefutably, in minute detail, that the American press, when covering allegations of anti-Semitism against Poles, and allegations of anti-Semitism amongst other groups, especially African Americans, uses two completely different rhetorical strategies. The differences are so great it is as if two utterly distinct languages are used.

"Bieganski" further demonstrates that these two distinct rhetorical styles are employed not just in the mainstream press, but in scholarly discourse, as well. "Bieganski" demonstrates that this style strongly influenced public discourse about the break-up of Yugoslavia, the American-led bombing of Serbia and the genocide in Rwanda.

What are Polonian institutions doing about this? Right now, nothing of significance. They continue to insist that telling stories of heroes like Kosciuszko and suffering, as in the book "Bloodlands," is the answer.

It's not.

The full text of Ari L. Goldman's article is here.

The Jerusalem Post's response to Ari L. Goldman's article is here.


  1. I may post this later as a blog post but I'll post it now as a comment. Maybe mull it over a bit.

    I've been sending out offers to speak about "Bieganski" and my recent trip to Poland.

    I've received many replies. Most have been very courteous. One university made an offer to hear me speak, offered money (I did not ask for money.) I gladly accepted.

    At this university, everyone I dealt with was Jewish. They were courteous, professional, interested, appreciative.

    At the advice of a friend, I sent an offer to a Polish organization. I received a stunningly negative reply. I was told that this organization did not want to have me speak because, inter alia, they do not want to be associated with the image of the low class Pole. They are high class people. They are better than that. They are better than people like me. They are better than peasants.

    I say it over and over. Polonia, stop blaming the Jews for the negative image of Poles in America. It is true that some Jews have participated in disseminating this image. It is also true that plenty of Jews have participated in fighting it.

    It is also true that many Poles have perpetuated negative images of Poles, and that many Poles have, themselves, internalized hatred of their fellow Poles, and that many Poles, for a variety of reasons, are doing nothing to improve the situation.

    Polish Americans could take this material on, and win.

    They don't.

    Polonia, look to yourself. Look to your own institutions.

  2. One reason that perhaps explains the double standard in relation to the treatment of anti-Semitic outbursts/incidents is that they all feel guilty about the history of racism vis-a-vis the African Americans. However unfortunate, hateful and unfair anti-Semitism was in America, it pales into insignificance when compared to the treatment of Black Americans at all levels of society. This makes it almost impossible for black racism to be discussed in any objective terms (or Jewish racism for that matter) if the race card or Holocaust/anti-Semitic card is played.

    The Polish organisations you contact seem to believe they are living in a world entirely of their own construction, a world where to acknowledge the common roots with migrants not of their class is to somehow sully their neatly pressed clothes and disfigure their own image. If this is typical, then you could spend a lifetime giving talks at their meetings to small groups and find that nothing has changed anyway.

    Given that "Bieganski's" central thesis is very strong and the evidence you marshal persuasive, it must be disappointing and frustrating that Polish American organisations are so blase on this issue.

    Would forming a new group that watches out for, brings attention to and criticises the deployment of the Bieganski stereotype be better way to go?

    A positive development is the growth of interest in Poland, its culture and history among people of non-Polish background as well more and more from a Polish background who may have, in the past, ignored their heritage. I've recently joined both the H-Poland discussion group and the Polish Studies Association and in a welcoming email to me Brian Porter-Szucs pointed this out. Perhaps you will find support in unexpected places as time goes on. Books often have a long term influence and I am sure yours will.

    One final comment. In your recent trip to Poland did notice any evidence of class snobbery by the intellectual class towards workers and peasants, in fact towards ordinary people in general ? I notice it every time I'm there and often among those who are quickest to condemn the kato-endecja attitudes of supporters of Law and Justice. Get onto Youtube and find the journalist Thomas Lis who now owns Wprost. He slags off ordinary Poles as fools because they don't like serious television programmes. This despite the fact that serious discussion programmes have far more space on television than in many countries. If Lis were in Australia and I saw him in a pub I'd pour glass of beer over him.

    But enough raving from me.

  3. About how and why African Americans were treated differently by the NYT.

    There are several reasons. One reason is that African Americans, unlike Polish Americans, actually unite, support each other, and organize strategically. If the NYT treated AAs in a way that was perceived as unfair, AAs would come down on the NYT like a ton of bricks.

    Poles don't do that, and so Poles are an easy target.

    Too, the Left has a particular stance in relation to AAs, and the NYT is a liberal paper.

  4. About the Polish Organization I contacted. I reread the woman's email just now and I am aghast. It is gratuitously nasty, belittling, disrespectful, unprofessional, and, simply, weird. I would never send an email like that to any scholar, for any reason. If nothing else, it reflects very badly on the sender.

    The email is also totally without intellectual curiosity. This woman wants no exposure to any fact she hasn't already pre-approved.

    I wish I could say that this were a unique occurrence. It's not. It's an open secret – Polish Americans do not unite, support each other, and organize strategically. EVERY Polish American I know has said as much to me one-on-one. Don't repeat this publicly Danusha, they say. But you are exactly right, they say. We do undercut each other. That's why we are a target.

    And nobody does anything about it.

    People more expert than myself have argued to me that this is a legacy of "divide and conquer" foreign powers and the Polish caste system: Szlachta on top, Jews in the middleman minority position, peasants on the bottom.

    Indeed, too many Polish American leaders, once they get power, seem to think it's time to start acting like the Lord of the Manor – to rule by bullying, bluff, and insult. That model only damages Polonia.

    Forming a new group is the obvious solution and I'm ready to form such a group right now.

    Peter, you ask about my recent trip to Poland. My trip was so wonderful it would have been hard for me to see anything negative. I could not help but be struck by the difference between the young people I met in Poland and Polish American leaders in the US. I met competent, professional, rational, courteous people. I was treated really well.

    I don't doubt that the tendency you mention exists as well. Luckily I had no encounters with Tomas Lis.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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