Monday, May 4, 2009

The Trial on Trial


By Victor Sasson

A few months ago Oded Golan, the antiquities collector, contacted me via email. He enquired whether I would be willing to testify in court as an expert witness regarding the Jehoash inscription. Having given the request a little thought, I accepted the invitation. Recently I came back from my trip to Jerusalem. A couple of biblical scholars found a brief account of my experience interesting, and one of them even suggested making it public. I thought this was a good idea, and my personal account developed into the length it now has.
My testimony was given on the 26th of October of this year, 2008. My purpose was to defend my reading of the text of the tablet, my own independent research, which I undertook and completed in 2003. The study was published in Ugarit Forschungen 35 in 2004. I should mention that I had never heard of Mr. Oded Golan before 2003, and never had any contact with him, nor met him, prior to the latter part of 2008, when he himself contacted me for the first time.
Prior to my testimony on October 26, the judge in the case, A. Farkash, already had a copy of my CV and a list of my publications, handed to him by the defence lawyer. In addition to my doctoral thesis on the language of Hebrew inscriptions, completed in 1979, I have been publishing on Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions for about thirty years. My independent research has been unsupported by any institution, even though over the years I have applied for a couple of grants. Epigraphic research – especially of longer texts - for me was, and still is, an irresistible, literary challenge; a literary as well as a scholarly explorative work undertaken for the sheer excitement and love it affords me personally. Not getting funding for my time-consuming research studies granted a sense of freedom from the shackles of being beholden to institutions and individuals. I spoke my mind, and my research has been readily accepted, over the years, by the most influential scholarly journals in the field.
As a witness, I first gave a brief account of my scholarly background. The defence lawyer, Mr. Lior Bringer, asked some relevant questions regarding the Jehoash tablet. I answered his questions truthfully and to the best of my ability. Soon the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Dan Bahat - a tall, clever-looking fellow - took over, and the cross-examination began. This man, clearly had read my Jehoash research and was intent on treating me – or rather, mistreating me – as an accomplice to a crime. As an expert witness for the defence, sworn to tell the truth in court, I was not at all prepared for the tricky questions, ugly innuendoes, aggressive manner, and cheap legalistic maneuvers that this prosecutor employed throughout my testimony. But he kept saying he was only asking “simple” questions.
Mr. Bahat asked numerous questions regarding the text of the Jehoash tablet, which I answered or tried to answer. Some of his questions were hair-splitting questions, couched in language that sought to mislead or ensnare (this aspect of the cross examination is often blurred or clouded in the printed court transcripts). Often they were deliberately framed in a way difficult to grasp, especially as they were addressed to me in a hostile manner. I did my best to keep cool and collected. When I mentioned further textual evidence from the Book of Chronicles in support of the Jehoash inscription, he objected saying that was not part of my 2003 published research article. I had no idea that I was to stick to that research study. He said he was not prepared for the new piece of evidence I was presenting to the court. I could of course have answered that I was not fully prepared for whatever tricky questions he was asking. His objection to my new evidence proved to me that the prosecution was not interested in the TRUTH, to which I swore to tell in that court. The stance of the prosecutor was that the inscription was a forgery (manufactured by the defendant who was sitting in the courtroom) and he was going to prove this by hook or crook.
One of his desperate attempts at fabricating evidence to support his stance as a prosecutor was to try to pin something on me regarding the Internet and my epigraphic research, when in fact I have never ever published any research on the Internet. Every scholarly article of mine was submitted to a reputable, refereed journal. Mr. Bahat had full knowledge of that, yet he wanted to mention the word Internet for his own mean purposes.
Having finished with his long and arduous questionings and futile attempts to trivialize, confound and confuse, this prosecuting lawyer began reading my article silently, while everyone, including the judge, waited for him to ask a question (these long pauses in the proceedings are not mentioned in the published court transcripts). This went on, I think, for something like fifteen minutes. At one point he asked a question that had nothing to do with epigraphy, a question that I could not fathom at all. I turned to the judge and said so. It’s possible the judge, too, could not understand the question, so he asked the lawyer to repeat it. The purpose of the question was, no doubt, to confuse and disorient. At one point I could not help it but burst into laughter as I heard a thoroughly ridiculous question that Mr. Bahat unashamedly put to me.
When I wanted to quote Ada Yardeni regarding what she had said about the script used in the Jehoash tablet, Mr. Bahat objected. When I wanted to quote Joseph Naveh about palaeography in a 1980 article written by him, the prosecutor objected vehemently, and only with the forceful intervention of the judge I was allowed to do so (in fact the quote from Naveh was already in my 2003 article).
Mr. Bahat, feeling frustrated by an honest and genuine expert on literary Hebrew inscriptions, saw no other way but to turn to petty casuistry and quibbling in order to score some points in court. Even though I had declared that I am an expert on the language of inscriptions, the prosecutor kept harping on palaeography, attempting to show that the mixed script of the Jehoash is a forgery. I pointed out that the Eqron inscription has a mixed script, or a script that is not easy to identify, and yet it is considered by all scholars to be genuine.
At this late juncture in my testimony, he turned to asking utterly nonsensical, hairsplitting questions that drove the judge, at least once, if not twice, to shout angrily, even furiously, at Mr. Bahat, telling him to stop it. The specific issue now was about ostraca, an issue Bahat himself introduced, not I myself. Even though I said I had not researched the specific ostraca Bahat mentioned (and ostraca had nothing to do with my research on the Jehoash text), he kept pestering with questions. Apparently he thought he had found a weakness which he could exploit. The anger displayed by the judge quite surprised me (the judge’s display of anger is not mentioned in the court transcripts). Here is my translation of what the judge shouted at Mr. Bahat:

