Those who speak of the murdered have obligations. The ones who report the death to relatives must be ready to manage their shock. The burial society must respectfully and gently ready the body for its final journey. The eulogist must speak of the good and evoke sorrow. The medical examiner must find and report facts that can help locate and prosecute the culprits, however embarrassing these facts might be. Homicide detectives have to be cynical about the victim and have to cast the net of their suspicions widely. They serve the victim and justice by bringing his murderer to justice, not by eulogizing the victim. Reporters have to locate the facts which will be of interest to their readers. Newspaper editors, who write the headlines, answer to owners who want sales, and to readers who respond to sensational headlines. Community leaders have to make pronouncements that serve their group’s interests. Politicians usually feel obliged to say what their constituents want to hear.
Sometimes, a life and death are so straightforward that all these voices complement each other, either to say a good man was murdered by evil people with no justification or to report on a murder victim so vile, and a murderer so justified, that in spite of the crime, our sympathies lie with the executioner. But such simple scenarios are few and far between.
The story of Menachem “Max” Stark’s dealings and demise is complicated. He had a wife, children, siblings, and other relatives who were heartbroken. He was part of the Satmar community where he gave charity to both factions and regularly hosted fundraisers. He operated many rental properties in and around Williamsburg and most of his tenants thought he cheated them by not providing minimum maintenance and by stealing deposits. He owed a lot of money to lenders and they accused him of bad faith in his dealings as did others.
Stark was under pressure from lenders and feared for his life for some weeks. We can assume he was dealing with shady operators. Banks and commercial lenders can be ruthless, but they do not threaten physical violence. Thus it makes sense to assume we are dealing with mobsters, whether Jewish or gentile, white or black, homegrown or foreign. One consultant to a news organization spoke of Lubavitch but bobbled the name and mispronounced it Lubabavitch. If he actually had some basis for this assertion, I doubt he was talking about the main Hasidic group based in Crown Heights but was probably referring to Russian Jewish mobsters who are often loosely affiliated with Lubavitch (Chabad), the dominant Jewish power in Russia because they have allied themselves with Vladimir Putin. In fact, it is a good guess that he was dealing with Russian Jewish mobsters. When Hasidim deal with mobsters they usually prefer dealing with Jews, and these days, the Russians are at the top of that heap.
Whoever these mobsters were, they nabbed him outside his office on Thursday night (1/2/14), drove him away in a van, suffocated him, burnt the lower half of his body, and disposed his body in a dumpster in Long Island. This was not random violence, nor was this a ransom scheme. It was a murder with a message to those still alive, “Pay up or you’re next.”
The message was probably directed to his partner, Israel Perlmutter, other partners, and perhaps others in the community who vouched for Stark, implicitly co-signing his loans with the mobsters. The message may also have been aimed at other lenders with non-performing loans, in or out of the Hasidic community.
The New York Post infuriated some people with their front page headline, “Who didn’t want him dead?” It led to protests about antisemitism and a press conference on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. However, as Corinne Berzon wrote in The Times of Israel:
The New York Post ALWAYS uses insensitive, obnoxious headlines in huge, bold print alongside photographs of whomever they are publicly humiliating. They have insulted Asians, women, African-Americans, gays, and pretty much every nationality or group residing in New York. From A-rod to Anthony Weiner, the Post makes a business out of shaming people on their front page, be they dead or alive.
What I find interesting is how much energy is going into protesting a dozen words in one newspaper article vs. how little is going into demonstrating to demand justice as they did when a Hasidic couple was killed by a speeding car, or as they have usually done when other Hasidim are murdered. It is almost as if they are more concerned to manage the coverage rather than prod the investigations. I suspect they fear and expect that the investigation will include a lot more embarrassing news about Stark and his associates.
The New York Post fiasco is over, but the fulminating will have its own half-life of decay. Meanwhile the investigation is moving forward and the bad news will drown out all the protest noises except to those in the community that prefer paranoia.
Menachem Stark’s name was given to him by his parents, his life, and now his death. The reputation of the community will not ultimately be assigned by a newspaper headline, but the good and bad deeds they tolerated or opposed.