Did the Jews Make Him Do It?
Clinton's pardon of Rich puts Israeli and American Jewish leaders on the spot
Jonathan S. Tobin - Philadelphia Jewish Exponent - February 22, 2001
To the consternation of his successor and the anguish of many of his
staunchest supporters, former President Bill Clinton's hold on the spotlight
But unfortunately, Clinton's death grip on the media's attention is causing
some of his best friends - including the American Jewish community - a lot of
Clinton's bizarre last-minute pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich is an
act so contrary to accepted notions of good government that it has virtually
no defenders other than Rich's lawyers. Clinton's ability to cover his tracks
and squeak between the cracks in the law will always outstrip the ability of
congressional investigators and federal prosecutors to make him accountable.
The revelations about the January pardons were disturbing enough for those of
us who are still capable of outrage about the way these Arkansas grifters
degraded the White House but this time Clinton has even outraged some of his
most loyal supporters.
But the latest twist in this story has particularly ominous implications for
the State of Israel and American Jews.
In setting forth the reasons for the Rich pardon in an op-ed piece published
by The New York Times on Feb. 18, Clinton listed eight different reasons for
the pardon of a man accused of serious crimes - a man who has been linked to
scandalous business dealings around the globe with the world's worst
The eighth point, and the only one Clinton began with the word "importantly,"
stated that "many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both
major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and
Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich . "
Clinton did not admit his mistake; neither did he confess that he had issued
the pardon as a quid pro quo for the massive contributions Rich's ex-wife,
Denise, gave to the Democrats and to his own presidential library. Instead,
he insisted that "foreign-policy considerations [i.e. Israel's wishes] and
the legal arguments" were the only reasons for his action.
Clinton seemed to be telling the world, "Don't blame me: The Jews made me do
Up to this point, the stench of the Rich affair had only marginally attached
itself to the Jewish community - which actually learned after the fact that
many Israeli and American Jewish big shots had written letters urging Clinton
to pardon the financier.
It was bad enough that people like Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, chair of
the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; Abraham Foxman, head of the
Anti-Defamation League; and Marlene Post, the former international president
of Hadassah had joined former prime minister Ehud Barak and others in
speaking up for Rich.
All these Jewish VIPs writing letters may have given the White House the
mistaken impression that giving Rich a free pass for serious crimes was a
Jewish issue. Of course, the fact that few American Jews had even heard of
Rich - let alone cared about a man who had renounced his American citizenship
- doesn't seem to have entered the discussion.
But now, with Clinton's statement putting Israel and the Jews at the center
of this mess, the Jewish angle stops being a sidebar to the story. Now, it's
the main feature.
Indeed, last week The New York Times devoted a story solely to the topic of
whether or not Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel had joined the clamor
for Rich's pardon. As it turns out, Wiesel claims he did not participate,
which provides some comfort for those of us wondering whether there was
anyone not willing to sell his good name for the sake of Rich's money.
A careful reading of the record on Rich's pardon seems to show that cash for
the Democrats and the access of former White House consul Jack Quinn were far
more important than anything Marlene Post had to say about Rich.
But while experience should teach us to treat anything Clinton says as having
only a tenuous relation to the truth, his assertion that Jewish lobbying for
Rich was a decisive factor has a degree of credibility. It may well be that
Clinton saw the Rich pardon as, in part, a way of doing a favor for some of
his friends and loyal supporters. Clinton may have taken a look at the
two-page long list of prominent Israeli and American Jewish bigwigs and
concluded that pardoning Rich was a big deal to the Jews.
The notion that Rich's pardon actually advanced American foreign policy is
laughable. And the revelations of some of Rich's "good deeds" (accomplished
in the course of his immoral business dealings with Iran, Libya, North Korea
and the former Soviet Union) raise questions in and of themselves.
One report claims that when Egypt paid compensation to the families of
Israeli victims of an Egyptian border-guard's murder spree in the 1980s, it
was really Rich and not the Egyptians who paid. In other words, Rich's cash
helped cover up the fact that the Egyptians were unwilling to act
responsibly, and the subterfuge helped lessen pressure on them to begin
acting like the "moderates" we are told they are.
Another "good deed" by Rich is his funding of programs in the Gaza Strip that
were supposed to help bolster the peace process. But anyone with even a
passing acquaintance with the issue of aid to the Palestinian Authority knows
that such donations were nothing more than bribes pocketed by P.A. leader
Yasser Arafat and his cronies.
Also troubling is the way Rich's reported $80 million in donations to various
Jewish charities apparently bought him the endorsement of the leaders of
those groups for his pardon. It is one thing for a Jewish philanthropy to
take Rich's money, or even to give him a plaque. It is quite another when, in
exchange for money, an institution identified with the Jewish community
chooses to vouch for someone who fled the country under criminal indictment
for serious offenses and then thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam from the safety
of his Swiss hideout.
It is high time for those of us who care deeply about these issues to ask
groups like the U.S. Holocaust Museum - and others who were dragged into
Rich's scheme by their purse strings - to start asking themselves whether the
Jewish ethics we teach to our children also applies to our institutions.
A blow to Pollard's hopes
Even worse, the campaign for Rich distracted Clinton at a critical moment in
the effort to pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Pollard's spying for Israel was wrong, and he deserved to be punished. But
after 15 years in jail, there's no longer a rationale for keeping him there,
especially given the government misconduct in the course of his plea bargain.
There is a genuine Jewish consensus that giving Pollard clemency is the right
thing to do.
And, after having first entrapped him and then abandoned him in the field,
Israel's leaders had a responsibility to try to gain Pollard his freedom.
At this point, helping Pollard has become a matter of pidyon shvuyim,
"redeeming a Jewish captive." That is not the case with Rich, whose current
roost in Switzerland is considerably cushier than Pollard's cell in Butner,
It may be that Rich's petition enabled Clinton to think he had a choice
between pardoning the financier or Pollard. If so, the testimonials of all
those leaders and rabbis bought by Rich's donations extracted an even higher
price: making it easier for Clinton to deny Pollard's petition. That means
the spy is doomed to at least several more years in jail.
Even worse, the involvement of Israel in the Rich scandal may help undermine
support for the Jewish state in this country at a crucial moment when the
peace process has failed and the new government needs American backing.
At best, Bill Clinton is probably skirting the truth when he puts so much of
the onus for the Rich pardon on Israel and the Jews. But that doesn't erase
the fact that both Israeli and American Jewish leaders made a terrible
mistake by involving themselves in Marc Rich's web of influence peddling.
This pardon was not a Jewish issue. They had no right to speak in our name or
to associate the honor of the Jewish people with this disreputable character.
For this blunder, they will need to ask a far higher authority than the
president for a pardon. If they need a letter of support, I suggest they ask
Clinton, though I imagine he will first require a donation.
See Also: The Clemency Page