We Should Be Ashamed of Ourselves

Eric H. Yoffie - Washington Jewish Week - Februrary 15, 2001

President Clinton was a good friend of the Jews, but many of his last-minute pardons were simply outrageous. Among the most indefensible were those granted to Jews, but scarcely a voice of Jewish protest has been heard. Instead, our community and its leaders have remained silent in some cases and actually supported the pardons in others.

The result is that we have undermined our community's moral fabric, jeopardized our political standing, disillusioned our youth and compromised the sacred values of our tradition. In short, the moral stain of this sordid affair has begun to engulf us.

Mr. Clinton pardoned four Chasidic thieves from the Skverer sect in New Square, N.Y., convicted of robbing the government of $11 million by setting up a fictitious yeshiva to receive federal student aid money. Chasidic leaders and lawyers for the men, with no apparent irony, have justified the commutations on the grounds that many other yeshivot were doing the same thing and that the funds were channeled back into their community rather than being used for personal gain.

For Jews, this is not simply another case of fraud and embezzlement. This is a case of religious people inventing an imaginary Torah institution to steal from the government, using the funds for other activities of their religious community, and then defending their actions on the grounds that the money did not go directly into their own pocket.

Throughout there is an implication that in some way all of this is religiously acceptable. But of course it is not. Their actions are nothing short of a hillul Hashem -- a desecration of God's name. Jews who break the law in God's name and turn Torah into an instrument of thievery are bringing Judaism into disrepute. However, with the honorable exception of the Orthodox Union's David Luchins, I cannot find a single example of a religious leader who has spoken out publicly against their reasoning.

In the absence of unequivocal public contrition by all concerned, the pardons were a serious mistake. It is never in our interest for actions to be taken that allow Torah to be so misrepresented and debased.

The Marc Rich pardon is even more distressing. Charged with massive tax evasion and breaking an embargo on trading with Iran, Rich is a multi-millionaire fugitive from justice who lives in luxury in Switzerland. I am in no position to judge Mr. Rich's legal claims, but neither are the many Jewish leaders and luminaries who contacted President Clinton in support of the pardon. Why their interest in a man who appears to have traded illegally not only with Iran but with Iraq and Libya, rogue states devoted to Israel's destruction?

The answer is simple: They were bought. Mr. Rich contributed generously to Jewish causes and charities around the world, and then, in a carefully orchestrated campaign, called in favors to put pressure on the president. Philanthropists, religious leaders and Israeli political leaders, most of them beneficiaries of his largesse, responded with calls and letters.

Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, made an exceedingly serious error when he sent a letter to Clinton on council stationery. But even accepting that this was a secretary's mistake, I believe that Greenberg was used, that his position in the community dictated caution in such matters, and the letter should never have been sent. One can only marvel at Rabbi Greenberg's statement that he supported the pardon because Rich "did good in a situation where he would not get recognition."

Rich's calculated effort to inundate the president with appeals from his supporters indicates that he was anything but selfless.

But again, Rabbi Greenberg was hardly alone. According to press reports, Ehud Barak called President Clinton twice, Jerusalem's Mayor Ehud Olmert wrote the president, and dozens of Jewish and Israeli philanthropists weighed in with support.

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. (Birthright Israel provides free Israel trips to college students and young adults.)

What is it that 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?

I am an enthusiastic supporter of Birthright, but I know that the beauty and drama of Israel will not be enough to draw young Jews to our tradition. They will embrace it only if they are exposed to the grandeur of Jewish ethics, and if they see from our teaching and example that Judaism has a great moral purpose.

The Clinton pardons presented the Jewish community with an important moral test. We failed. I hope and pray that we will do better next time.

Eric H. Yoffie is president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement of Judaism.

  • See Also:
  • The Clemency Page
  • The Hypocrisy Of Joseph diGenova
  • Israel's Role in Pardon Sparks Capital Feuding
  • Friends in High Places: Marc Rich's Jewish Fans