Naomi Ragen Plagiarism Verdict: Not About “Free Speech”

by William Kolbrener

An alert reader, who goes by the moniker “S.” in the comments, pointed out this article, which appeared on the personal blog of Professor William Kolbrener, of the Department of English at Bar-Ilan University. We thank Prof. Kolbrener for his permission to republish.

Three days ago, on December 11, Judge Joseph Shapira of the Jerusalem District Court ruled, after a four-year legal drama, that Naomi Ragen in her novel Sotah knowingly copied from the work of the author Sarah Shapiro, Growing with My Children.

Though not publicized, I was the literary expert for Sarah Shapiro, the plaintiff, and I provided extensive written testimony which was then subject to cross-examination by Ragen’s lawyers in the Jerusalem court.

In the now widely-publicized decision of ninety-two pages, Justice Shapira wrote according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that the plagiarism was ‘tantamount to a premeditated act,’ saying that Ragen acted knowingly and copied work created by the plaintiff.”

In an article yesterday in the Jerusalem Post, Ragen, who is a columnist for the paper, accuses Sarah Shapiro of “working out of a desire to silence my criticism of the Haredi [ultra-orthodox] community’s treatment of women, which I have done for years.” Whatever her presumed motives, the decision rendered did not reflect an attempt to silence Ragen’s views, nor does the verdict, as some imply in the ultra-orthodox world, represent a triumph for the so-called “vibrancy” of an orthodox Jewish life style. Justice Shapira did not render judgement in a culture war, but on a legal case in a court of law.

In the detailed decision, Justice Shapira adds “in a personal note,” that he “delved into what he calls ‘the two masterpieces’ in order to properly adjudicate the case.” Within the painstakingly-argued decision, he writes, according to the story in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, that he “adopted the testimony of Professor Kolbrener which determined, that Regan copied portions of Shapiro’s work, appropriating them for herself, and that the similarities between the two works are so essential that any explanation other than plagiarism is untenable.”

In the Jerusalem Post article, Ragen, citing what she calls a “distortion of justice,” claims that “this is a sad day for Israeli society and Israeli authors in particular, who will have to deal with the language of abrasive lawsuits from people looking to suppress freedom of expression and creativity in Israel.”

But, of course, the legal decision was not an attempt to limit free expression, nor was it based upon the presumed religious beliefs or worldviews of the experts who provided testimony in the case. As literary expert for Sarah Shapiro, my own published views on religious life in Israel both in my book, Open Minded Torah, as well as my “Letters from Israel” for the Washington Post are, I would imagine, probably closer to Ragen’s than standard ultra-orthodox views. But none of that is relevant since Judge Shapira’s decision was based on testimony and evidence.

So not a sad day for “creativity,” but simply one in which a judge in Israel rendered his decision, establishing the facts.

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9 comments to Naomi Ragen Plagiarism Verdict: Not About “Free Speech”

  • Yaakov Menken

    As an aside, I did not say that the verdict “represent[s] a triumph for the so-called ‘vibrancy’ of an orthodox Jewish life style.” I said that not only was Sotah “a work of fiction, describing a world that bears little resemblance to the vibrancy of the Torah community — it’s also plagiarized” [emphasis added]. I agree entirely with the next sentence of the piece: “Justice Shapira did not render judgement in a culture war, but on a legal case in a court of law.”

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Wow, 4 posts on the Ragen verdict! Funny how strongly some folks at Cross Currents support the Israeli justice system when they agree with the verdict. Just sayin’…

  • mb

    Naomi Regan responds.
    Please post it.

    Dear Friends,
    I wanted you to hear this from me.

    As some of you may have heard, for the last few years I have been hounded by two haredi women authors who have sued me in Israeli courts for copyright infringement based on several sentence and word fragments. I have been fighting these ridiculous allegations as best I can. Earlier this week, to my absolute horror, the judge involved decided to find in favor of one of them, a woman named Sarah Shapiro who wrote a book in 1992 called “Growing with my Children” in which she detailed her physical abuse of her small children and her attempts to gain control of her temper. This book was given to me by her editor who asked me to encourage her in her writings. I did the best I could, hoping that it would help her and her family.

    A year or two after Sotah was published, she wrote my editor in New York saying that she felt a few sentences in Sotah bore a similarity to those in her book (a woman afraid of being pregnant – in her book she is pregnant, in mine she is not, and the discussion leads to a talk about birth control). A talk with a Rabbi about controlling one’s temper. In my book, one of my characters has a similar conversation with her husband. Certain phrases “perfect little angels” etc. were similar. But there was such little material my editor and the legal department told her this was not copyright infringement, and at the time she agreed.

