Sunday 16 December 2012

Naked Archaeologist Tries to Silence Critic in Israeli Court

"Biblical Archaeology" filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, was known for his TV series “The Naked Archaeologist”, in which he did not take his clothes off, and his archaeological credentials were never established. Jacobovici is now suing anthropologist Joe Zias, formerly of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who in recent years has been criticising the basis for some of his most outrageous claims (Nir Hasson, 'Controversy over Jesus' tomb gets to Petah Tikva court' Haaretz 16.12.12). The sum involved is reportedly a million dollars, and the libel suit is being brought before Petah Tikva District Court Judge Jacob Shienman.

Readers may recall that Jacobovici drew the attention of the media to himself with the dramatic postulation of a theory that the tomb of Jesus and his family has been found in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” 2007). He then went on to claim he'd got the original nails used in the crucifixion of Christ from another tomb, in the capital’s Abu Tor neighborhood. These claims have roused controversy and the methods and claims have met with criticism.

Zwinglius Redivivus (Jim West) asks - as we all might - 'Why is Simcha Jacobovici Suing Joe Zias?' (December 8th 2012).  Jacobovici claims that Zias’ critiques have deteriorated into personal defamation and caused him massive financial damage. It seems that Jacobovici is suggesting that a Discovery Channel (or NatGeo) special which he produced was cacelled and he is holding Zias somehow responsible for the loss of income resulting from Discovery's decision. As ZR comments:
if a show of his was pulled, one really has to wonder why the television station which made the decision isn’t the object of Simcha’s wrath and an outspoken critic, who had and who has absolutely no power to pull anything from any airwave, is to blame.  Simcha, for all intents and purposes, looks to be on a vendetta.  And scholars can’t stand by silently while one of their own is muzzled.  If it ever comes to the point that film makers with financial clout (or magazine publishers for that matter) can hush the mouths of honest academics simply striving to inform the public of the facts, the only ones to blame will be the silent scholars. I hope the Israeli court tosses the suit out on its ear.
Interestingly Jacobovici enters the discussion and explained: "the whole matter came to a head when he repeatedly accused me of unspecified “forgery”, unspecified “planting” of evidence and unspecified “inventing” of Holocaust stories" (the latter he considers to be the clinching matter - as "a journalist who is a child of Holocaust survivors"). A quick search was unable to locate the place where Zias actually makes these claims, the Holocaust story reference was apparently associated with a (posthumous "lifetime achievement") award to Josef Gat, the excavator of the tomb, with his Holocaust experiences cited as the reason why he never published the site. As for the other terms allegedly used, certainly in the case of Jacobovici's films, there is a difference between a documentary record of an actual investigation and the staged reconstruction for journalistic purposes. My suspicion it is this sort of difference to which Zias refers. If his claims of manipulation and misrepresentation are what is being referred to here, then Zias is only voicing the thoughts of many of us who watched these shameless attempts at self-promotion.

Jim West has similar doubts about the claim  ('Simcha's Lawsuit Against Joe Zias Hits Haaretz', ZR Dec. 15th 2012):
And though Simcha asserts that he’s suing Zias because Zias suggested he planted things and forged stuff, I’m not buying it.  If all the stuff Simcha has filmed is the real deal, scholars would have supported him and his findings.  That those findings were weighed in the academic balances and found wanting isn’t Zias’ fault.  He doesn’t have that much influence.  Nor does he have, in my opinion, sufficient influence to get tv channels to pull Simcha’s work.  Simcha’s work was pulled for reasons known only to the networks he’s worked with and if he sues anyone it should be them. I sincerely believe (though I don’t know it for a fact because I can’t read minds) that Simcha is suing Zias out of spite.
Of course the big question is if Jacobovici had a contract with Discovery and/or Nat Geo on the basis of which he made an investment in a project, and they broke it, why is he not pursuing them in court?

For what it's worth, there is a petition (started by Jim West): 'Simcha Jacobovici: Drop Your Suit Against Joe Zias' among the four reasons cited is that a successful suit will help to "choke out dissident voices by means of monetary threatenings and academics simply cannot sit by and allow that chilling effect on scholarship to take place". I do not expect for a minute that the guy now being christened '$imcha' by some of his critics will listen, but I will sign it anyway [UPDATE, too late, "petition closed" with just 46 signatures].

I think archaeologists should be very concerned that what is put out on programmes by edutainment outlets such as the 'Discovery' and National Geographic channels is of the highest quality and - when the archaeological past is being represented - at least to some degree reflects what archaeologists do and think. Whether we like it or not, it is on the basis of what the media tell them that people form their opinions about the world (and here the man in the street is not going to be particularly discriminating). As a result, I think scholars should have (and seek) input into the programming choices of these channels, and an opportunity to express an opinion - indeed, I would go so far as to say it is their obligation.

Vignette: A naked archaeologist

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