WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON JEWISH WEEK) — A federal prosecutor typically spends no more than half a dozen years with the government before graduating to private practice, where the prospect of serious money beckons.
Baruch Weiss did not follow that well-worn career path, and those who know him are not surprised.
Shortly after graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1981 — first abandoning Harvard Medical School when he discovered he didn’t really want to be a doctor — Weiss was hired by Rudolph Giuliani to fight crime under the auspices of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that has jurisdiction over New York City.
He stayed for 18 years, then put in four more years with the feds in Washington before joining a prestigious law firm in D.C.
In remarks at his going-away party in New York in 2002, Weiss — who has since made his name representing two Jewish clients in headline-grabbing criminal cases — presented a personal manifesto of sorts.
It offered an insight into why he became a prosecutor, why he stayed so long and perhaps why he is routinely described in terms not always associated with up-and-coming Washington lawyers: idealistic, unassuming, loyal, a mensch.
Weiss’ friend and neighbor, John Donvan, a correspondent with ABC’s "Nightline," has referred to him, without a hint of irony, as "the classiest man in Washington."
Weiss told his colleagues at his 2002 sendoff that he remembered holding the hand of his father, a Holocaust survivor, as they walked to synagogue on Shabbat in Manhattan decades ago.
"When he would pass a policeman, he would almost involuntarily squeeze my hand," Weiss, now 52, recalled in a recent interview. "He was obviously very stressed, even though he had taught us that the policeman is your friend. I sensed from this that he could never rid himself of the view that law enforcement and the uniform were vehicles for the worst kind of evil ever visited on mankind."
One reason Weiss became a prosecutor, it eventually dawned on him, was to demonstrate to his father that government could be a force for good, that in America, decent and dedicated public servants — Jews and non-Jews alike — proudly work to ensure that the rule of law prevails, not the whim of demagogues.
"So I went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and I stayed," he continued in his interview. "I was surrounded by people who really did the right thing. They became friends, good friends. I felt a comfort level right away. And I think that vindicated my view about what this country is."
The Bible famously commands, "Justice, justice you shall pursue," which is often interpreted to mean that one must seek righteous ends through righteous means.
"I think Baruch personifies that," said Nobel laureate and author Elie Wiesel, who has known Weiss since he was a child.
That biblical imperative continues to drive Weiss, according to friends and colleagues, even though his venue for pursuing justice has changed and he now occupies much snazzier office space than ever.
As a partner in the law firm of Arent Fox since 2006, Weiss has drawn on skills he developed by immersing himself in the Talmud as well as by prosecuting wrongdoers for more than two decades.
During his tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, for example, he worked to extradite Hamas leader Abu Marzouk from the United States to Israel, but politics apparently intervened. Israel decided not to take him because peace seemed likely.
"Israel made a mistake," Weiss said, adding later, "It was a well-intentioned mistake to further the peace process."
Terrorism figured prominently in another case he worked on at the U.S. Attorney’s Office — the appeal of the convictions handed down in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Weiss went on to hold high-level legal posts in Washington at the Department of Treasury, as assistant general counsel for enforcement, and then at the Department of Homeland Security, where his positions included associate general counsel.
His two best-known clients at Arent Fox are Keith Weissman, a former senior analyst at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Sholom Rubashkin, former manager of the now-defunct Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa.
Weissman and co-defendant Steve Rosen, also a former AIPAC staffer, who is being represented by local attorney Abbe Lowell, are charged with violating the World War I-vintage Espionage Act for allegedly passing along classified information on Iran to unauthorized individuals, including Israeli Embassy officials.
"These guys really are innocent," Weiss insisted in an interview, elaborating that by exchanging information with members of the foreign policy establishment, Weissman and Rosen were breaking no law, but rather were engaging in a routine and perfectly lawful Washington political ritual that has been practiced "since time immemorial."
Some Jewish organizations have suggested that the sensitive and emotional issue of dual loyalty has reared its head in the AIPAC prosecution. Weiss isn’t sure, maintaining in an e-mail that "we just do not know what triggered the investigation [into the defendants' activities], and as much as we would like to know, [we are] not sure we will ever find out."
A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in the case declined comment. A spokesperson for AIPAC, which has not been charged with wrongdoing, could not be reached for comment.
