Great Trials and Disputations in Jewish History and Modern Jewish Times
A series of talks about key moments in Jewish history as reflected in cultural and aesthetic memory

All of these topics can be separated into one-time lectures or a mini-series. Movie clips and other materials that enliven the format can be added, and topics can be expanded and elaborated further.  Each topic has been presented as part of a lecture series for lay people at JCCs and universities. 

  • Modern Scholarship by Jews on the Trial of Jesus.  Narratives from Christian sources portray a series of procedures and events that resulted in a collective accusation of deicide. Modern scholars — Jewish and non-Jewish — have constructed exculpatory narratives to explain the trial and other events. These scholarly and popular reconstructions begin in the 19th century with the work of Abraham Geiger (1810 – 1874). In the mid-20th century, a stream of books appeared including Israeli Supreme Justice Haim Cohn's The Trial and Death of Jesus (1963), Historian Solomon Zeitlin's Who Crucified Jesus? (1947), Israeli historian David Flusser's Jesus The Crucified One and The Jews, Yiddish novelist Sholom Asch's The Nazarene (1949), contemporary Americans Rabbi/Professor Michael J. Cook's Modern Jews Engage the New Testament, and Amy-Jill Levine's The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  The discussion will explore the many aspects of these treatises.
  • The Dreyfus Affair and the subsequent impact of the trial of a French modern Jewish consciousness. An assimilated Theodor Herzl, writing as a journalist at the time, was so shocked by the anti-semitic invectives from the gathered crowds that he began efforts that led to the 1896 founding of Modern Political Zionism. French society, too, viewed this trial as a watershed moment and even after the 1894 conviction and the subsequent 1906 "resolution," French society remained divided. Dreyfus served prison time but was later restored to the French Army ranks. This discussion will discuss the event and the reverberations of this trial today.
  • Leo Frank was convicted of murdering Mary Phagan in Georgia in 1913. On August 17, 1915, after serving two years of his sentence, Frank was lynched. In 1982 Alonzo Mann provided a "deathbed" testimony claiming that James Conley, a black man and Frank's chief accuser, was the perpetrator. The echoes of Frank's lynching reverberated through the 20th century. The founding of the Anti-Defamation League was a key result of the trial.
  • The Jew Shylock in the docket: Ingmar Bergman's 1982 film vindication through "Fanny and Alexander. Bergman's focus on theater, art, and family devotion in the film "Fanny and Alexander" portray a sympathetic "Shylock" (Isak Jacobi) who wins redemption through artifice.  The focus on the character of Shylock, as an ally of love and devotion, is a fascinating construction by Bergman creating a vehicle for an important subplot and rehabilitation.
  • Eichman on trial in Jerusalem and as remembered in Vienna is a fascinating look at the on-going interest in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichman, a central administrator of the murder of Europe's Jews. Rabbi Benjamin Mermelstein negotiated face-to-face with Eichman, beginning with the German takeover of Austria in 1938 and later in his position as head of the Judenrat of the show camp, Teresenstadt. Nevertheless, Rabbi Benjamin Mermelstein was not called as a witness in the 1961 Eichman Trial. Why was he not called to testify? What would his testimony have revealed? That witness is largely contained in a Claude Lanzman film, Last of the Unjust.
  • Holocaust Denier David Irving sues Professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel and loses in a British court. While the case is of enduring interest, little is understood about the enormous effort of historian expert witnesses Richard J. Evans, Christopher Browning, Robert Jan van Pelt, Peter Longerich and Dr. Lipstadt, herself. Each of them developed detailed historical evidence that was prepared for the trial. Justice (Sir) Charles Gray wrote a 365 page decision that is considered a master piece of legal reasoning in its own right. David Irving was convicted of being a Holocaust denier. In a presentation of the issues of the trial and the scholarly efforts that were produced for setting the record straight, we gain a special insight into historians and legal minds working together.
  • The 1983 Kahan Report on Sabra and Shatilla. Often forgotten in today's discussions of the Middle East this exploration will focus on the judicial reasoning of the report's main author Israeli Supreme Court Justice, Yitzhak Kahan. The Kahan Commission's findings set important precedents.
  • The 1953 judicial procedures that rocked the Jewish world. In the United States, the trial that resulted in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union, and in the Soviet Union, the "Doctors' Plot" concluded with the doctors being exonerated in the wake of Stalin's death. While they had two radically different outcomes, both affected awareness of anti-semitism. The trial and the execution of the Rosenbergs had a profound impact on post-World War II American Jews and their perception of postwar anti-semitism. At virtually the same time the "Doctors' Plot" ended with the death of Stalin, but it did not put an end to Soviet-style anti-semitism.
  • Rudolf Kastzner: collaborator or rescuer? Gaylen Ross' dramatic documentary Killing Kastzner focuses on a controversial man who dared to meet with Nazi officers to trade Jewish lives for money. In Nazi occupied Hungary towards the end of World War II, Kastzner aided in rescuing as many as 20,000 Jews. Twelve years later he was assassinated on the streets of Israel, an almost universally scorned man. What did Kastzner do that gained him ignominy and death? How did this event impact the young Israeli society of the '50s?
  • The Trial of the Talmud: Paris 1240
  • The Yom Kippur "Trial" — Spies and Golden Calves. A reflection on the liturgy.
  • The Ramban vs The Church in Barcelona 1263
  • Christian Zionism

Please call me at 310-592-8960 or email me.