The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the National Urban League...

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the National Urban League annual conference in Boston. (July 28, 2011) Credit: AP

The Rev. Al Sharpton Thursday bowed out of a Westhampton Beach synagogue forum on race relations between blacks and Jews on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights racial disturbances.

Sharpton said in a letter to Marc Schneier, rabbi of the Hamptons Synagogue, that he was withdrawing from the Sunday forum primarily because of objections from Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic scholar who was attacked by a group of black youths and fatally stabbed during the unrest.

While defending his actions in Crown Heights, Sharpton acknowledged the "pain" of Norman Rosenbaum and wrote: "My language and tone at times has been questioned and at times has been over the line. I wish to discuss this openly so that others may grow by my example. Clearly, the Al Sharpton of 2011 is not the Al Sharpton of 1991."

Rosenbaum, who lives in Australia, could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Sharpton also told Schneier that "detractors" were seeking to "engage in the business of division and distortion rather than respect your work and attempt to have dialogue even among those that may disagree."

The three days of violence in Crown Heights occurred after a driver in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher grand rebbe struck and killed a black child, 7-year-old Gavin Cato. Rosenbaum, 29, was attacked hours later and was stabbed four times. He died the next day.

Before he died, Rosenbaum identified Lemrick Nelson, 16, as one of his attackers. Nelson was acquitted of murder in State Supreme Court, then convicted in a federal trial. That verdict was overturned, and in 2003, Nelson was found guilty in federal court of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but released the next year because of time served for the overturned conviction.

The Crown Heights rioting exposed tensions between blacks and whites, and the criticism of the police response became an issue in Rudy Giuliani's successful bid to defeat then-Mayor David Dinkins.

Sharpton delivered the eulogy at Gavin Cato's funeral, where many said his rhetoric inflamed tensions.

He said in his letter that allegations about his role in Crown Heights have "proven to be patently untrue."

Schneier said he understands that Sharpton -- who said he wants Sunday's forum to be rescheduled -- can be "a lightning rod" to some on matters of race, but he expressed disappointment that the forum will not go on as planned.

"I will continue to engage in dialogue on behalf of the Jewish people, even when it's controversial," Schneier said Thursday.

In response to Sharpton's letter, he said: "Let us consider how to strengthen dialogue in the future and to act in ways that will heal rather than divide."

Latest videos