Naomi Ragen denies plagiarism

American-born Israeli writer ordered to stop distributing best-selling novel.

The Jerusalem District Court on Thursday ordered American-born Israeli writer Naomi Ragen to temporarily stop distributing and selling her best-selling novel, The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, until it rules on a charge of plagiarism against her filed by novelist Michal Tal. Ragen published her novel, which focused on the history of the Jews during the Inquisition, in 1998. Three years earlier, Tal published a novel entitled The Lion and the Cross, which also focused on the persecution of the Jews during the Inquisition. In his request for a restraining order against Ragen, Tal's lawyer, Gilad Corinaldi, charged that Ragen had copied "the idea, the structural form, the names and traits of the characters, the development of the story line and the book cover of Tal's original creation." He told The Jerusalem Post he planned to sue Ragen for $1 million. In response to these allegations, Ragen's lawyer, Mibi Moser, wrote: "My client absolutely rejects your client's claims and demands, particularly the claim that she violated her copyright. My client does not know your client. Until she received your letter, she had not heard of your client or of writings attributed to her, including the novel The Lion and the Cross. To remove any doubt, my client has never read that book." Moser added that Ragen's book was based on historical facts, including the life of Donna Gracia Mendes, a Jewish woman who lived in the 16th century. Moser said Ragen had studied the period for several years before writing the book and had begun writing before Tal's novel was published. Corinaldi prepared a brochure in which he lined up, side by side, elements of the two novels that, he said, were strikingly similar. For example, Tal's book begins with a couple living in modern times who reveal a story set during the Inquisition through a medieval family manuscript written in Spanish and using the device of dreams. These elements are also used to develop the story in Ragen's novel. Both books begin with a family tree. Some of the names that appear in the two novels are similar or identical: in Tal's book, "Deigo Allegra," "Elvira," "Rinaldo," "Braudelein," "Aunt Maria" and "Angelica"; in Ragen's book, "Diogo Mendes," "Elvira," "Renaldo," "Brianda," "Aunt Malca," "Frangelica." Corinaldi wrote that many of the themes and descriptions that appear in Tal's book also appear in Ragen's. According to one example, Lorenzo Di Paradisi, one of the main character's in Tal's book, is a state taxation officer. He is described as "neither too soft-hearted nor too wavering when he collected taxes. He could obtain the cooperation [of late-payers] with his flashing smile, if necessary, with a stern look and harsh word." In Ragen's book, Donna Gracia Mendes sometimes has to fight lawsuits and collect taxes. "For these tasks," wrote Ragen in Donna Gracia Mendes's character, "I found that I needed a cool head and a clever tongue that knew how to caress as well as lash." Tal immigrated to Israel in 1980. Her book was published by the now defunct Minerva Press in London. After the publishing house closed, she tried to find a new publisher for her novel. Tal told the Post she had a friend, who chose to remain anonymous, who participated in a dance class with Ragen. The friend suggested that Ragen might help her find a publisher. According to Tal, she came to the dance class with a copy of her book to show Ragen, but Ragen did not show up that night. Tal said she left the book with her friend so that she could pass it on to Ragen. However, the friend told the Post that although she had her own copy of Tal's book, to the best of her memory Tal did not bring her a copy that night and, therefore, she did not give it to Ragen. Tal added that her book was also on sale at Steimatzky's book store in downtown Jerusalem, and that Ragen could have bought a copy herself. Corinaldi told the Post he only went ahead with the legal action after consulting with two literature experts who both concluded that Ragen had copied from Tal's book. One of them told the Post in a telephone conversation that she had gone over the material and concluded that there was "an accumulation of elements" in Ragen's book that came from Tal's. Neither she nor the other expert referred to by Corinaldi were willing to identify themselves. The court also issued a temporary lien against the Keter, Simon and Schuster and St. Martin's Press publishers regarding all revenues to Ragen from the sale of the book. It ordered Ragen to respond to Tal's allegations by March 4, and set the date for the first hearing involving both sides for March 7.