Dead Sea Scrolls Go to Court
A brilliant young Harvard Ph.D. faces jail for impersonating a Bible scholar—and rival of his father
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, the New York Supreme Court convened for a hearing in the case of the People vs. Raphael Golb. The matter? That in July of 2008, Golb, a Harvard doctorate, created an email account in the name of Lawrence Schiffman, formerly professor at New York University and now vice provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University. From firstname.lastname@example.org, Golb sent emails to the dean, the provost, and the faculty of the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU where Schiffman was formerly the chair.
In the emails, the fictional Schiffman admitted to having plagiarized the work of Norman Golb, professor at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Oriental Institute, Dead Sea Scrolls scholar—and also Raphael’s father. “It is true that I should have cited Dr. Golb’s articles when using his arguments,” the email reads, “and it is true that I misrepresented his ideas. But this is simply the politics of Dead Sea Scrolls studies. If I had given credit to this man I would have been banned from conferences around the world.” It was signed—by some accounts, implausibly—“Lawrence Schiffman, professor,” with a lower-case “p.”
Raphael Golb admits to having sent the email, but he maintains that it was an act of parody, rather than criminal impersonation. “I was exercising my right to expose, condemn, and ridicule the misconduct of other people,” he says. “It says more about Schiffman than it does about me, that people might have believed that an informal email from a gmail account admitting to plagiarism, signed with a lower-case ‘p’ in professor, could have come from an NYU department chair.” The defense argued that Golb was well within his First Amendment rights and that the prosecution was trying to make hurting feelings into a criminal act. But the defense argument failed. In September 2010, Golb was convicted before Judge Carol Berkman of 30 counts of identity fraud, harassment, forgery, and criminal impersonation of Lawrence Schiffman.
Yet for impersonation to be criminal, benefit must be shown to the impersonator, or harm to the impersonated. (To see how common this otherwise is, try typing “Britney Spears” into a Twitter account search.) Jordan Kovnot, a privacy researcher at Fordham Law School, told me in an email interview that in “most computer hacking crimes involving unauthorized access, such as creating an email account under false pretenses, the law generally does require some showing of harm, unless the target was the U.S. government. That was not the case here.” In a recent telephone interview, Schiffman himself insisted that he suffered no harm; “the opposite, I got a big raise out of it,” he said—noting his recent move from NYU to YU, where he makes more money than he did at NYU—“though emotionally it was very difficult.” Without harm or benefit, it is difficult to understand how the prosecution managed to make the felonies stick.
Raphael’s father, Norman Golb, the subject of Golb’s email, was also shocked at the verdict. “Since when does a civilized society allow a prosecutor to invade the academic territory of learning and take sides?” he asked incredulously, in a recent interview. “Quarrels among scholars should be settled among scholars, not in court.” His son agrees: “Schiffman should have picked up the phone and called my father, not the FBI,” the younger Golb said in an interview after the hearing.
But Judge Berkman—herself an object of controversy, a judge whose verdicts have been rejected by appellate courts with terms such as “a gross miscarriage of justice”—insisted over and over throughout the trial that “neither good faith nor the truth is a defense” and based her decision, she wrote, on her sense that Golb’s email was “a parody over the line.” Golb argues that “she forbade me from defending the claim made in the email that Schiffman had plagiarized my father, and yet she allowed the prosecution to insist 170 times before the jury that I had made ‘false allegations.’ ”
Schiffman, of all people, corroborates this point. “I plagiarized him?” he asked me incredulously, reenacting the part he played on the stand. “I’ve published hundreds of books and articles, and he’s only published the same article over and over! I wasn’t supposed to talk about it at the trial,” Schiffman admitted. “But I realized no one would stop me, so I just went on and on, and the jury—they were eating it up.” Last Tuesday, Golb’s case was heard by five judges. He is now waiting to hear whether he will go to jail for six months as sentenced—in what might be seen by scholars, humorists, and devotees of the First Amendment alike as a gross miscarriage of justice.
And still, two important questions remain: Did Schiffman plagiarize Norman Golb’s work? And if so, why?
The Dead Sea Scrolls have sparked controversies of many kinds over the years since their discovery in Jordan in 1947. The story is now famous: the shepherd throwing a rock into a dark cave after an escaped goat, the sound of shattering, the hope for gold, the discovery of one of the 20th century’s most important archeological finds. There were seven scrolls in the first discovery, three of which were snapped up almost immediately by Prof. E.L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University, probably for a few hundred dollars. The remaining four scrolls eluded Sukenik’s grasp and were instead sold to Khalil Eskander, an antiquities dealer and shoemaker known as “Kando,” who sold them to a Christian clergyman—the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Athanasius Samuel. Mar Samuel paid 24 Palestinian pounds for the scrolls, or $97.20, and smuggled them into the United States.
After failing to interest universities including Yale, Samuel placed an ad in the “Miscellaneous for Sale” section of the June 1, 1954, Wall Street Journal: “Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale,” the ad read. “This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” Lucky for Mar Samuel, Yigal Yadin, son of Prof. Sukenik, was in the market for an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution. Yadin had recently retired as IDF chief of staff and was on tour in the United States promoting his book. Through intermediaries, Yadin managed to purchase the remaining four scrolls for $250,000 and delivered them into the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Mar Samuel ended up paying the lion’s share of the $250,000 to the IRS.
Such is the story of the first seven scrolls. However, since 1947 many more have been discovered in caves in and around Qumran, but also in Masada and near Jericho. The scrolls purchased by Israel represent less than 5 percent of the total scrolls now in the possession of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Until 1967, the other 95 percent were in the Palestine Archeological Museum, nationalized by Jordan. When that museum was captured by Israeli paratroopers and renamed the “Rockefeller Museum,” the scrolls were moved to the Shrine of the Book.
A live-score screening of the Yiddish classic The Yellow Ticket helps launch the city’s Jewish cinema celebration