The Gaza war has reignited the same racial conflicts raised by the OJ trial

The ‘trial of the century’ highlighted that behind big themes lie human stories


OJ Simpson on trial in Los Angeles in 1995 (VINCE BUCCI/AFP via Getty Images)

April 15, 2024 17:24

Almost exactly seven years ago, I spent a deeply memorable day in New York with a 76 year old man and his 45 year old daughter as we watched a parole hearing. This was Fred and Kim Goldman, and the felon up for parole was OJ Simpson. The latter you know about, the Goldmans maybe not so much, but it was Fred’s son – and Kim’s brother – Ron who Simpson brutally killed, alongside Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown, in 1994. This then sparked probably the biggest celebrity trial of all time, in which Simpson was, outrageously, found not guilty. The Goldmans then won a wrongful death civil suit against Simpson and he was ordered to pay them $33.5 million, which he never did. In 2008, Simpson was finally convicted – not of murder but of various tawdry felonies after he stole some sports memorabilia. Nine years later, it was his parole hearing, and I went to watch it with the Goldmans. Simpson was released.

I’ve been thinking about the Goldmans a lot since Simpson died last week of cancer. They were such a delightful but sad duo, an extremely close father and daughter who were still palpably traumatised by the shocking loss of their “third musketeer”, Ron. It’s often assumed that Ron was Nicole’s boyfriend, but in fact he just happened to be a waiter at the restaurant where Nicole had eaten dinner that night with her family, and he was returning some sunglasses that they had left behind.

When he arrived at Nicole’s house to drop them off, Simpson was almost certainly already attacking her. The attacks were so violent, so frenzied, that Simpson didn’t just stab his ex-wife, he very nearly beheaded her. Ron was stabbed 25 times and when the jury was shown the photos, they gagged and fled the courtroom.

The Simpson trial touched on many of the social debates that still occupy America today: race, police corruption, women not being believed and so on. But there was another undercurrent in that trial that is less commonly noted but also just as relevant: the uneasy relations between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans.

The Goldmans are Jewish. When I was with them, Fred wore a Star of David around his neck and Kim still regularly gets antisemitic abuse online from Simpson’s astonishingly loyal supporters. In recordings made before Simpson committed his robberies, he referred to the Goldmans as “the gold-diggers.”

“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” So Dr Martin Luther King said in 1958 when addressing the American Jewish Congress. And yet American Jews and African-Americans have too often found that this common bond drives them apart more than it binds them together. Many Jews played key roles in the Civil Rights era (not surprising, perhaps – the Ku Klux Klan hated Jews as much as it hated black people).

And yet, as frequently happens between two minority groups who have suffered a lot of repression, there have been feelings of mutual suspicion, and bitter resentments. Antisemitic conspiracy theories are regularly heard from Louis Farrakhan and other American followers of the Nation of Islam, and it took New York a long time to forgive Jesse Jackson for referring to the city as “Hymietown” in the 1980s. The 2022 biopic of the group NWA, Straight Outta Compton, featured another source of rancour between the two groups: the tenacious trope that Jewish money men exploit black artists.

In my naivete, I once thought that this kind of antipathy would one day fade away as the black and Jewish communities realised, as Dr King said, that more unites us than divides us. But the war in Gaza has re-ignited all these old arguments, and more so. On a recent trip to Harvard University I encountered people who honestly believe that Jews have always exploited black people, that they made money from the slave trade and were the ultimate source of black oppression. What, I wanted to scream at them, do injustices in black life in America have to do with Palestine?!

It doesn’t matter that their beliefs have about as much connection to reality as OJ Simpson’s defence case. People today re-launder their domestic affairs as international disputes, and we can laugh at the narcissism of it all or despair at the ignorance, but the end result is, once again, two minority groups being pitted against one another. And you know who wins those arguments? Neither of the minority groups, that’s for sure.

It’s sad. And it’s not changing any time soon. But what the Simpson trial highlighted is that behind all those big themes – race! women! – lie extremely human stories and tragic human costs. Thoughts are with the Goldman family this week. May Ron’s memory be a blessing.

April 15, 2024 17:24

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