‘I basically have spent a conflict-free life,” O.J. Simpson told a Nevada parole board the other day. And maybe its members believed him.
Never mind that the facts indicate he brutally murdered his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in June 1994. We’re so used to hearing lies these days that we tend to react with a helpless shrug. Just one more reason for cynicism in a country whose leader willfully has deepened our divide by blurring the distinction between fact and fiction.
The Nevada hearing was a timely, painful reminder of a dark moment in American history. Simpson’s acquittal in one of the most-watched murder trials in history underscored profound racial divisions in our society. I can vividly recall seeing the large crowd below my office in Times Square reacting to the televised announcement of the verdict on the eve of Yom Kippur 1995. There was applause and shouts of joy from African Americans and boos and disbelief from whites as the former football hero thanked his attorneys for saving his life.
Simpson’s pending release from prison and assertion that he’s led a basically trouble-free life underscored that we are living in a post-“1984” era, a time of Newspeak and doublethink that George Orwell would recognize with an ironic smile. (The book soared to the top of the best-seller list after the election of President Donald Trump and a powerful stage adaption is now on Broadway.) Sadly, we’ve lost the common denominator of an accepted Truth that binds us as a society; we’ve reached a moment when lies from those in authority are accepted, if not believed, placing us on the path to increasingly dangerous consequences.
The O.J. murder case made us realize that many black and white Americans saw the same facts revealed in court, yet came to opposite conclusions. For whites, the extensive evidence and DNA tests proved beyond a doubt that Simpson was a cold-blooded murderer. For blacks, many of whom believed that the L.A. police was racist, Simpson was more victim than assailant, and the verdict was payback for the many indignities black Americans have suffered as a result.
More than two decades later, our racial divide seems just as wide, if not wider, as we have witnessed — literally, through videos — the killing of innocent blacks at the hands of police officers, who often are absolved of wrongdoing.
The competing narratives laid bare in the O.J. murder case and the ones that have continued in cases like Ferguson are all too familiar in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the recent violence over the Temple Mount is founded upon a lie.
Those of us who care deeply about the Jewish state know well the frustration, anger and bloodshed that are the product of parallel narratives and outright falsehoods in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs rioted at the Temple Mount in recent days, and there are signs that lone-wolf terrorist acts may be back after the brutal knifing deaths of three Jews in the West Bank community of Halamish. They were killed by a young Palestinian from a neighboring town as they celebrated the birth of a new grandchild in the family.
The killer’s motive, like the source of anger in the Old City, was the false assertion that the Jerusalem government is seeking to undermine Muslim worship at the Temple Mount. The fact is that Israel installed security precautions to protect Jews and Arabs alike after weapons were smuggled into the area a week earlier, allowing attackers to kill two Israeli officers at the holy site.
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian-controlled Muslim religious body that Israel allows to oversee the area, stirred up trouble by rejecting the security apparatus, calling the act “a severe violation of the status quo.”
My friend and colleague David Suissa of The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles noted with bitter irony that Jordanian officials objected to Israel’s actions as interfering with the performance of religious rites at the mosque.
Suissa wrote that “in direct contravention of the 1949 armistice agreement, which called for ‘free access to the Holy Places,’ Jordan didn’t permit Jews access to their holy sites.” Not only were Jews forbidden from approaching or praying at the Western Wall, but when Jordan controlled the area for 18 years, more than 50 synagogues in the Old City were destroyed, and ancient Jewish tombstones in the Mount of Olives cemetery were desecrated and used to pave roads.
So much for adhering to the status quo, Suissa noted.
It is Israel, of course, that has been diligent about allowing freedom of worship to all since its military victory in 1967, bending over backwards to the point of forbidding Jewish prayer near the Temple Mount so as not to offend the Muslims.
Jews and Muslims have parallel narratives of their history that never seem to connect. It goes all the way back to biblical days and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as God commanded. According to the Torah (and to Christian belief), that son was Isaac, progenitor of the Jewish people; in some intepretations of the Koran, the son was Ishmael, father of Islam. Most troubling is that the Muslim narrative rejects the fact of a Jewish historical presence in the land. Therefore, neither Hebron, the burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs, nor Jerusalem, the site of the Holy Temple, are acknowledged as authentic. And so Jews have no right to be there, much less to place security cameras and metal detectors in the area.
Closer to home, attacks on the truth have emanated from the highest office in the land these last six months. The impact is difficult to quantify, but it’s clear that the volume and extent of President Trump’s lies are without precedent. They include constant attacks on the media as “fake news” and other efforts that go beyond politics in polarizing an already divided nation. (A June poll found almost 60 percent of respondents saying the president is not honest.)
The good news is that despite — or in response to — the president’s consistent criticism of the press, the judiciary, etc., the checks and balances of our democratic society have come to the fore. Investigative journalism efforts have been ramped up, the courts are doing their job, and Republicans joined Democrats this week in approving new sanctions against Russia even though the president has been calling the Russian hacking probe “fake news” for months.
Still, we now not only have red states and blue states but CNN truths and Fox truths; we are at a point where the historical narrative that binds us as a nation is frayed, and the ongoing danger is that facts become irrelevant.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. senator and diplomat, famously observed that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” And our sages have always taught us to revere the truth. Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), the medieval philosopher, wrote: “No other purpose should be attached to the truth than that you should know what is true.”
Let us keep that moral compass and not succumb to assaults on integrity, reality and facts — from wherever they come.