Strange case of online impersonation in Dead Sea Scrolls feud set to end

Ten years ago, Raphael Golb created fake online accounts to go after the detractors of his scholar father; courts have spent the years since trying to figure out what he did wrong

In this Sept. 27, 2010, file photo, Raphael Golb, center, and his attorney Ron Kuby, left, confer during a recess in his trial at Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano, File)
In this Sept. 27, 2010, file photo, Raphael Golb, center, and his attorney Ron Kuby, left, confer during a recess in his trial at Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano, File)

NEW YORK — Raphael Golb’s conviction wasn’t quite like any other: using online aliases to discredit his father’s adversary in a scholarly debate over the Dead Sea Scrolls. The nine-year-old case got a New York law thrown out along the way.

On Monday, it’s finally poised to end with one last bid to revisit Golb’s two-month jail sentence. It was imposed in 2014, but appeals put it on hold and narrowed the counts in his criminal impersonation and forgery conviction.

Golb is now hoping for a no-jail sentence in the undeniably curious case of ancient religious texts, digital misdeeds, academic rivalries and filial loyalty.

“For just two days in (August 2008), with respect to five emails, Raphael Golb crossed the then-unclear line from lawful to unlawful,” a line the case helped clarify, his lawyer Ron Kuby wrote in a court filing last month. He said Golb deserved “a sharp rebuke,” but not jail.

Prosecutors say Golb’s sentence should stand. It “was fair and appropriately reflective of the totality of (Golb’s) conduct,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Roper wrote in a recent filing.

A Manhattan judge was expected to decide Monday.

The case began when colleagues and students of New York University Judaic studies scholar Lawrence Schiffman got emails in which he seemed to suggest he’d plagiarized the work of another Jewish history expert, Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. But the emails weren’t actually from Schiffman, who later said he spent weeks refuting the claims.

Two scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls lie at their location in the Qumran Caves before being removed for scholarly examination by archaeologists. (public domain via wikipedia)

The two were on different sides of an obscure but heated dispute over which ancient Jews wrote the more than 2,000-year-old scrolls.

Containing the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible, the scrolls have enhanced scholars’ understanding of the history of Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity since their discovery in caves in Israel, beginning in the 1940s. Some researchers believe the texts were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes; others — including Norman Golb — say the writings were the work of a range of Jewish groups and communities.

By 2009, authorities said they’d figured out who was behind the messages: Raphael Golb, who is Norman Golb’s son. Charging Raphael Golb with identity theft and other crimes, prosecutors said he’d created an elaborate electronic campaign involving blog posts and 70 phony email accounts to tarnish his father’s detractors.

Golb, a literature scholar and lawyer, acknowledged disguising his identity in emails and blog posts to discredit detractors of his father’s views on the scrolls’ origins. He initially argued the writings weren’t crime but satire and academic whistle-blowing meant to counter scholarly scorn directed at his father and expose “unethical conduct” in his field.

Or, as Golb put it in 2010 testimony: “I used methods of satire, irony, parody and any other form of verbal rhetoric that became the type of language used by philosophers during the Enlightenment to expose the irrational arguments of their opponents.”

Indeed, the trial was so full of erudite references that it sometimes felt more like an academic conference, touching on the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, the early 1900s Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, the Roman thinker Pliny the Elder, and more.

But it also was, particularly at the time, a relatively rare internet impersonation prosecution that didn’t involve financial crimes.

Golb was convicted in 2010. He was sentenced then to six months in jail, a term that would be reduced as his appeals cut a twist-filled path through state and federal courts and the state legislature.

In one turn, the case prompted New York state’s highest court in 2014 to strike down an often-used aggravated harassment law that made it a misdemeanor to communicate with someone “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm” and with the intent to do so. Police and prosecutors saw it as an important tool for pursuing domestic violence and other cases, but Golb and his lawyer called it an unconstitutional intrusion on free-speech rights.

The state Court of Appeals concluded the law was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” The state legislature later passed a revised version.

The Court of Appeals also dismissed some of the counts in Golb’s conviction, including the only felony, identity theft, which had led to his disbarment. He was resentenced to two months in jail.

Federal courts subsequently cut some more counts, leaving a total of 10.

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