Rubashkin faces an array of federal charges filed last year in connection with the operation of the ill-fated Agriprocessors plant, including bank fraud, money laundering and helping illegal immigrants procure fake documents.
Rubashkin turned for help to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Chabad Lubavitch Washington office. Shemtov then contacted Weiss, a longtime friend whose areas of responsibility at Homeland Security had included immigration enforcement.
Weiss was retained specifically to press for Rubaskhin’s release on bail pending the start of his trial, a move that federal prosecutors opposed on controversial — some said inflammatory — grounds.
They argued during a Nov. 19 hearing that Rubashkin should remain in custody until the trial because he posed a heightened flight risk. The prosecutors contended that Israel might present a convenient refuge for Rubashkin because the nation grants automatic citizenship to all Jews through its Law of Return, and Rubashkin, of course, is Jewish.
"The Law of Return business really got into his kishkes," Shemtov said of Weiss.
"I was stunned," Weiss said. "So I guess if you’re Jewish, you get locked up with greater frequency than if you’re a non-Jew? For me that converted the Rubashkin matter from a case into a cause."
Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles ruled in favor of the prosecution. In an appeal brief filed on behalf of his client, Weiss said there is virtually no evidence that a prosecutor had ever argued that an American Jew might not show up in court because of the Law of Return.
By the government’s logic, the brief continued, all Jews therefore can be viewed as posing a heightened flight risk "simply because they are Jews." Weiss concluded, "It is ironic that a law designed to provide refuge to persecuted Jews has now become the basis for detaining Jews who might otherwise have been released pending trial."
In late January, Linda Reade, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, granted Rubashkin’s release on $500,000 bond, with other provisions attached, ruling that although he might indeed flee, reasonable measures could mitigate that risk. A spokesperson for the prosecution declined comment.
"If you think of the federal government’s case as a rock," said one observer who asked not to be named, "Baruch destroyed it with the drip, drip, drip water torture of legal exegesis."
Weiss is no stranger to textual gymnastics, having grown up in a home steeped in rigorous intellectual give-and-take and advanced Jewish scholarship, with an emphasis on the Talmud, virtually a handbook for future lawyers.
"We never went on vacation," recalled Weiss, the oldest of three boys. "For fun, we argued around the Shabbat table about almost anything."
His mother, Tzipora Hager Halivni, who died last summer, was a Holocaust historian and Auschwitz survivor with a doctorate in Yiddish and Hebrew literature.
His father, David Weiss Halivni, now 81 and living in Israel, is a renowned Talmudic scholar, a so-called "boy genius," who first earned rabbinic ordination as a teenager in Europe before the Holocaust decimated his world.
Beginning at age 8 or 9, Weiss regularly delved into the Talmud with his father, who pioneered an exacting approach to studying the text Weiss said "taught me to not always accept the standard answer as the answer."
Weiss received a master’s degree in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has conducted an informal Talmud class for years.
He said his study of Judaism’s signature repository of mind-sharpening argumentation and reasoning "certainly gave me a head start" in developing lawyerly thinking.
Weiss’ wife, journalist Laura Blumenfeld — who has observed the Weiss clan in action — is also intimately familiar with the dogged pursuit of justice, having walked that path herself. (They live in the District with their three children, and attend Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation and Chabad in the District.)
Blumenfeld’s father was shot in Jerusalem in 1986 by a terrorist, but he survived. She later resolved to confront the man who had tried to kill her father, and she wrote about her quest in a 2002 book titled "Revenge: A Story of Hope."
In her book Blumenfeld, a reporter with the national staff of The Washington Post, recounts Weiss’ nightmares of being captured by the Nazis, as well as his fantasies of retaliating with bombs from above.
"Maybe it’s not so much what Baruch is chasing," she said, "but what is chasing him — the injustice done to the generation before him, the generation of the Holocaust."
Whatever his motivation, Weiss’ "purpose in life is to undo injustice," added Blumenfeld, who said "there is something almost superhuman" about her husband’s drive to do the right thing.
"He is the consummate law man," she continued, determined to demonstrate that the courtroom is superior to "the crack of the whip."
(Richard Greenberg is the associate editor at the Washington Jewish Week.)