Opinion: Truth be told

Just because the truth is difficult to ascertain, does that mean it doesn’t exist? Is it as simple as saying that, in any debate, we each own a piece of the truth, but no one actually owns the whole truth? And is that a cop-out?

Those questions will be on my mind over the next week as I participate in two events where the search for an elusive truth will take center stage. The first is a screening of a provocative documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom on the O.J. Simpson murder case, and the second is a debate between Peter Beinart and myself on the current state of Zionism. Both events promise to be lively and controversial; both will present a difficult struggle to arrive at some kind of truth.

The notion of truth was a complicated mess in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which kept Los Angeles and much of America spellbound as it unfolded more than a decade ago. Most people didn’t believe the jury’s verdict of not guilty — and I count myself in that group.

Needless to say, I was highly skeptical when my friend Howard Barrett, producer of the documentary “Overlooked Suspect: What if O.J. Simpson Didn’t Do It?” came to The Journal’s offices a few weeks ago and told me: “David, you have to see this film. It will change your mind about the case.”

I did see the film, several times. I arranged private screenings for Hollywood producers, friends, criminal attorneys and colleagues, and, each time, the response was the same: “Wow.” It turned the truth we thought we knew upside down. So, I thought: Why not give everyone a chance to see the film and judge for themselves?

You’ll have that chance on Saturday night, May 12, at The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, when we will screen the film, followed by a panel that I will moderate with criminal defense attorney James Blatt, Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson and the private investigator featured in the film, William Dear.

Dear is the man responsible for the pursuit of truth chronicled in the film. This is not some grand philosophical search; it’s a tedious, methodical, dogged pursuit that has lasted more than 15 years and has introduced plenty of reasonable doubt for those who believe O.J. is guilty.

“It didn’t smell right to me from the start,” Dear told me over the phone last week. “There were too many holes.”

By picking apart the prosecution’s case, Dear, an award-winning private investigator from Texas, was able to identify an “overlooked suspect,” which he describes in the film in detailed and dramatic fashion.

Does Dear’s skepticism warrant some skepticism of its own? Yes, according to Jackson, who, true to form, was able to punch a few holes in Dear’s theory when I showed him the film. You will hear from both sides after the screening. 

Rabbi David Baron, whose Temple of the Arts is co-sponsoring the screening, explained his interest in the film this way: “The pursuit of truth and justice are supreme Jewish values, and anything that advances those values should be a Jewish interest. While the film may not bring us a final truth, it does bring us a little closer.”

I hope to get closer to some truths in my debate with Peter Beinart, the author of the much-discussed book, “The Crisis of Zionism.”

Beinart takes a highly critical view of Israel’s inability to end the “occupation” of the West Bank, which he considers “non-democratic Israel.” His alarmism is at full tilt: If Israel doesn’t end the occupation soon, the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state will die.

This line of argument is hardly new; Zionist critics of Israel have been making it for decades. What makes Beinart’s book stand out, beyond his alarmism, is that he connects Israel’s failures to failures in American Judaism. He chastises, for example, the American Jewish establishment for blindly supporting Israeli government policy and then blames that approach for alienating from Israel a new generation of American liberal Jews.

I think Beinart’s conclusions, while dramatic, are full of holes. I also think his call to boycott settlements is counterproductive and that his overall approach will not bring the parties closer to peace. When we debate on the evening of May 16 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I will make sure to mention all of that.

But here’s the bigger question: Will our debate bring us closer to some kind of truth, or will it simply bring each of us closer to the truth we already believe? Can any debate bring us closer to the truth, and how would we know if that happened?

And what role does emotion play? If I’m offended, for example, by the way Beinart brazenly criticizes Israel, does that represent a worthy truth in itself, or is it a useless emotion that has no place in a rigorous debate?

I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of emotion at both events — and little agreement on what constitutes the truth. There’s something reassuring about the absence of certainty, but I’m still tantalized by the possibility that an absolute truth exists out there, somewhere, and none of us knows for sure who has it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.