When Good Things Happen to Very Bad Billionaires; Controversial Pardon Opens Up Tribal Skirmishes

It was surely the most trying moment in Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg’s tenure as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Several days after the pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich made international news, the museum’s spokesman received a call from a reporter asking about a letter written on museum stationery in support of Mr. Rich’s pardon request. It was one of more than 100 letters Bill Clinton received on Mr. Rich’s behalf.

Mr. Greenberg, one of the foremost Orthodox theologians among American Jews, immediately realized that he had made an

error by using the official stationery, and at the next meeting of the museum’s high-powered board, he apologized for his oversight. The press attacked. The rabbi has laid low ever since.

By conceding his mistake, Mr. Greenberg has been more forthcoming than many other erstwhile advocates for Mr. Rich. For example, the normally ubiquitous Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, went into hibernation, and publisher Michael Steinhardt, who co-owns The Forward , didn’t even respond to inquiries from reporters at his own paper. Denise Rich and Beth Dozoretz, two of the most visible Jewish Friends of Bill, have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights rather than testify before a Congressional committee, and an unusually acrimonious debate has been raging in the pages of the Jewish press about the competence of American Jewish leadership.

While mainstream commentators are nearly unanimous in their straightforward condemnation of the pardons, the uproar in the Jewish community has been more complex and confused. While there is anger over the former President’s actions, there is also defensiveness, fear and disillusionment about the conspicuous involvement of so many American Jewish and Israeli leaders in the controversy. However inadvertently, Mr. Clinton–one of the most popular public figures ever among American Jews–has exposed bitter internecine rifts rarely aired in public. In recent days, the controversy–stoked by Mr. Clinton’s self-exonerating op-ed piece in The New York Times and by Mr. Rich’s professions of innocence–has embroiled the Jewish community in simultaneous debates over its role in American politics, its relationship with Israel and its opinion of the former President. And, of course, at a time when image-conscious secular Jews are wincing over headlines about the four Hasidic embezzlers in upstate New Square who received Presidential commutations, the omnipresence of an almost cartoonishly shady figure like Marc Rich has been particularly bothersome.

“The whole Rich thing is complicated because he evokes the stereotype of the rich Jew, a financial criminal who spreads his money around,” said writer Samuel Freedman, the author most recently of Jew vs. Jew. “He used his ill-gotten gains to buy himself legitimacy by supporting Jewish activities, and that’s odious.” Mr. Rich has given more than $80 million to Jewish and Israeli causes, and reportedly played an instrumental role in helping the Mossad carry out a number of undisclosed operations.

Aside from Mr. Rich himself, there has been the nettlesome matter of the role that an array of Israeli and American Jewish leaders played in securing his pardon. Mr. Greenberg’s letter on Holocaust Museum stationery may have been an innocent mistake. But it has been far harder to explain as aberrations the personal testimonials of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit and Mr. Foxman. The Forward published a list of the most prominent letter writers under the heading, “Friends in High Places: Marc Rich’s Jewish Fans.”

The role of Mr. Rich’s Israeli backers in particular has fueled arguments over the complicated relationship between American Jews and Israel.

“Israeli officials have absolutely no business in this kind of enterprise,” said Martin Begun, the former head of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. “It wasn’t in Israeli interests, and it certainly wasn’t in American Jewish interests. By any definition, it was harmful meddling.”

While the involvement of Mr. Barak, Shimon Peres and more than 50 other prominent Israelis in the pardon process has disturbed some American Jews, there has been no corresponding outcry in Israel. Several American Jewish leaders who have been in Israel recently told The Observer that the Rich pardon was a virtual non-issue there. To some, the Israelis’ underwhelming reaction is an illustration of the serious cultural differences between Israel and the Jewish community in America.

William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said, “From their point of view, Marc Rich looms very small. The Israelis would say the controversy is bullshit.”

“It’s all about having the moral high ground for a lot of the American Jews,” added one New York business leader who has worked in Israel. “That’s why they’re so upset about the Israeli connection to Marc Rich. But the fact that the Israelis have to worry about their survival makes them a little more pragmatic about this stuff, whether it’s sources of philanthropy or anything else. Their primary concern is that things never go back to how they were 50 years ago, when the Arabs had all the guns.”

