Sockpuppeting your way into trouble

by Kieran Healy on March 6, 2009

This sort of puts Mary Rosh in the ha’penny place:

The son of a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar was arrested on Thursday on charges of identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment relating to a complex online campaign designed to smear opponents of his father’s theories. The Manhattan district attorney’s office alleged in a statement released on Thursday that Raphael Haim Golb, 49, son of Norman Golb, a professor of Jewish history and civilization at the University of Chicago, used dozens of Internet aliases to “influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls” and “harass Dead Sea Scrolls scholars who disagree with his viewpoint.” …

The office contends that Mr. Golb impersonated and harassed Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and a leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, by creating an e-mail account in Mr. Schiffman’s name and using it to send e-mail messages in which the sender admitted to plagiarism. Mr. Golb also allegedly supplemented that campaign to discredit Mr. Schiffman by sending letters to university personnel accusing Mr. Schiffman of plagiarism, and by creating blogs that made similar accusations. Two blogs, each with a single entry, accuse Mr. Schiffman of plagiarizing articles written by Norman Golb in the 1980s. …

Mr. Cargill began tracking the cyberbully—whom he calls the “Puppet Master”—two years ago after he himself was targeted. At the time, he was a doctoral student at UCLA helping to produce a film about Khirbet Qumran—the site in present-day Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—and its inhabitants for an exhibit on the scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Mr. Cargill said it was then that the aliases began attacking him and his film, both in e-mail messages to his superiors and on various Web forums, for failing to give credence to Norman Golb’s long-held theory about the origin of the scrolls and how they came to Khirbet Qumran. Some scholars, including Mr. Schiffman and Mr. Cargill, believe that the 2,000-year-old documents were assembled by inhabitants of Qumran. Mr. Golb, however, holds that they originated in Jerusalem and were transported to Qumran later.

Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University who curated the San Diego show and several subsequent Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions, said she too has been “under regular attack” by Internet aliases since then, both in Web forums and in e-mail messages addressed to her superiors. “Sometimes the criticisms of me are straightforward and overt,” she told The Chronicle via e-mail, “and sometimes the letters appear reasonable but essentially demand that these individuals take note of previous exhibitions’ supposed ‘failings.’ Then they provide helpful suggestions to find solutions, almost always involving Norman Golb in one way or another.”

A number of other Dead Sea Scrolls scholars also said they have been harassed by mysterious Internet personas. Because the messages were written under aliases, they had little choice but to ignore them. “This person has posted horrible stuff about me online,” said Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I don’t even look anymore, it makes me too upset.”

According to The NY Times, Golb Sr has commented, too:

Professor Golb said that opposing scholars had tried to quash his views over the years through tactics like barring him from Dead Sea Scrolls exhibitions. He said he saw the criminal charges as another attack on his work. “Don’t you see how there was kind of a setup?” he said. “This was to hit me harder.”

Sounds like this might get both uglier and more entertaining in equal measure.



Jacob Christensen 03.06.09 at 10:51 pm

Keep us posted. Just when I thought academic cat-fights couldn’t possibly get any crazier…


Bryan 03.06.09 at 11:21 pm

Is there any particularly religious-political dimension to this? I.e., does one of the different theories tend to support/undermine some religious group’s beliefs?


Tom T. 03.07.09 at 4:17 am

Isn’t this the Lori Drew case in an academic context?


nnyhav 03.07.09 at 6:04 am


Leigh 03.07.09 at 8:45 am


Shawn Crowley 03.07.09 at 11:34 am

Who was it that said academic fights are so nasty because the stakes are so low?


MattF 03.07.09 at 2:58 pm

Whoa. Snakepit ahead.


kid bitzer 03.07.09 at 3:13 pm

it has even been suggested that some of the dead sea scrolls themselves are not by their purported author.


Perezoso 03.07.09 at 3:31 pm

a doctoral student at UCLA helping to produce a film about Khirbet Qumran—

The PhD in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies remains a perennial favorite at the UCs.


derrida derider 03.10.09 at 1:56 am

Shawn @ 6 – it’s usually attributed to Henry Kissinger.


Dan Simon 03.11.09 at 3:27 am

For what it’s worth, I did a bunch of reading on the Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago, and some of the controversies surrounding it do have connections to larger disputes–mostly between Jewish and Catholic scholars regarding the origins of Christianity. But as far as I can tell, Golb’s theories in particular have absolutely no connection with any broader dispute. Several Jewish scholars, such as the renowned Jewish historian Cecil Roth, have proposed alternative theories about the Scrolls’ authors, without any particular acrimony resulting. This sounds to me like one specific academic loon’s problem.

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