Judge: Mr. Bahat, this is completely unnecessary! Your last comment was completely unnecessary! Sir, don’t answer me! Your last comment was completely unnecessary regarding an expert witness who is on the witness stand, giving testimony. Excuse me! (Then turning to me) Professor Sasson, you wanted to complete your answer, right? Please do so.

After more than two hours on the stand (in a confining corner of the relatively small courtroom) - at times I had to sit on account of exasperating, convoluted or irrelevant questions and the lack of fresh air - I was finally thanked by the judge. He wished me a Happy New Year. The Jewish new year had just began.
As I have mentioned in my research article on the Jehoash, a governmental appointed committee of sundry scholars can in no way adjudicate the authenticity of an inscription. Public relations and comradeship would play a major part in the process – as in fact it did. Indeed, our Akkadian scholar from the University of the Negev claimed that the committee’s unanimous verdict of forgery was like the miracle of the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew Bible, when every member of that committee submitted the same translation! As far as I know, no member of the committee that was appointed in 2004 was a professional epigrapher, someone who has at least published several detailed research studies of major inscriptions over a period of some years. Similarly, a court of law is not the place to ascertain authenticity. A professional lawyer is not, and cannot pretend to be, an epigrapher. The court is a place where the prosecuting lawyer has already passed judgement, and his sole goal is to score legal points at all costs. To establish the authenticity of a controversial epigraphic text may take years and solid, published research by professional epigraphers. Throwing about ‘big’ names from ‘big’ universities in support of a forgery is not the way to go about it – this is in fact what Y. Goren and N.A. Silberman did in their highly dramatic piece, ‘Faking Biblical History’ in Archaeology magazine (56, no. 5, September-October, 2003). That approach is patently false. It is cheap journalese, and it is misleading.
I must comment about the published court transcripts. They are available in Hebrew only. Although I read, write, and speak Hebrew (as well as Arabic) I gave my testimony in English, as all my research was done, written, and published in English. The simultaneous interpreter that was assigned to me did, on the whole, a good job, (I had to correct her once, so did Mr. Bahat, and so did the judge - regarding different matters). I think that my testimony was also recorded on tape. And yet, the published transcripts in Hebrew display misspellings of words and names, misunderstood or garbled sentences, possibly omissions, and so forth. I find this incomprehensible.
Less than a week after I had given my testimony in Jerusalem, I learned that Judge A. Farkash advised the Prosecution to reconsider their case or to drop it altogether. I am tempted to think that my own testimony in the trial contributed something towards that decision.