Jewish-American Organizations Mum on Rich Pardon

Melissa Radler - The Jerusalem Post - February 4, 2001 NEW YORK - Jewish organizations here appear to be keeping their thoughts to themselves on Marc Rich, the fugitive commodities trader and tax evader recently pardoned by former US president Bill Clinton. Most organizations have also declined comment on whether they consider Rich's pardon to be just.

Rich, a billionaire who donates millions to Jewish causes and Israel, was pardoned on January 20 by Clinton, in one of Clinton's last official gestures. The list of people who had written letters to Clinton supporting Rich's pardon - referred to by The New York Times as "a virtual Who's Who of Israeli society and Jewish philanthropy" - included Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US Holocaust Memorial Council head Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who, according to a report in The Jewish Week, wrote the letter on official council stationery.

One organization here that has gone public about accepting donations from Rich is Birthright Israel, which sends thousands of students to Israel each year on free 10-day trips. Rich, said Birthright spokesman Joe Wagner, is one of Birthright's 14 philanthropic partners, each of whom have given $5 million to the program. According to a January 30 Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, Rich was spotted weeping with emotion at a Birthright event in Jerusalem two weeks prior to his pardon. The JTA also noted that Rich has donated money to Ben-Gurion University, Shaare Zedek Medical Center, the Israel Museum, and the Jerusalem Foundation.

Critics point out that though he donates to good causes, Rich's fortune is tainted by illegal business ventures. In 1983, Rich was charged with carrying out the largest tax evasion scheme in America's history; he also violated the Trading With the Enemies Act by conducting business with Iran even as US Embassy staff were being held hostage. In 1983, Rich fled to Switzerland, and never served a day in jail. His ex-wife, Denise Rich, is a major contributor to the Democratic Party and a friend of the Clintons.

When asked whether Rich ever donated to Hadassah, the organization's chair for major gifts, Marcie Natan, said, "We do not share information on our donors with anyone, and therefore I would not comment." Asked if a donor's background could affect whether Hadassah would accept a donation, Natan said, "We are not in the habit of looking into the background of our donors. Our basic philosophy is that if someone is prepared to make a contribution to a good cause, we are prepared to provide them with that opportunity."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was critical of the individuals and organizations who had written letters to Clinton to have Rich pardoned.

"I hope that the people who wrote letters on his behalf also extended themselves on behalf of [Jonathan] Pollard." Pollard, a US Navy analyst convicted of spying for Israel who has spent 16 years in jail, has not been released despite years of lobbying by various organizations and campaign promises by both Clintons to look into the issue.

Conference of Presidents fundraising, said Hoenlein, is collected "from a very select group of people, and we try to be as careful as possible about that. We did not take money from Marc Rich," he said.

When asked to comment on the whether he thought the Rich pardon was just, ARZA-World Union North America executive director Amiel Hirsch said, "To the best of my knowledge, we have not had any contributions from the Rich family, so in that sense it's not relevant to our organization." An American Jewish Committee spokesman, Kenneth Bandler, said, "We never received a penny from him." He declined to talk about the justness of the pardon.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page