The Rich Pardon: Compassion Vs. Justice

Gary Rosenblatt - Editor and Publisher - The Jewish Week (NY) - March 9, 2001

The conventional wisdom in the Jewish community these days is that those Jewish leaders and rabbis, from Ehud Barak on down, who wrote letters on behalf of a presidential pardon for Marc Rich, the fugitive billionaire, acted unethically, if not worse. But is that fair?

There is no doubt that the whole episode, coupled with the commutation of sentences for four New Square chasidim, has put the Jewish community front and center of a national furor that seems to build rather than fade, and as a result has been a source of embarrassment and hand-wringing to many.

But was it morally wrong to write a letter saying, in effect, that Rich has supported many good humanitarian and charitable causes with his wealth, and deserves some compassion? Isn't it part of our Jewish tradition to emulate God's qualities of mercy? He is, we are told, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and forgiver of iniquity. Yet He is also a God of justice who demands retribution.

Zev Chafets, the Israeli journalist now living in New York and writing a column for the Daily News, is outraged by what he calls "the biggest Jewish scandal in my lifetime." He told me his problem is with "the massive abuse of authority by Jews who get money why else do favors for a billionaire? and use their authority on behalf of criminals."

Chafets wrote a column recently suggesting that while Abraham Foxman, the professional head of the Anti-Defamation League, has made a career out of fighting anti-Semitism and dispelling myths of an international Jewish cabal, he and others "have given life to a classic anti-Semitic fantasy" by "participating in what appears to be an international conspiracy" through their letters on behalf of Rich.

Foxman and many of the letter writers have said they acted out of "humanitarian concern" for Rich, and as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out, the very nature of asking for a presidential pardon assumes that the individual involved has committed wrongdoing. "We can ask for a pardon," the rabbi told Larry King on the CNN host's show last week. "When all of us are judged, the good that we have done dare not be forgotten."

Rabbi Riskin, formerly of New York and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, for the last two decades, spoke of his personal association with Rich over the last 12 years, and his compassion for a father whose daughter died of leukemia in America while he stayed out of the country fearing arrest. The rabbi also acknowledged that Rich has supported his educational facilities.

He might have noted that when God punished Miriam for speaking ill of her brother, it was Moses himself who pleaded with God to heal her. God did, but He also insisted that Miriam be removed from the people for seven days. So there was Divine compassion, but there was time served. One strong complaint against Marc Rich is that as a fugitive, he has not paid society for his alleged crime or admitted guilt.

It's fair to say that many, if not most rabbis would be willing to write a letter for a congregant or associate facing legal difficulties, emphasizing his or her positive characteristics. What's troubling in the Rich case, though, is the level of his alleged crimes selling illegal arms to Iran, being on the FBI's Most Wanted list, etc. and the apparent lack of due diligence on the part of his advocates, who either did not know the extent of the charges against him and the source of his wealth, or did not care to know.

In addition, one wonders if the Jewish leaders considered the negative impact their role in the pardon would have on our community, and even U.S.-Israel relations. In hindsight, they probably erred on the side of compassion.

One of the lessons here is in recognizing the unhealthy pressure that fund raising has on Jewish organizations and their leaders. Seemingly everyone is out there hustling for the big bucks for a multitude of worthy projects these days, as our community has come to rely more and more on fewer and fewer very wealthy philanthropists to meet communal goals.

There was a time, not long ago, when American Jews saw these financial obligations as a voluntary tax, and there was wide participation. But the stakes have been raised in terms of dollars while the pool of contributors has diminished due to assimilation and the growing appeal of non-Jewish civic causes. It all adds up to the kind of stressful demands for dollars that can lead to misjudgment, looking the other way when it comes to the source of funding as honorable people rationalize all too easily that the good outweighs the bad, the cause is more important than the source, etc.

Rabbi Saul Berman, who was not involved in the Rich pardon, has thought a lot about this subject. Some 25 years ago he helped found an organization dedicated to Jewish ethics called Yosher. That was at the height of a Jewish nursing home scandal in New York that attracted headlines and embarrassed the community. But Yosher didn't last long. "We didn't have the institutional savvy to make it work," Rabbi Berman, now director of Edah, recalled the other day. "Maybe it could have prevented some of the ethical weaknesses in the community."

But the issues are complex, and nuanced. Rabbi Berman points out that according to Jewish law, it is wrong to honor a person for the use of ill-begotten funds, but there is also the notion of teshuvah, of repenting for one's sins.

"If the person has not paid his dues to society, though, honoring him suggests that he is not obligated to do so," Rabbi Berman said.

Marc Rich, of course, remained on the lam from the U.S. for 17 years.

The Torah reading for next week discusses the concept of the half-shekel, of every Israelite contributing the same amount of money "as an offering to the Lord."

"The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less," the Torah instructs, so that no one can claim greater participation in the communal offerings.

It's a concept and goal we should revisit, making support of the community and its institutions more of a collective responsibility than it is today. That, of course, requires reaching out to the majority of Jews who are not involved in Jewish life, in part, perhaps, because they are turned off by the emphasis on money and fund raising.

No one said it would be easy, ending this vicious cycle and changing the culture of a community. But we need to downplay the undue attention to material wealth and focus more on the importance of holiness in our everyday acts. In Judaism there is no separation of ritual observance and ethical acts. They are of one piece, encouraging each of us not only to pray to God but to treat each other with respect and honor. These are the goals we need to discuss and promote if we are to fulfill our noble obligation truly to be a holy people.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page