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Jewish Groups Come Under Fire For Their Role In Promoting The Pardon Of Marc Rich

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2001

The role of leaders of a number of American Jewish organizations in campaigning for the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich is coming under increasing criticism. Rich was one of the world's most wanted white collar fugitives. In 1983, he was charged with an illegal oil pricing scheme that amounted to what may be the biggest tax swindle in U.S. history. In addition, he was charged with trading with Iran during the hostage crisis.  

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Chair Irving Greenberg wrote a letter to President Clinton on the Holocaust Council's stationery and declared that Rich brought "vision, generosity, a desire to do good, a willingness to take a leadership role." Another letter came from Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel and former president of Hadassah, who declared that, "I feel perfectly comfortable having written the letter." The Anti-Defamation League acknowledged receiving $100,000 from Rich shortly after Abraham Foxman, its national director, had suggested that Rich's ex-wife ask President Clinton for a pardon. Foxman himself wrote a letter on ADL stationery urging "executive clemency" for Rich.  

Editorially, The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 2, 2001) noted that, "In the Jewish tradition, tikkun olam means `to act, Godlike, to improve the world.' We have that on the authority of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which runs the Washington-based museum. More interesting, however, is the context: a December 11 letter to then-President Clinton, imploring him to perform `one of the most Godlike actions that anyone ever can do.' To wit, `this letter is written to urge you to give the opportunity for a new life to Mr. Marc Rich'...The Rich pardon followed."  

Walter Reich, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998 and now professor of international relations at George Washington University, provided this assessment: "Rabbi Greenberg...traded on, and thereby debased, the sacred trust he held. When he petitioned Clinton to pardon Rich, flattering the leader of the free world by informing him with a pastoral seal of approval, that he, the president, is in a position to `perform one of the most Godlike actions that anyone can ever do.' Greenberg was automatically doing so in the name of the Holocaust...It was, in a way, as if the six million murdered Jews were beseeching the president, through their official spokesman, Greenberg, to pardon Rich. This exploitation of the Holocaust in support of a billionaire on the lam is a grave cheapening of Holocaust memory and devaluation of its moral force. This business is rendered more dismaying still in the light of reports that Rich gave millions to a charity with which Greenberg is associated." (New York Post, Feb. 27, 2001)  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, issued a sharp rebuke of Jewish leaders who have kept silent on the Rich pardon, saying the Jewish community's silence has been "bought with large contributions to Jewish causes." Writing in the Washington Jewish Week (Feb. 15, 2001), he stated: "There were virtually no voices in the Jewish community that protested the Rich pardon or our own response to it. If Mr. Rich wants to support Jewish causes, that is fine and admirable. An indicted fugitive is entitled to do good works with his resources, but he is not entitled to koved (honor), to a quid pro quo, or to rehabilitation of his name by the recipients, at least not until the legal process has run its course. I am particularly troubled by the prominence that Mr. Rich was given in the Birthright Israel program and the public support that he received from the program's other backers. What is it we are trying to teach our idealistic young people? That, no matter what, the super-rich take care of their own? That, for a price, anyone can purchase moral respectability?...The Clinton pardons presented the Jewish community with an important moral test. We failed..."  

New York Times (March 29, 2001) columnist William Safire criticized the ADL's Abraham Foxman for his role in promoting the Rich pardon. He pointed out that ADL's mission "is to fight bigotry," and that, "The last time Foxman muddled it was to write Clinton asking for Jonathan Pollard's release; commission members privately slapped him down because that prosecution had nothing to do with anti-semitism either. The time is ripe for the ADL—and other do-good and advocacy groups, too—to take a hard look at the ulterior motives of their money sources. It's time to set out written policies to resist manipulation by rich sleazebags and to reprimand or fire staff members who do not get with the ethical program."  

Pressure for the Rich pardon also came from such prominent Israelis as then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Shiomo Ben-Ami, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, and the former head of Mossad, Shabtai Shavit.  

After fleeing the U.S., Rich became an Israeli citizen and a major benefactor of various organizations. A 1999 profile in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv called Rich "the biggest donor to artistic and cultural institutions" over the past 15 years. Among his contributions was $5 million to Birthright Israel, which has sent 17,000 young American Jews to Israel.  

Israeli lawyer and social commentator Ya'acov Ohtsda argues that openly calling for a pardon for Rich on the part of Israeli leaders shows "how Israel is lacking in political norms of behavior...The question is why we should take assistance from people based on illegal funds, and then get involved in moral obligations to help them?" (Jerusalem Post, March 9, 2001)

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