The Jewish community, like most of the nation and world, had followed the twists and turns of the O.J. Simpson trial for nearly nine months, with varying degrees of fascination.
But it was not until the final days of arguments and in the week after the jury’s “not guilty” verdict, that specifically Jewish sensitivities came into play.
Jewish passions were engaged, and continue unabated in Los Angeles and elsewhere, by a number of developments: â€¢ The overwhelming grief of the family of murder victim Ronald Lyle Goldman, expressed with particular poignancy and anger during Yom Kippur services at their synagogue. â€¢ The invocation of Hitler and the Holocaust by lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. in his final appeal to the jury. â€¢ The post-trial attack by Jewish defense lawyer Robert Shapiro on Cochran for playing the “race card.” â€¢ Cochran’s use of bodyguards from the Nation of Islam.
Speaking to hundreds of fellow congregants from Temple Beth Haverim at a rented church hall in suburban Westlake, Fred Goldman grieved for the death of his son Ron.
Cochran “single-handedly, with his `Dream Team,’ managed to shove a wedge between the races that’s larger than we could ever have imagined,” said Goldman.
Goldman said, “We, as a nation, have been turned upside down – gone from being concerned about victims, and their families, to being more concerned about defendants and criminals.”
Despite the solemnity of the Yom Kippur service, worshipers leapt to their feet and gave Goldman a standing ovation.
Earlier, Jewish agencies were outraged when Cochran, in his final summation to a jury that included nine African Americans, compared Mark Fuhrman, former Los Angeles Police detective, to Hitler, and drew an analogy between the detective’s taped wish of burning all blacks and the Holocaust.
“The metaphor trivializes a profound historical tragedy,” said the Anti- Defamation League in a statement. The ADL reported that it had been besieged by callers outraged by the “Fuhrman-Fuhrer” analogy.
Also deeply offended was defense lawyer Shapiro, who turned on his colleague Cochran within hours of the verdict.
“To me, the Holocaust stands alone as the most terrible human event in modern civilization,” Shapiro said in an ABC television interview with Barbara Walters. “To compare [Hitler] in any way to a rogue cop, in my opinion was wrong.”
Shapiro also said the defense, paced by Cochran, not only played the race card, but “we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” Shapiro did not requests for additional comments.
Cochran, in turn, attributed Shapiro’s ire to sour grapes at having been replaced as the defense’s head attorney by Cochran.
The other Jewish defense lawyers, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Alan Dershowitz, did not join in Shapiro’s protest.
Citing death threats against himself, Cochran surrounded himself with eight burly bodyguards whenever the left courtroom during the last week of the trial. At the office building housing Cochran’s law firm, other occupants complained that they had to pass through a phalanx of guards to get to their own offices.
The guards were members of the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, which “in past years engaged in crude and vulgar racism and anti-Semitism,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL national director.
BY his choice of such bodyguards, Foxman added, Cochran “legitimizes them and their attitudes.”
Once the Holocaust became part of the post-trial debate, emotional tensions rose sharply, adding a Jewish dimension to the clear polarization between blacks and whites emerging from the trial.
The question of whether Jews or African Americans had suffered more in past decades and centuries, and who, indeed, “owned” the Holocaust, took on a sharper edge.
Charles Linder, a Jewish lawyer, who helped Cochran fashion his closing argument, said “for those who say that Hitler is proprietary to the Jews, he isn’t.”
The ADL’s Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, disagreed strenuously. The Fuhrman- Hitler analogy “was outrageous and an insult to the millions of innocent victims of Nazism,” Foxman said. “The metaphor trivializes this profound historical tragedy.”
In contrast, Karen Grigsby Bates, a black Los Angeles social commentator, told Time magazine that by clinging to the uniqueness of the Holocaust, Jews are saying that “our suffering counts more than yours. And the reaction among black people is, ‘don’t you dare.’ There is such a groundswell of resentment among African Americans toward that attitude.”
Los Angeles Rabbi Harold Schulweis objected to the entire concept of relative victimhood.
“All such comparisons are invidious and irrelevant,” he said.
By almost every measurement of public opinion, the Simpson trial and its outcome have exacerbated racial tensions in this country. What is the depth and duration of the negative impact on black-Jewish relations will be measured in the weeks, and maybe years, to come.
Schulweis called for understanding of the African American viewpoint.
“As Jews, we must ask ourselves how we would deal with a beleaguered black community, and how we would have reacted if Mr. Simpson were Jewish or if a Jonathan Pollard had been the defendant.”
Harvey Fields, another leading Los Angeles rabbi, said that “the agony that has grown out of the trial shows the depth of racism that still exists in our society.”