On the morning of March 24, 2016, Sgt. Elor Azaria, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, shot an incapacitated Palestinian stabbing-attack suspect as he lay bleeding on the ground, in Hebron, ground-zero of the conflict in the West Bank, where close to 1,000 Jews, under intense Israeli army protection, live in the midst of more than 200,000 Palestinians. Footage of the shooting was captured on camera and went viral online that same day.
After a nine-month trial in military court, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in jail. Coincidentally, five days later OJ: Made in America won the 2017 Academy Award for best documentary. The film, produced by ESPN, is an account of how in June 1994, OJ Simpson, the famous American football player, was charged with the murders of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and another man, who were savagely killed in the chic Los Angeles neighborhood where Simpson lived. After a yearlong trial, Simpson was acquitted, shocking millions of Americans.
The producers of OJ: Made in America sensed the enduring relevance of the Simpson case. They could not, however, have predicted its fortuitous timing and instructiveness in relation to that of Azaria, with which it shares a lot in common. Both crystallized a nation’s identity crisis and fomented enormous popular support for indicted killers despite their apparent guilt and the viciousness of their alleged crimes.
Both trials were shaped by video. The television life of the OJ Simpson case began when Simpson led the Los Angeles Police Department on a slow-speed car chase, broadcast live on national news. It grew exponentially when Judge Lance Ito allowed cameras to televise the Simpson trial, transforming it into one of the country’s first reality TV dramas, watched by 17 million people on its second day. Without the video footage filmed by a Palestinian activist’s camera, the Azaria affair would never have reached public awareness and exposed the grim often-ignored reality of the West Bank.
The facts of both cases pointed to the guilt of the suspects. In 1994 the State of California’s prosecution team was armed with an abundance of evidence. “How can you explain the blood on the glove, the blood on the socks, the blood on the floor, the blood on the gate? It was a circumstantial case with overwhelming evidence,” admitted Simpson’s defense attorney, Alan Dershowitz, “and a case that the prosecution easily could have won.”
The video footage capturing Azaria’s crime depicts an unprovoked, deliberate and excessive kill-shot taken 11 minutes after the end of an attack – jarringly out of sync with protocol and the behavior of other soldiers around. While Azaria claimed he felt imminent danger, witness testimony revealed that moments after the shooting he told a fellow soldier, “They stabbed my friend, they wanted to kill him, so [the Palestinian attacker] deserved to die.”
Both the Simpson trial and the Azaria affair were heavily impacted by a circus of media and publicity. Tabloid and mainstream media boosted sales by publishing titillating, lowbrow gossip and intrigue, barely related to the Simpson case. Leading Israeli politicians used the Azaria trial as a vehicle to pander to their constituencies.
Both Simpson’s and Azaria’s trials exposed the injustice at the core of the systems that were trying them. When it was revealed that an LAPD investigator on the Simpson case was a bigot, the image of the police as an institution tolerating racism in its own ranks cast doubt on the validity of the entire trial and turned it into a referendum on nationwide institutional injustice. Azaria’s shooting took place in the midst of an almost yearlong wave of Palestinian lone-wolf attacks against armed soldiers, which often resulted in the death of young suspects who had wielded a kitchen knife, but (except once) never resulted in the investigation of soldiers for possible violations of protocol. Azaria, in his exceptionalism, brought to light what might be a pattern of bias, excessive force and lack of punishment in Israeli law enforcement.
The trials exposed Israelis’ and Americans’ diametrically opposed beliefs not only about the trials but about their societies. A year after the trial was over, 77% of white Americans thought OJ Simpson was guilty and 72% of African-Americans believed he was not guilty.
Did black Americans celebrating OJ Simpson’s acquittal believe he was innocent?
“Absolutely not,” says author Michael Eric Dyson. “I don’t think we should make the mistake of believing that black people who celebrated (a) thought OJ was innocent, or (b) were even concerned most about OJ.”
For black Americans, the desire for OJ’s acquittal was not based on the facts of the case but on a much larger narrative: the acquittal of Simpson, a successful, rich man who had escaped the ghetto, symbolized the possibility that African Americans could overcome decades of ingrained institutional racism in America. Most did not have the objectivity of Ta-Nhisi Coates, an African-American writer who followed the Simpson trial and concluded that “Two things... could be true at once... [OJ] Simpson was a serial abuser who killed his ex-wife, and the Los Angeles Police Department was a brutal army of occupation.”
The outpouring of support for Elor Azaria, including protest rallies and a crowdfunding effort that paid for his legal team, was a reaction to a perceived attack, not on one soldier, but on a certain narrative of Israeli legitimacy. Following years of insidious right-wing propaganda, many Israelis could not see the dead Palestinian suspect lying on the pavement as a human being with rights, but could only imagine him 11 minutes earlier, running toward an Israeli checkpoint with a knife in his hand. They could not see Elor Azaria as he was: a fallible teenager in a uniform, but as a symbol of the beleaguered Israeli nation. And since, in their eyes, a soldier cannot be guilty of a crime when having killed a Palestinian and “defending Israel,” censuring Azaria was as anti-Zionist as a rocket launched from Gaza at a kibbutz.
The quirk of timing that brought together the Simpson and Azaria trials highlights their striking commonalities; both quickly became about much more than the sum of their evidence – cultural, rather than merely judicial events that took place in courtrooms but also in countless living rooms, offices and town halls. Azaria’s prosecutors could have been speaking about Simpson when they admitted in their closing remarks, “One shot the defendant fired on the morning of March 4, 2016, jolted a whole nation.”
The writer is a former editor at Haaretz. He currently works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.