Did Clinton Scapegoat' Jews?

Jewish defense agencies silent on ex-president's citing of Jewish influence for Rich pardon

Eric J. Greenberg - Jewish Week (NY) - February 23, 2001

The ABC News zipper in Times Square said it succinctly: "Clinton Cites Jewish Pressure for Rich Pardon."

That electronic headline flashing Monday over Broadway apparently was the main message an ABC newsman had distilled from reading former President Bill Clinton's op-ed, published in the previous day's New York Times, explaining his last-minute, controversial decision to pardon fugitive billionaire financier Marc Rich and ex-partner Pinchas Green.

By citing Jewish influence as a key factor in his pardon, Clinton has created an extraordinary dilemma in the Jewish community. And it has prompted criticism from both Jewish adversaries and supporters, some of whom fear he has raised to a new level the problematic public perception of undue Jewish influence in the White House.

In some cases, the Rich controversy appears to be forcing some longtime Jewish Clinton supporters to either keep silent, or be forced to choose between defending the ex-president or protecting Jewish interests.

To be sure, the op-ed drew swift criticism from some Jewish quarters.

Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: "I think he should not use the Jews as scapegoats."

Harvey Blitz, newly installed president of the Orthodox Union, said it was "inappropriate for the president to hide behind the Jewish community in trying to justify this [pardon] action that he took."

Yet despite such public concern, the major American national Jewish organizations whose primary missions are to defend Jewish interests chose silence or keeping a low profile.

Usually such agencies as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress are quick to issue press releases on issues affecting American or world Jewry.

But echoing the Israeli government's downplaying of Clinton's op-ed, not one of the defense agencies issued a press release on the matter. In fact, several queried by The Jewish Week said they didn't feel the issue was even relevant to Jews.

"I don't understand such silence," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. "I am concerned about what the rest of world might think about the impression left that an American president is being controlled by Jews."

"Their silence does them no honor," declared Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a Jewish history professor at New York University and former president of the American Jewish Congress.

Critics said the defense groups may be embarrassed into silence because of their own roles in joining dozens of top American and Israeli leaders in helping Rich get a pardon. Some also raised the notion that organizations don't want to anger the deep-pocketed Rich in a possible future quest to obtain charitable donations from him.

Still others were concerned about the possible manipulation of the pardon process by Rich supporters to the detriment of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who spied in behalf of Israel and failed to receive commutation of his life sentence from Clinton, despite a recent push by a broad spectrum of the Jewish community.

Ironically, Clinton in his op-ed stated that a key reason for the Rich pardon was the intensive lobbying done on Rich's behalf by leading American Jews and Israelis.

Rich, 66, renounced his American citizenship and fled to Switzerland in 1983 to evade charges of tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran, an enemy of Israel and the U.S. In recent years Rich has given millions of dollars to Jewish causes in America, Israel and Europe, winning the profound gratitude of many Jewish organization leaders.

Thus Clinton, after outlining to the American people seven legal reasons for the Rich pardon, wrote:

"Finally, and importantly, 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 because of his contributions and services to Israeli charitable causes, to the Mossad's efforts to rescue and evacuate Jews from hostile countries, and to the peace process through sponsorship of education and health programs in Gaza and the West Bank."

Rabbi Hier called the president's statement "absolutely troublesome to me as a Jew. It opens the door to anti-Semites. It feeds into the idea that Jews control everything, control the world, control the White House. He's dumping a lot of garbage on the doorstep of his friends, the Jews. And somebody should say something about it."

But the Jewish defense agencies were reticent.

"There's really nothing the American Jewish Committee has to say," said Ken Bandler, spokesman for the group.

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, known for its proactive, strongly worded press releases, replied this way when asked why he didn't issue a press release about the op-ed: "We deliberately did not want to intervene in this matter. As far as we're concerned it doesn't involve Jews."

Baum did say it was "unfortunate and distasteful" that "the public should be left with the impression that somehow [Clinton's] decision was motivated by the desire to accommodate the desires of Jews here and in Israel."

But when pressed why he was not issuing a release to help combat that public impression, Baum said, "as far as we're concerned this has no general application to the Jewish community at all."

Hannah Rosenthal, the new executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, agreed that Clinton's words are problematic. But the former Clinton appointee rejected issuing a press release because she doesn't want the story to get any more publicity.

"I don't know if any [negative] impression is left if the community doesn't demand more attention to it," she said.

Also downplaying Clinton's words is Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism. Foxman has admitted writing a pardon letter for Rich based on "humanitarian reasons" and refuses to say if Rich has donated money to the ADL.

Asked about the op-ed, Foxman said: "It's absurd to say [Clinton] is pointing a finger at the American Jewish community. He spelled out his reasons for the pardon, and one of the myriad of reasons was the fact that we was asked by a lot of Jews and a lot of leaders from Israel. That's a fact; that's not setting us up. That's not scapegoating. Let's not make something out of it that it isn't."

But Rabbi Hier warned that, left unchallenged, Clinton's words could be used by anti-Israel Arab forces to fan anti-Semitic flames. "He may not have meant harm but that statement has caused the Jewish people great harm, and it makes it sound as if Washington takes directions from Jews, and it's not true."

Rabbi Hertzberg chided the defense groups for ducking a serious matter.

"The Jewish defense institutions, which are so vocal in defending and speaking for the position of the Jews, even when we didn't ask them to, owe us a statement of their positions, because at this particular moment the Jewish community has a fair amount of egg on its face," he said.

And the issue isn't gong away anytime soon.

Two congressional committees, and the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, are probing whether huge sums of cash donated to Clinton's presidential library and Clinton campaign efforts by Rich's ex-wife, Denise, a New York socialite, actually came from Marc Rich.

Clinton critics are probing if the Rich pardon was bought a charge Clinton vigorously denied.

Rich's representative in Israel, former Mossad operative Avner Azulay, said investigators won't find any wrongdoing.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who last week denounced Jewish leaders for "selling out" by advocating Rich's pardon, this week declined to criticize Clinton's op-ed. He said Jewish leaders should not criticize but do some introspection.

"This is not a particularly wise and advantageous course for us to be taking," Rabbi Yoffie said of Jewish criticism of Clinton. "He responded to what we said, and now we are saying, Don't scapegoat us.' Under other circumstances, the fact that the president of the United States was listening to the pleas of the Jewish leaders is something we'd take pride in."

See Also:
  • An Unusual Snapshot of American Justice
  • Shame On Clinton
  • Pollard And Rich Pardon Linked
  • The Clemency Page