In justifying the Rich pardon, Mr. Clinton cited concerns about Israeli security, but the explanation apparently didn’t help him much. The actual extent of Mr. Rich’s contributions to Israeli security has been a matter of some debate, based on the possibility, as a Forward editorial put it, that “his back-channel involvement in Israeli intelligence, through his business dealings in Iran, Sudan and other trouble spots, ran deeper than has been disclosed.” But Mr. Clinton’s list of “legal and foreign policy reasons” for the pardon triggered harsh criticism from right-wing Jewish opinion makers, including those who have been among the most hawkishly pro-Israel. ” The Israelis made me do it only whips up anti-Semitism,” wrote New York Times columnist William Safire the day after Mr. Clinton’s byline graced the paper’s Op-Ed page. William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, was even more blunt: “He tried to blame it all on the Jews,” Mr. Kristol told The Observer . “As a Jew, I didn’t realize that Marc Rich was vital to my security. I found his claims that this had foreign-policy considerations deceitful and obnoxious. Playing the Jewish card like this is a new low, even for Clinton.”

Same Old Song?

Criticism from such quarters comes as little surprise to many supporters of Mr. Clinton. “A lot of the people bashing Clinton now are the same people who have been bashing him for eight years,” said Jeremy Burton, who was the New York coordinator for the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. “They’ve been baffled as to why the 90 percent of the Jewish community loved this guy for so long, and they finally see an opportunity to prove that he’s bad for the Jews.”

But the fierce reaction to the Rich pardon and Mr. Clinton’s justification of it has not been limited to right-wing Jews. More surprising was the tone of criticismfrom Senator Charles Schumer (Hillary Clinton’s colleague) and the editorials in mainstream Jewish newspapers, which carried headlines like “Shame on Clinton.” “Clinton made a mistake because he made people think that he was blaming the Jews, whether it was true or not,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who has done campaign work for Israel’s Labor Party. “Ultimately, that’s the impression that a lot of people are left with.”

Indeed, others feel that it is Mr. Clinton who appears to be the victim of a certain amount of scapegoating. “For Jewish leaders to blame President Clinton for their behavior is outrageous,” said Mr. Begun. “If Clinton used poor judgment, that’s one thing–but for them to apply pressure on him and then blame him for inciting anti-Semitic behavior is a baffling twist of logic. The poor man was pressured to death.”

A director at one of New York’s most prominent Jewish philanthropic organizations concurred: “The people who are criticizing Clinton now are a bunch of hypocritical, unethical shits. There is this terrible power dynamic in the Jewish community right now, with a total lack of ethics about taking money from less-than-pure sources. The only question they ever had is, is it good for the Jews? They never had a problem dealing with Marc Rich when it benefited them.”

Politics aside, the Rich affair has also stirred interdenominational tensions, rarely visible to non-Jews but faintly reminiscent of the regular frum -versus-secular skirmishes in Israel. In a scathing op-ed in the Jewish Week , Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a leader of the American Reform movement, took Jewish leadership to task for its involvement in the Rich matter. Other reform leaders quickly followed suit. “The issue with American Jewish leadership is that, under Clinton, they had greater access to power than ever before, and some of them abused that power,” said Rabbi Daniel Polish, an active leader in the Reform movement here in the U.S.

Reaction to the public scolding from Reform leaders was equally bilious, with Mr. Yoffie and company being accused of everything from disingenuousness to self-loathing. “They’re not even a real movement,” said one prominent Orthodox leader. Mr. Sheinkopf, who is Orthodox, was equally dismissive: “Any time the Reform movement can take a shot at the Orthodox movement, they do,” he said. “They’re using the Rich pardon as a way to attack Orthodox Jews because they don’t understand the Orthodox mindset. A lot of the criticism is coming from people who think being Jewish is eating a bagel and going on vacation to Nassau.”

But whatever the tumult caused in the Jewish community, it is interesting to note that the rest of the country hasn’t treated the Rich pardon as a Jewish issue at all. “I don’t think that Jewish stereotypes hold a lot of water in America anymore, except in the lunatic fringe,” said Mr. Freedman. “I don’t think that there is any consideration in the non-Jewish community that the Jews are to blame for Marc Rich so much as that Clinton is a slime for doing this. There’s this fear–especially in the older generation of Jews–of backlash, but it doesn’t happen.”