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Dealing with the Hasidics: Playing with Fire

April 10, 2006

Chief of Department Joe Esposito learned a painful lesson last week about Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly learned the same lesson 15 years before, which still smarts.

The lesson is this: Dealing with the Hasidics is like playing with fire.

Or as a former top police official put it more artfully: "Cops think the Hasidics can help you. They can't. But they can hurt you."

Esposito -- described by former Hasidic city councilman Noach Dear as "probably the best friend the Jewish community has" -- was pilloried last week by current Hasidic city councilman Simcha Felder and Assemblyman Dov Hikind for supposedly saying, "Get those f... Jews out of here." Espo, the NYPD's highest ranking uniformed officer, made the alleged remark after arriving at the 66th precinct in Borough Park Tuesday night amidst a Hasidic riot, following the arrest of a 75-year-old Orthodox Jew who claimed the police roughed him up.

Dear says the following morning he called Espo, who acknowledged using the epithet, which is part of virtually all police officers' vernacular. But he denied saying "f... Jews."

"I told Espo that although I wasn't there, I can imagine what happened," says Dear. "You got to the precinct late at night. You saw people surrounding the precinct, and you had flashbacks of Fort Surrender," a term referring to the storming of the precinct by Hasidics nearly 30 years ago. "You just blew a gasket," said Dear.

And how did Esposito respond?

Says Dear: "He laughed and said, 'You're right.'"

But unlike Dear, police sources say that what pained Esposito the most was that another prominent Hasidic supporter in the middle of the current ruckus whom Espo has known for years did not call him. "You'd think he'd call me and allow me to deny it," Espo told colleagues.

Espo's dilemma reflects the difficulty in dealing with Hasidics, an insular and largely uneducated people. No matter how close you may think you are, you will always be regarded as an outsider.

Blood feuds appear to be part of their normal existence. Among the Satmar of Williamsburg, an ongoing dispute over the succession of its dying rabbi Moses Teitlebaum between his two sons, Aaron and Zelmen has led to violence on numerous occasions. A similar situation has existed among the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights, following the death of its late rabbi, Menachem Schneerson, whom many consider the Messiah.

Even Kelly has been caught up in Hasidic politics, specifically, the 1991 Crown Heights riots, whose proximate cause was a Lubavitcher's accidental killing of a black child in a weekly, city-sanctioned motorcade, en route to the cemetery where Schneerson's wife is buried. In retaliation, a black mob fatally stabbed a Jewish rabbinical student. Other mobs terrorized Jews in their homes.

A report for Governor Mario Cuomo criticized then police commissioner Lee Brown for failing to take immediate action. It also criticized Kelly, then first deputy, whom Brown had kept out of the formal chain of command by having his Chief of Department, Robert. Johnston Jr., report directly to him.

Johnston retired on the eve of the riots and Cuomo's report, noting that Kelly "had the authority to intervene during civil disorders," added, "It is regrettable that under the circumstances, Kelly did not deem it appropriate to seek an active role..."

Some say that Kelly has been supportive of Espo because of his own Crown Heights experience. Others say Kelly - who has treated Espo with the same disdain he has all his top brass -- is backing Espo because, as a recently retired police chief put it, "He has nowhere to go because Esposito was absolutely right."

A third school of thought holds that criticism of Espo reflects on Kelly, and that at least in this instance, Kelly wants the public to view Espo as "my guy."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and, perhaps more importantly, the editorial boards of the News and the Post, have also backed Espo. That Bloomberg wants to wash his hands of the matter is reflected in his call that the impotent Civilian Complaint Review Board, which he himself helped neuter, be the final arbiter of what Espo did or did not say.

An indication of what Bloomberg thinks of the CCRB was his apparent refusal to order Kelly to cooperate with its investigation into police misconduct at the Republican National Convention, despite the city charter's mandating the department do so.

The Big Chill. Up to 40 detectives have now been questioned under oath in Commissioner Kelly's investigation of leaks in the Imette St.Guilen murder, amidst threats that the detectives may have their department and private cell phones "dumped."

According to a person familiar with the investigation, a deal of sorts has been struck. Detectives have been asked whether they used their private phones to talk to reporters about the case. If they say no, their phones are not dumped, at least not at present. If they say yes, the department reserves the right to dump them.

It remains to be seen what happens if they haven't told the truth...

Meanwhile reporters at One Police Plaza say the chill continues with their police sources. Even outside reporters with police contacts are feeling the effect. Recently, a Daily News reporter says, a longtime police source begged off talking to him. "It's too hot now," the police source said.

And what are the newspapers doing about this? Nothing.

Rather, editorials in both the News and the Post - whose reporters, Murray Weiss and Larry Celona, have the deepest roots into the department - are only laudatory of the NYPD.

Last week the Post attacked the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jim Dwyer for his stories about police misconduct at the Republican National Convention.

In what the Post termed an "Age of Terror," the newspaper -- which has uncritically pushed the Bush administration's line to justify the war in Iraq -- said that such "hostility" to law and order was "anti-American."

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Copyright © 2006 Leonard Levitt