Hershel Shanks: “Prosecutorial Misconduct” in Israeli Forgery Case?

Israel Antiquities Authority vs. Conspiracy of (Alleged) Forgers

Back to Israel Antiquities Authority vs. Conspiracy of (Alleged) Forgers

You may wonder why the tough, no-holds-barred Israeli press has not covered the “forgery trial of the century” ongoing in Jerusalem. Zip. Nothing!

This may be because the Israeli public simply is not interested. Or it may be because the trial is too difficult (or expensive) to cover. The case is now in its fourth year—and counting. The prosecution has called more than 120 witnesses to testify. The transcript of the trial runs to more than 8000 pages.

Only two outside observers have consistently attended the trial day in and day out—a free-lance journalist named Matthew Kalman and archaeologist/journalist Meir Ben-Dov. I suspect each of them intends to write a book about the case when it is over.

Finally, last October Kalman got a piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle, a prominent Hearst newspaper that, unfortunately, the owner has threatened with closure as I write. Kalman knows a news hook when he sees one: The judge in the forgery trial, Aharon Farkash, had announced in open court, but off the record (his remarks will not appear in the official transcript), that the prosecution should consider dropping the case! “Have you really proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these artifacts are fake?” the judge pointedly asked the prosecution. ̴Maybe we can save ourselves the rest [of the trial if the prosecution is dropped now],” the judge told the prosecutor.

“Case Involving Jesus’ Brother Burial Box Hoax on Verge of Collapse,” blared the headline in the Chronicle.

Still nothing about the case in the Israeli press. Were they disinterested? Or embarrassed because they hadn’t covered the trial earlier?

In any American court, if the judge made a pronouncement like this in a case that he alone would decide, the prosecution would be promptly dropped. Not so in this case. The Israeli prosecutor has decided to plod on.

Then on April 1, 2009, after the second of the two remaining defendants testified, Kalman wrote another story. This time it was published in the Jerusalem Post, one of Israel’s leading newspapers. The story recounted some of the testimony of defendant Robert Deutsch: He charged the government with a “witchhunt” initiated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in an attempt to shut down the legal trade in antiquities. “I’ve never faked anything in my life,” declared Deutsch. “I’m the first person to call something a fake, because it pollutes the profession that I have made my expertise…I don’t know how much lower they can get, the people who cooked up this trial.” The government “fabricated this entire indictment, the whole thing, from A to Z,” Deutsch testified.

According to Kalman’s evaluation of the evidence, the defendants have produced “compelling evidence” that the artifacts alleged to be forgeries are in fact authentic.

Kalman noted that before the trial Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, had described one of the items alleged to be a forgery as “the tip of the iceberg.” The forgeries charged in the indictment would have “worldwide repercussions.” These forgeries, he said, were nothing less than “an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people.”

Four years later, Kalman wrote, no one else has been charged and two of the original defendants have been dismissed. A third pleaded guilty to a minor offense unrelated to forgery, leaving only two defendants remaining. And no conspiracy has been shown.

As a result of the indictment, however, Deutsch has been fired from his teaching post at the University of Haifa and dismissed as a supervisor at the archaeological excavations at Megiddo. He has even tried to dismiss his lawyer because of spiraling litigation costs (the judge wouldn’t allow it), Kalman’s story in the Jerusalem Post recounted.

The day after Kalman’s story appeared I was reading my Washington Post at breakfast. A story on page one reported on the prosecutorial misconduct in the criminal case the United States government had brought against former senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. The new attorney general, Eric Holder, had decided to drop the case against Stevens and ordered an investigation of the prosecutorial misconduct in that case to determine whether charges should be brought against the attorneys who had prosecuted the case and who had been guilty of the misconduct. (The judge in the Stevens case has since ordered his own independent investigation of the prosecutorial misconduct.)

The Washington Post story quoted a distinguished former United States prosecutor, Joseph diGenova: “The power to prosecute is the power to destroy.”

This vividly reminded me of the prosecution against Robert Deutsch in the Jerusalem forgery case. It is indeed the power to destroy.

Was there sufficient evidence to prosecute the defendants in the Jerusalem forgery case? What lies behind the government’s refusal to take the judge’s suggestion and drop the case? Was the government guilty of prosecutorial misconduct, either by the lawyers or those who conducted the investigation that led to the indictment?

This is a case that has not only destroyed private lives, but has sought to damage Israel’s heritage by casting doubt on valuable authentic artifacts that reveal its past.

If Kalman’s story in the Jerusalem Post is accurate, nothing less is at stake than the integrity of Israel’s judicial system. The appropriate authorities should promptly open an investigation of prosecutorial misconduct in the “forgery trial of the century.”—H.S.

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