Pressure Building On ADL's Foxman Over Pardon Mess

Safire: 'Abe Should Resign'

Rachel Donadio - The Forward - March 30, 2001

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman found himself at the center of a storm of criticism this week after his attempt to apologize for his role in the presidential pardon of Marc Rich led to new protests, including calls for his resignation.

Mr. Foxman, one of the most prominent of the figures who wrote to President Clinton on Mr. Rich's behalf last year, said last week in a statement and at a press conference that his pardon letter had "probably" been a mistake.

The pressure for Mr. Foxman to resign has come largely from minor figures outside the ADL orbit, especially from militant activists for the cause of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, some of whom criticize Mr. Foxman for failing to act on Pollard's behalf.

More serious, though, was a call for his resignation made this week by New York Times columnist William Safire. Mr. Safire wrote that Mr. Foxman had been induced by a donation from Mr. Rich "to lobby President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and thereby bring glee to the hearts of anti-Semites." Mr. Foxman, he wrote, should resign "to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences."

Toward Tradition, a politically conservative Jewish group, on Wednesday gave Mr. Foxman its "Our Own Worst Enemy Award."

Sources close to the ADL say the protests' effect on Mr. Foxman would probably be minimal, and an ADL spokeswoman that he has no intention of stepping down.

Even so, board members acknowledged that Mr. Foxman had not consulted them before writing on behalf of Mr. Rich. He first discussed his role at a February ADL national commission meeting in Florida.

"There was some criticism expressed," said one commission member, New York attorney Seymour Reich. "He said it was probably a mistake, that he shouldn't have sent it. But the net result was confidence in Abe and a feeling of 'let's move on.'"

Mr. Foxman's role in the Rich pardon offers a window as much into the modus operandi of Mr. Rich, a Belgian-born commodities trader who allegedly won Mr. Foxman's trust by telling him he hailed from the next shtetl over in Belarus, as it does on Mr. Foxman himself. It also illuminates the mindset of the pro-Pollard lobby, which long has protested the ADL's refusal to advocate for Pollard.

At the press conference, Mr. Foxman said that he had first proposed the pardon strategy to Mr. Rich's aides at a meeting in Paris in February 2000. This statement contradicted the Rich team's accounts of the pardon as a last-minute tactic adopted in November.

He also said that when he wrote his December 7 pardon letter he didn't know Mr. Rich had renounced his American citizenship. Nor did he know that the Justice Department had offered Mr. Rich the possibility of being released on bail without going to prison, despite being a fugitive, if he returned to the United States to visit his daughter before she died of cancer in 1996. "Had I known that, I wouldn't have written," he said.

Mr. Foxman said he was first introduced to Mr. Rich "15 or 16 years ago" by a European Jewish leader and "landsman" who hailed from Mr. Foxman's native region of Belarus. He said he thought that Mr. Rich "had been born in the same town, Lucowicz." "I was born in Baronowicz," he said.

At their first meeting, Mr. Rich said he thought that his prosecution had been motivated by anti-Semitism. Mr. Foxman said he told Mr. Rich that he didn't see any evidence of anti-Semitism.

Mr. Foxman said that backing the Roth pardon had been a mistake because it "wasn't directly on target with the ADL's mission."

Mr. Rich and Mr. Foxman struck up a friendship and dined together seven or eight times. "We speak Yiddish," Mr. Foxman said. "We talked about the world and about literature."

Mr. Foxman's spokeswoman, Myrna Shinbaum, said the ADL leader was "flabbergasted" to learn that Mr. Rich was actually born in Belgium and his father in Frankfurt. The family moved to America in the early 1940s. "Abe has always been under the impression that Rich was from Lucowicz," Ms. Shinbaum said. "He didn't ask for his birth certificate."

"I'm sure that Marc Rich is very astute at manipulating the system," said one Jewish leader speaking on condition of anonymity. "And while I think that Abe's very cautious, I think he just got taken in by Mr. Rich. I think they took advantage of his good nature."

Mr. Foxman said Mr. Rich began to donate to the ADL, but then stopped. In 1999 he was contacted by the director of Mr. Rich's Israeli foundation, Avner Azulay, who said he wanted to start contributing again. Shortly afterward he pledged $100,000. The two met again in Paris in February 2000 and it was there that Mr. Foxman raised the pardon idea, he said, while "brainstorming" on Mr. Rich's legal troubles.

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Foxman rejected implications that Mr. Rich's donations, totaling $250,000, had "bought" his support. "If I got nothing or $10 million I would have made the same decision," adding that it was a decision "I now regret."

For some observers, more troubling than the money questions was, as Mr. Reich said, "that this whole effort was made on behalf of Rich and not Pollard. And money was the key for Rich."

Mr. Foxman said numerous board members had raised the Pollard issue with him. "Some people accused me of having sold out Pollard," he said.

The ADL has no formal position on Pollard, officially because it has found no evidence of anti-Semitism in the case. In 1993, however, Mr. Foxman wrote a personal letter to Mr. Clinton — not on ADL stationery — urging a pardon for Pollard.

In recent weeks, Mordechai Levy, the head of the Jewish Defense Organization, a tiny, right-wing group that has long blamed Mr. Foxman for Pollard's continued incarceration, has stepped up his campaign calling for Mr. Foxman's resignation. He said he had sent mailings to that effect, including symbolic bags of money, to several ADL national commission members.

Joel Sprayregan, a Chicago lawyer and honorary ADL national vice chairman, said he had received mail from Mr. Levy but found it "not credible. It was an undeserved smear."

Some observers said the onus for the scandal belonged not on Mr. Rich's advocates but on Mr. Clinton, who granted the pardon without going through official channels. "If I were asked to write a recommendation for a pardon, I'd assume that it would be vetted by the White House and the Department of Justice," said Kenneth Bialkin, an honorary chairman of the ADL and close friend of Mr. Foxman.

Still, Mr. Foxman said he wouldn't rule out asking Mr. Rich to use his connections to help the ADL fight anti-Semitism in future international hotspots, as he had done in Romania and other countries that he declined to name. "I'd ask who is there that could be helpful, and if there was no one but him, then yes, I'd go to him," Mr. Foxman said.

Asked if the ADL would accept money from Mr. Rich in the future, Mr. Foxman declined to comment. Indeed, even in explaining his apology he appeared to leave open the possibility that he stood by his original act. "I'm not 100% sure that it's so terrible as it's made out to be," Mr. Foxman said.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page