Hebron shooter Elor Azaria and his mother heading to court, July 30 2017.
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
Twenty-two years after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, the trial of the former football star still has major social and cultural resonance in the US.
A documentary about his life in the context of race relations in America even won an Oscar this year, and a fictionalized account of the murder trial was a hit cable miniseries last year. Less than two weeks ago, headlines declared “The Juice is Loose!” when Simpson was granted parole after nine years in prison for offenses related to an armed robbery in Las Vegas.
With O.J. in the headlines again, it’s hard not to compare the response to his getting away with murder to the hubbub over the so-called “Hebron shooter,” Elor Azaria.
Before delving into similarities, the differences are clear. Despite his acquittal – famously ill-fitting leather gloves notwithstanding – there is overwhelming evidence that Simpson brutally murdered Brown Simpson and Goldman and had a history of violence against his ex-wife. No matter what one thinks of Azaria’s shooting of a terrorist who had already been subdued after attempting to stab an IDF soldier – hero, murderer, or fatally confused young man – killing someone while in the line of duty is substantially different.
But Azaria is Israel’s O.J. not because of the specifics of the crime for which he was convicted, a conviction upheld by the IDF Court of Appeals Sunday, but because of the social-political phenomena surrounding it.
In both cases, the trials were turned into a sort of referendum on a political issue in the court of public opinion, regardless of the facts of the case – the facts being that both evidently broke the law.
In the Simpson trial, the “dream team” of attorneys sought to shift focus from the murders themselves to the issue of race.
The theory the defense put forward, in part by innuendo and in part openly, was that the Los Angeles Police Department was racist and mishandled evidence to frame a successful African-American man of murdering a white woman. They backed it up with repugnant, racist statements made by a police officer who came to the scene of the crime.
Despite nearly unimpeachable forensic evidence and other clear indications of Simpson’s guilt, the prosecution bungled its case and the predominately African-American jury acquitted him.
The New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin wrote in his definitive book on the trial, The Run of his Life, that juror Carrie Bess, an African-American woman, said immediately after the decision was announced: “We’ve got to protect our own.” News stations showed African-Americans celebrating the verdict, while white Americans were shown to be perplexed and in some cases angry about it.
Azaria doesn’t have O.J.’s luck. He hired a flashy defense attorney, Yoram Sheftel, who seems to love being on TV as much as Simpson’s lawyers, Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran. But Israel doesn’t have juries that are susceptible to stunts. For better or worse, in Israel there are just judges who make the decisions. The IDF courts twice deemed Azaria to be guilty, pointing to video evidence to show he did not behave like someone who was afraid the terrorist was still a threat when he killed him.
But all around Azaria are supporters calling him “everyone’s son.” He has become the centerpiece of a campaign to change the IDF’s rules of engagement to more often allow soldiers to shoot to kill, instead of first seeking to neutralize the threat without killing anyone.
The campaign’s roots are mostly in the far Right. It includes a mix of marginal figures like rapper and extremist activist Yossi “The Shadow” Eliassi and somewhat more mainstream ones like Channel 20 broadcaster Sharon Gal.
Gal had a six-month parliamentary career in Yisrael Beytenu, which he mostly spent trying to institute the death penalty. Politicians have jumped on the bandwagon; Likud MK Nava Boker, who gets little media attention, managed to get her face on the 8 o’clock news by following the Azaria family around.
Right-wing political leaders, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Liberman – at least since he became defense minister – tried to take a more responsible tack while not alienating their base. So they said Azaria should ask to be pardoned, but avoided explicitly endorsing his actions.
But, for the most part, the public campaign in support of Azaria isn’t about the facts of the trial, which was meant to determine whether he broke the law; it’s about what these people think the law should be.
Azaria’s supporters are indicting the system, which they see as not only unfair, but incapable of keeping them out of harm’s way. That’s much like the O.J. Simpson trial, which became payback for the LAPD’s atrocious relations with the city’s African-American community instead of a fair evaluation of whether he murdered two people.