New York jury gets identity theft case linked to scholarly debate over Dead Sea Scrolls

Thursday, September 30, 2010

NY jurors get ID theft case tied to ancient texts

NEW YORK — Jurors on Thursday were trying to decide whether a son accused of posing online as a Judaic studies professor to avenge his scholar father was guilty of identity theft.

Raphael Golb is at the center of a case that has exposed a nasty online world of academic squabbling over who created ancient texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Golb was charged with 32 counts in the unusual case, including forgery, harassment and criminal impersonation. He has pleaded not guilty.

Golb’s father, 83-year-old University of Chicago Professor Norman Golb, said nearly a decade ago that Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, had plagiarized his research, but never had to answer for it.

Raphael Golb created an e-mail account under Schiffman’s name, then sent a message from it to Schiffman’s colleagues admitting plagiarizing Norman Golb’s work. Golb says his actions were not criminal. Rather, he said he was engaging in a spirited debate about the history of the texts and trying to highlight the fact that his father, a longtime scholar of the scrolls, was plagiarized by a rival professor.

Assistant District Attorney John Bandler told jurors during his closing arguments that Golb’s claims are untrue.

“You blow the whistle by going to the boss. You don’t do it by stealing someone’s identity,” he said.

Bandler said Golb’s electronic campaign was calculated and massive, and it included the impersonation of five people, about 70 phony e-mail accounts and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work.

“It’s not one bad decision he made in the heat of anger,” Bandler said.

Norman Golb and Schiffman disagree on the origins of the texts. Schiffman says the texts were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes. Professor Golb says the writings were the work of a range of Jewish groups and communities. Scholars are split on the debate; both arguments have followers.

Raphael Golb, a linguistics scholar and lawyer with degrees from Oberlin College, Harvard University and NYU, said he was angry the plagiarism accusations were never brought to light and that his father’s theory was being smeared online.

He mounted an effort to expose this by creating aliases, and then crafted blog posts and e-mails. Some of the names used were real people tangentially involved in the debate. Golb said that was a coincidence.

“He’s a smart guy,” Bandler said of Golb. “He has a lot of time on his hands, and he’s trained to use language. He knows how to twist language.”

During testimony, jurors got a history lesson on the ancient texts believed to be 2,000 years old. The scrolls, found by a Bedouin shepherd searching for a lost goat in Israel in the 1940s, include the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible. Access to the scrolls was tightly controlled by a group known as the monopoly. Jewish scholars — including Norman Golb — were not allowed to evaluate them.

The controlled access to the scrolls continues, Raphael Golb argued during his testimony. He said his father was excluded from participating in workshops and museum exhibits on the texts while other more popular scholars were invited.

The defense summed up it case on Tuesday, and the trial was not in session Wednesday. Attorney David Breitbart reiterated Golb’s position that the real liar was Schiffman, who mounted a false campaign against Golb that he took to the police.

Bandler on Thursday asked jurors to focus on the case in basic terms: Stealing someone’s identity is wrong, and Golb knew that and did it anyway.

“This case is not about whether Dr. Schiffman plagiarized Dr. Golb. It is about how you can’t impersonate anyone,” he said.

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