Shlomo Pinto wanted to murder an Arab. He went to a supermarket near the Ikea store in Kiryat Ata, outside Haifa, a knife concealed in his sleeve and a box cutter in his pants pocket. When he saw a man who looked like an Arab stocking shelves, Pinto drew his knife and stabbed the man a few times: in the waist, lower back and shoulder. The man managed to flee, but Pinto pursued him. When the man blocked his way with a shopping cart, Pinto realized that he could not complete his mission and fled the scene.
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The incident occurred on October 13, 2015, at the height of the “knife intifada.” Pinto was convicted of attempted murder in December, and on Monday sentence was pronounced: 11 years in prison. Yes, 11 years. And despite the temptation to contrast this harsh sentence to the 18 months in prison that Elor Azaria received last week for killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant, the cases cannot be compared. Pinto did not try to murder someone who tried to hurt him, his fellow soldiers or anyone at all. He wanted to murder an Arab merely because he was Arab.
The judges even explained the reasoning behind the harsh sentence: They cited “the advance planning of the act, the background and the injuries to the victim,” and by way of precedent noted cases in which terrorists were sentenced to upward of 16 years for attempted murder.
Still, it is precisely the comparison to terrorists who tried to murder Jews – the mirror image of the situation, ostensibly – that discloses the unusual nature of this case, and above all the key to the severity of the sentence.
Pinto stabbed a Jew, who only appeared to be an Arab in his eyes. He did not stab an Arab. It was on account of this rare error that the court, and by extension the entire state, was given a remarkable opportunity to absolve itself of any taint of discrimination, without having to pay a price.
The judges, as representatives of the state, took full advantage of the gap between the intention of the stabber (to murder an Arab) and the result of the stabbing (a Jew was stabbed). This gap was a precious gift, because it made it possible for the judgment to remain within the realm of theoretical morality from beginning to end of the process, without surrendering to external pressure (public opinion). One could put it this way: The judges knew that they could impose a more severe sentence on a Jew who tried to stab an Arab, only because the victim turned out to be a Jew.
The judges wrote that Pinto “acted out of a sense of vengeance and ideological motivation ... His only aim was to hurt and cause the death of a victim of Arab descent.” In other words, the fact that the attempted murder was ideologically motivated would seem to dictate a harsh sentence. But in order to grasp the extent to which the ideological argument in sentencing was possible only because the person stabbed was Jewish, we must imagine what would have happened had the victim in fact been Arab.
Had that been the case, the right-wing journalist Sharon Gal would have stood up for Pinto and appeared on every television program possible in order to attack the leftist court. The rapper and right-wing activist The Shadow (Yoav Eliasi) and his soldiers would have posted pointed Facebook messages and organized embarrassing demonstrations in Rabin Square. Sharp-tongued politicians would have scattered rhyming slogans and proposed unhinged private member’s bills. The media would have automatically divided into the classic left-right split, and in the name of the sacred balance would have sent the judges a subterranean message that Pinto could not be judged without delving deeply into the “atmosphere” that “pervaded the Israeli street” and without giving consideration to the impossible situation created by the “wave of terror knifings.”
The judges, of course, would ignore these voices, seek to stop the calls of support for Pinto in the courtroom and explain that they themselves were guided solely by professional considerations. And after all these persuasive explanations, they would write their verdict with the aid of terms such as “charged atmosphere,” “emotional turmoil” and “incitement from above,” and would settle for a prison sentence of two years, maybe three, “to make an example of him.”
But that familiar show will not happen this time, because Pinto made a tragic mistake: an error in identification. He stabbed a Jew. And because Pinto stabbed a Jew, Sharon Gal has no interest in the stabber. Nor does The Shadow. Nor do cabinet ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Miri Regev. And Benjamin Netanyahu can’t phone Pinto’s dad because the prime minister is stuck in Australia. And members of the thuggish Beitar Jerusalem fan club La Familia were busy at the time, and so outside the courtroom no one “congregated.”
There’s no help for it, unlike Azaria, Pinto is not every Israeli mother’s son. Pinto is a jerk, and he can rot in jail for 11 years for all we care. Next time he should check more carefully before he pulls his knife.