Professor Dan Shapira
Professor Dan Shapira Photo by Emil Salman
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An Israeli scholar living in London has filed a libel suit against two professors who branded him a dealer in stolen antiquities and a charlatan.

Israeli-Russian historian Menashe Goldelman, who lives in London, was invited by the Hebrew University's Department of Russian and Slavic Studies to lecture at a January conference on the Khazars, a seminomadic Turkic people who dominated the Pontic steppe and the North Caucasus in the 7th to 10th centuries.

But Prof. Mikhail Kizilov of Ukraine, who was lecturing at Ben-Gurion University at the time, protested Goldelman's invitation to the conference and sent a scathing email to a large number of people in which he accused Goldelman of having stolen books from libraries and antiquities from Jewish sites in the Crimean peninsula.

"I'm more than surprised by the fact that this liar and thief is taking part in an academic conference," Kizilov wrote, according to the libel suit filed in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court.

One of the email's recipients, Prof. Dan Shapira of Bar-Ilan University, then sent an email backing Kizilov's claims. He called Goldelman a grave robber, said he knew nothing about the topic he was supposed to lecture on and demanded that the university revoke the invitation.

After the emails reached Goldelman, his lawyer, Yitzhak Yaari, sent a letter to Shapira denying that his client was an antiquities robber or dealer and threatening to sue him for libel.

In his response to Goldelman's suit, Shapira noted that the subtitle of the latter's lecture was "Findings from Unofficial Excavations."

"Unofficial excavations," he said, is a euphemism for "digs conducted without a license, or by people whose goal is to find antiquities and sell them for profit. Findings from these digs are not brought to universities or exhibited in museums; they find their way through people like the plaintiff to the black market and private collections."

Shapira said such digs serve the growing market in Russian Jewish antiquities, which are purchased by oligarchs and nouveaux riches of Jewish origin. "It's a sort of reaction to Christo-Russian art collections ... a kind of a statement that we were here first. It involves a lot of mystique and pseudo-history," he wrote.

The artifacts most in demand are war implements like swords and shields, coins and jewelry. A large part of the market, Shapira added, is based on legends associated with the Khazar Kingdom, a quasi-Jewish kingdom that dominated the Pontic steppe and the North Caucasus in the 7th to 10th centuries.

Goldelman, he charged, makes a living by trading in these artifacts, and this is what prompted his demand that the university revoke his invitation to the conference.

Shapira's attorney, Michael Deborin, sent a letter warning Goldelman not to sue, hinting that the plaintiff might be in for an unpleasant surprise if he did.

He was referring to a letter Goldelman wrote 15 years ago as part of a practical joke to which Goldelman fell victim to a prank alleging the disk had been stolen by the Russian mob from Godelman's friends. According to Shapira, this letter proves Goldelman is a stolen antiques dealer.

Goldelman's attorney, Yaari, said yesterday, "The allegations that Mr. Goldelman is an illegal antiquities dealer are false and groundless and the cause for the suit. Anyone publishing these allegations, including Haaretz, is committing libel and can expect to be held liable for it."