    Fourteen years later, when a case was brought against me by a self-published author, Michal Tal, seeking to link her name with mine about The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, Shapiro contacted the same lawyer, who convinced her to sue. The Tal case was decided completely in my favor after Tal passed away.

    Unbelievably, the Israeli judge, whose decision I can only surmise might have be adversely affected by the language barrier, this week decided in her favor.

    I am aghast and wounded by the injustice of this unfathomable decision in this case, which, according to Ms. Shapiro’s own testimony, stems from her desire to silence my criticism of the ultra-Orthodox world. Unfortunately, this decision only serves to encourage those who, like her, feel that I deserve to be punished and what better to come at me than through that which is most important and precious to me, my good name and my creative work? It hurts me deeply that extremist elements will gain encouragement from this court decision against me. It is a sad day for Israeli culture and society, and an even sadder one for Israeli writers who will now be forced to contend with a tsunami of frivolous lawsuits from parties interested in the suppression of freedom of thought and expression.

    The court in this case refused to consider how similar cases all over the world have been handled (and, indeed, have been handled in Israel) until now. This can only have a chilling effect on Israeli culture, hindering the freedom in which we writers must work.

    My lawyers and I are presently studying this decision and weighing our options. We will appeal.

    I will post much more explicit and detailed information on my website in the near future.

    I thank you for your continued love and support. Please inform those nourished by incorrect and sensational news reports. We will get through this.

    Every blessing,

    Naomi Ragen

  • Yaakov Menken

    Oh, you just have to love it. According to Naomi Ragen, Mrs. Shapiro, in her book, “detailed her physical abuse of her small children.” The woman so quick to assert that she is being libeled is so easily given to libeling others. As the leading writer of anti-Orthodox fiction, Ragen is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

    Oh, and Menachem, we’ve written far more about the Israeli justice system when we’ve disagreed with it. Read up more. Just saying.

  • Tal Benschar

    “Funny how strongly some folks at Cross Currents support the Israeli justice system when they agree with the verdict. Just sayin’…”

    I support any justice system that does its job — adjudicating disputes between parties based on the law and the evidence before it. That’s what the judge did here, whether he was right or wrong.

    What I reject is the use of the power of the judiciary to force political opinions not in the law onto the public — whether those opinions are of the left or right, of the “enlightened” or the frum.

    The latter is not unique to Israel. (What one district judge did in California to orchestrate a circus of a trial, discover a Constitutional right to same sex marriage, and overturn the will of the California electorate is no less a travesty than many Israeli Supreme Court cases.) But one cannot deny that the Israeli Supreme Court views itself as a power base to promote what it perceives as the “enlightened” view on public policy. That this self-delegated power is exercised in the name of “democracy” makes it all the more farcical.

    As for Mr. Ragen’s crying about free expression, I have commented on that elsewhere.

  • sarah shapiro

    An editor here has called the above letter from Naomi Ragen to my attention.

    With its factual inaccuracies and absurd innuendos, the letter strikes a familiar chord. In style and substance, it is consistent with Mrs. Ragen’s approach during four years of court proceedings.

    Since I am unsure of the legal and moral ramifications of responding–or not responding–in this forum, or the necessity of doing so, for now I’ll refrain.

    Sarah Shapiro

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Tal,

    Good point. Shkoyach.

    Though, there is a sense of a witch hunt going on around here, and one has to wonder what the reaction would have been had the verdict gone the other way.

  • Lawrence Kaplan

    I am far from Haredi, but I feel that Naomi Ragen has much to learn from Sarah Shapiro’s restrained response. Ragen’s rant only buries her into a deeper hole. She should learn that less is more. It seems to me that justice was done.

  • Charlie Hall

    Not being familiar with the facts of Shapiro vs. Ragen, I have nothing to say about it. But I would suggest that all who are engaging in court-bashing might want to read Alexander Hamilton’s essays in the Federalist Papers on the importance of an independent judiciary and its ability to overrule other parts of the government to a free and lawful society. Courts are our protection against runaway legislatures and executives.

    Our own tradition also mandates independent courts! The writings of Chazal are full of demands on judges, who must maintain independence and avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.

    And I would also suggest a review of the history of ancient Greece and Rome, neither of which had independent judiciaries and both of which on occasion would terminate the civil rights of individuals by a democratic vote. In the case of Greece, the punishment was usually exile; in the case of Rome, the punishment was often death. Chas v’shalom we lose our independent courts which are our best protection against arbitrary government.