Honest Abe And The Pardon

The Jewish Week (NY) - March 30, 2001

In the story that does not go away, the Marc Rich pardon controversy escalated this weekend with a spate of new reports about Abraham Foxman's involvement. The Anti-Defamation League's national director is upset with the coverage, especially since he initiated it. (See story, page 10.)

After issuing a brief apology last week for writing a letter to President Clinton last winter on behalf of a pardon for the fugitive billionaire, Foxman called in a few members of the general and Jewish press, including The Jewish Week, to offer a full accounting, clear the air and, he hoped, put an end to the criticism of him for stonewalling the last two months. Instead, several of the local dailies highlighted the fact that he suggested to a key Rich aide last February that Denise Rich approach President Clinton to seek a pardon for her former husband. In addition, much was made over the fact that the ADL had just received $100,000 from Rich for an educational project.

Foxman emphasized that such a gift to the ADL, with an annual budget of more than $50 million, is a drop in the bucket, and that there was no quid pro quo involved. "This is about relationships," he emphasized, but he also acknowledged that it is the bigger donors who get his attention.

Foxman said he wrote to Clinton for humanitarian reasons but that in retrospect he made a mistake because Rich's plight "was not directly on target with ADL's mission" and he later learned that prosecutors had offered to work with Rich if he returned to the U.S.

What was not emphasized, either at the press meeting or in the resulting coverage, was the fact that Foxman maintained a warm, though not frequent, personal relationship for 17 years with a man accused of doing business illegally with Iran and breaking South African sanctions the kinds of causes the ADL firmly and properly opposes. According to his own account, Foxman never discussed these troubling issues with Rich.

Abe Foxman is a highly respected and effective leader of the ADL, and we believe him when he says he acted, in writing to Clinton, out of a sense of personal empathy for Rich rather than in return for donations. But this case is about using money and influence in questionable ways, and the resulting perceptions in the public and press. It should be a cautionary tale for any and all Jewish organizations about the self-serving myopia that occurs when leaders are willing to overlook the motives, sometimes transparent, of those willing to provide major funding and/or support. Too much of that support is coming from too few people, and until the balance is corrected, these problems are certain to crop up again and again.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page