Israeli Court Finds Joe Zias Guilty of Libel

Additional news coverage: The Times of Israel

From Simcha Jacobovici’s blog this morning, breaking news from Israel…

Lod District Court (Lod, Israel) – After 4 years in court, Judge Jacob Sheinman handed down a landmark decision today in my libel suit filed against former Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) curator Joseph Zias.

I’m used to criticisms. As a journalist, I’m committed to the principle of free debate in a democratic society. But free speech ends where libel begins, and Zias crossed every red line of a civilized debate. He accused me, among other things, of “forgery”, “planting archaeology”, “pimping the Bible” and “inventing Holocaust stories”. He also accused me of being in intimate contact with various criminal elements around the world. All these are horrible, made up lies that he circulated on the Internet and sent to various universities, publishers and broadcasters. Incredibly, he found some people to support him, especially those with a theological axe to grind.

After I sued him, Zias and some of his supporters claimed that my lawsuit was an attempt to stifle free speech and academic criticism – as if libel and lies are a legitimate part of academic discourse. I only called 4 witnesses to make my case. For his part, Zias argued that he had spoken the truth and called 25 witnesses in his defense. But the strategy backfired as most of his witnesses testified against his position!

Today, the judge threw the book at Zias. He quoted Israeli law stating that freedom of speech has to be balanced with protecting a man’s “good name”. He found that Zias did not prove a single allegation. By the end of his 38 page ruling, the judge found Zias guilty on 10 counts of libel – 6 of them “pre-meditated libel with an intention to cause harm”. To underline the seriousness of Zias’ wrongdoings, the judge fined him a total of 800,000 NIS.

I waited a long time for this moment. Justice has been served and a clear message has been sent to those who use bullying and defamation as a tactic to silence free debate.

Over the past four years I have constantly heard colleagues incorrectly characterizing the Zias lawsuit as a “freedom of speech,” issue, as if Simcha Jacobovici filed his complaint to stifle legitimate criticism and debate on his work. Joe is desperate to cast things that way so he can appear the victim rather than the perpetrator–of slander and defamation–which he most surely is.  If you are interested in the facts, here they are. I know only too well what is at stake here because I have been the victim of Joe’s slander myself, having been a close friend of his for over 20 years. The only difference is Simcha Jacobovici decided to sue Joe whereas I have chosen to ignore Joe’s ugly behavior as much as possible while providing those interested in the facts of the case as I know them.

Zias & Tabor at Qumran

Scholars in my field of ancient Judaism and early Christianity often sharply disagree on issues. Pointed critiques and exchanges are common and welcome, so long as they remain respectful. This has been the case with the academic discussion of the Talpiot tombs in Jerusalem and their possible relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family over the past few years.  You can find a representative archive of strongly differing articles atBible & Interpretation here.

Jodi Magness and I laid out the parameters of the early stages of the debate, pro and con, on the Society of Biblical Literature web site here and here. Near Eastern Archaeologypublished a forum involving me and four other scholars on the topic in late 2006, see here. In March 2012 the ASOR Blog devoted the month of March to an intense academic discussion of the new discoveries in the Talpiot “Patio tomb” resulting from the robotic arm probe, see here.  Most recently Prof. James Charlesworth has published the proceedings of the 2008 Princeton Symposium in Jerusalem, The Tomb of Jesus and his Family with over 30 contributions to the discussion, representing a cross sections of interpretations and viewpoints.

PrincetonTalpiotWhat is happily absent from this intense academic discussion is personal defamation, slander, and libel. Unfortunately that has not been the case with Joe Zias, former Israel Antiquities Authority curator, who has publicly and vocally slandered and defamed me as well as my colleague Rami Arav and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, in connection with our exploration of the Talpiot tombs. Many of my colleagues have cheered Zias on, mistakenly thinking that he is merely expressing his views and disagreeing with us on the interpretation of evidence.

The truth is Zias has moved way beyond respectful academic critique into defamation, libel, and personal slander. I know this firsthand because I have copies of e-mail and letters he has written to my Dean, Provost, Chancellor, literary agent, and publisher–Simon & Schuster, as well as dozens of colleagues, charging me with “conduct bordering on the criminal,” “planting of evidence,” and calling for my dismissal for academic misconduct. In fact, in those e-mails he even charges that we “faked” the Jonah ossuary image and entered the tomb clandestinely, planting it for later filming and “discovery.” Zias urges Simon & Schuster not to publish our book, The Jesus Discovery, charging that our work is based on fraudulent claims. More recently he has expanded his critique to the commendable work Gene Gallagher and I did on Waco–which was even praised by the FBI–charging that my defense of “cult leaders” before congress gave support to the Oklahoma City bombing. Early on I wrote him a couple of e-mails and urged him to drop the personal attacks and participate in the academic discussion, inviting his critique of any aspect of our archaeological exploration of the “Patio tomb” or our interpretations of these tombs. He replied that my career was ruined, that UNC Charlotte had shown itself to be an institution with no academic standards, and that none of my students would ever find jobs or achieve any respect in our field–even though our program in Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte is one of the finest in the country.

So far as I know, even though Joe Zias is surely the most vocal critic of our work on the Talpiot tombs, he has yet to publish a single scholarly article setting forth his own counter arguments or positions. What he has done is constantly post personal attacks in “Comment” sections of media and blog pieces against me, Rami Arav, Simcha Jacobovici, and those he loosely calls “The BAR Crowd,” (which apparently includes editor Hershel Shanks and anyone who is associated with Biblical Archaeology Review).

What is particularly ironic in all this is that Zias, back in 1996, was the first one to speak in favor of the possibility that the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb belonged to Jesus and a likely wife, expressing his amazement at the uniqueness of the “cluster of names” to a BBC film crew.

I care about Joe and his family on a human level and have always treated him with kindness and respect, despite his abuse and slander against me.  I take no joy in his personal pain, though I am pleased that justice has prevailed in this case. The lawsuit was never about Zias’s right to strongly express his disagreement with the theses of Simcha’s films on the Talpiot tombs or the books he had co-authored. It was specific in charging Zias with personal libel, slander, and defamation. Zias had a defense fund set up and various colleagues who have negative views of Simcha’s work have mistakenly taken the issue to be that of Zias’s right to the academic freedom of dissent. Joe has charged that “big money” interests have conspired to keep him from speaking out, punishing him for simply expressing his criticisms. Such is simply not the case, as hundreds of my colleagues who have gotten Joe’s defamatory e-mails can testify.