In July, two court verdicts – one in the US and one in Israel – sparked
widespread protest and rage by minority groups with allegations of racist
The cases, the Trayvon Martin case in the US and the Eden
Natan-Zada case in Israel, again bring up the controversial question: How do our
identity and personal prejudices impact how we view court decisions? In each
case, minority groups claimed that the courts had employed a double standard
based on racial identity of the parties involved in the case.
claims themselves too biased by racial identity to appreciate the legal nuances
of the cases, or are their claims legitimate and more sober acknowledgements of
the reality we live in? This week, the Haifa District Court acquitted seven
mostly Israeli Arab residents of Shfaram on charges of attempted murder, while
finding them guilty of attempted manslaughter and other offenses in the killing
of Natan-Zada. The murdered man was a Jewish terrorist who murdered four mostly
Israeli Arabs and wounded 17 others on a bus on August 4, 2005, after some
evidence that he was in police custody.
Martin, an unarmed black
teenager, was fatally shot on February 26, 2012, by neighborhood watch volunteer
George Zimmerman, igniting a raucous debate in the US on racial profiling and
Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury of second-
degree murder and manslaughter a few weeks ago.
differences, there are glaring differences between the two cases: the US context
has a slavery-discrimination background, whereas the Israeli context has a
backdrop of an ongoing war. Martin (the “minority”) was the court case victim,
whereas the Israeli Arabs were the defendants; Natan-Zada was clearly a
terrorist who committed multiple murders, while Zimmerman was at worst an
aggressive racist who killed one person in convoluted
Despite these large differences, both Zimmerman and the
Israeli Arab defendants made controversial claims of self-defense and were
entitled to acquittal, absent proof of guilt beyond a reasonable
How the jury/court interpreted self-defense and beyond a
reasonable doubt are at the center of the questions of whether the judgments are
biased, and whether viewing courts through the lens of racial bias can have any
The Israeli Arab defendants of the “minority” culture in
Israel got off on attempted murder, but were convicted of attempted manslaughter
– which could very well lead to jail time, even if significantly less than
attempted murder carries.
Zimmerman, the “white” (though also
half-Peruvian) defendant from the “majority” culture in the US, got off
The Israeli Arab community has held up their convictions for
attempted manslaughter as proof of anti-Arab racism.
In this narrative,
attacking, and if necessary, killing Natan-Zada, who killed many innocent people
and tried to kill others like the convicted Israeli Arabs, was legitimate to
Next, the Israeli Arabs noted that in a similarly famous
case, the Bus 300 scandal of 1984, in which a combination of the Shin Bet
(Israel Security Agency), IDF forces and various private civilians beat two
Palestinian terrorists to death after they had already been neutralized and
placed in custody, none of the terrorists’ killers were convicted and some were
never even prosecuted.
The critics add that the court unjustifiably
limited its acceptance of the self-defense arguments because of bias against
Arabs as killers who are ready to kill in cold-blood, even absent self-defense
and extreme provocation.
So where self-defense and beyond a reasonable
doubt were open to interpretation, the result went against the Israeli Arab
They say that had the 2005 incident involved Jews killing an
Arab terrorist after he was neutralized and in custody, they would have gotten
off, as in the Bus 300 affair, based on an interpretation fully accepting some
combination of the self-defense, provocation claims and the defense of lack of
proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while deemphasizing evidence that the terrorist
was already in custody.
The African-American community has held up the
Zimmerman jury verdict and the acknowledged shoddy police investigation, which
appears to have undermined the prosecution’s case to some degree, as an example
of racist assumptions and racial profiling going off the deep end.
this narrative, Martin was an innocent teenager who was uneventfully walking
home from a convenience store with Skittles candy in his pocket, and was stalked
by Zimmerman due to racial profiling and eventually killed during an altercation
that Zimmerman unnecessarily initiated.
There are different views about
the physical confrontation between the two. But critics of the acquittal say
that since Zimmerman: was advised by the police not to follow Martin; uttered
epithets against Martin to the police adviser that suggest racism; was not a
police officer and Martin could have mistaken him as a vigilante attacker; and
might have been able to retreat from confrontation, his racism led to his
Next, critics say that the Florida jury’s recognition of
Zimmerman’s self-defense narrative despite the above contradictory facts, shows
that they gave him a beyond reasonable benefit of the doubt in affirming his
perverted view of self-defense in a situation which his aggressive racism
They add that had a black person like Martin been the
neighborhood watch shooter and had Zimmerman been an innocent white teenager who
was killed, the jury would not have extended a similar extreme benefit of the
doubt, and Martin would be going to jail.
Do critics in both cases miss
the point because they are too emotionally scarred from their experiences to
view the courts objectively? This is what supporters of the verdicts
In the Martin case, they note that guilt must be proven beyond a
reasonable doubt and that because of innumerable details – Zimmerman’s
selfdefense claim, backed up by medical records of him being injured; disputes
as to whether a recorded scream came from Zimmerman or from Martin; exposure of
some of Martin’s darker, less innocent traits; and showing that one of the main
witnesses against Zimmerman lied about side issues – the case was not
They slam the critics as contaminating the court
system with their anti-racial-profiling agendas, and ignoring the limits of the
In the Natan-Zada case, they note that despite the reasonable doubt
standard, the Israeli Arabs’ self-defense claim had to eventually fail based on
photographic evidence that Natan-Zada was not killed until after he was
neutralized and in custody, with several minutes passing in between.
slam the critics as trying to bring racial politics into a courtroom that is
But in a landmark speech, US President Barack Obama noted
that it is not realistic to expect African-Americans, when viewing court
decisions, to forget about white police officers stalking them simply for
visiting convenience stores, and about white persons in general rushing to lock
their car doors when seeing them walk by – both of which Obama said had happened
There certainly was evidence to create doubt as to whether
Zimmerman acted in selfdefense – but can the jury really say that if Martin had
been white, they would have equally entertained a doubt as to whether a recorded
scream from the incident was coming from the soon-to-be-dead white teenager who
had bought Skittles, or the armed, older, black watchman who had come out of his
patrol car? Many white Americans would admit that it would be easier to believe
that a white teenager had screamed, and was entirely the victim, than a black
The Haifa court dismissed arguments about the Bus 300 scandal,
stating that the Jewish killers there were not acquitted.
court said they had been pardoned without trial, presumably implying their
guilt, and showing that but for the extra-political considerations – due to the
fact that some of the killers were Shin Bet agents – they would have been
convicted as had the Israeli Arabs.
But critics responded afterward,
noting: What difference does it make to us whether the Jewish killers in the Bus
300 affair got off via a court or were pardoned? The point is they got off
because they were Jews, they said, pointing out that most of those in the
security services are Jews, while the Natan-Zada’s killers were convicted with
no pardon because they were Arabs.
Put differently, how can the court
claim that the system is fair and impartial, if the rules outside the courtroom
which can impact who goes to jail are not fair? There may be no simple answer to
It is difficult to argue this, because even the most
impartial juries and judges may have subconscious bias, and the system may be
too broken to be used at all.
But to say that the result is fair because
the set rules were applied, and to demonize those who allege racial bias, when
there still seem to be examples of majority-culture offenders getting off when
minority-culture offenders go to jail, may be to disingenuously ignore a part of
our imperfect reality.
Some commentators have said that we may just be
stuck with some bias even in our courts. As long as rulings are respected,
recognizing that bias – even when the court rules were followed – may be part of
keeping a watchful eye over ourselves.