WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (JTA) Did Marc Rich’s controversial pardon come at the expense of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard?
And did some prominent Israeli and American Jews compromise their moral integrity by pressing for Rich’s pardon?
These are the latest questions swirling around the Jewish world amid indications of a well-choreographed campaign to persuade Israeli leaders and prominent American Jews to advocate on Rich’s behalf.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, charged this week that Rich’s support from the Jewish community was “bought” and that the Jewish community failed an “important moral test” by participating in Rich’s campaign.
Documents released as part of testimony at a U.S. House of Representatives committee looking into the pardon last week show that a central part of the strategy devised by Rich’s backers involved building support from Israeli and Jewish leaders.
The e-mails and letters show the detailed planning involved in amassing support for Rich’s freedom.
Apparently not everyone mentioned in the documents ultimately got involved, but the public release of the documents has added to the list of prominent American Jews now embroiled in the controversial pardon Elie Wiesel, Edgar Bronfman, Abraham Foxman and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
A commodities trader, Rich was pardoned by President Clinton on Jan. 20 during his last hours in office. He had been indicted on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating trade sanctions with Iran, but fled to Switzerland in 1983 before standing trial.
From his Swiss redoubt, Rich became a major benefactor of numerous Jewish and Israeli charitable organizations, including Birthright Israel, the project to send young Jewish adults to the Holy Land.
Rich has given to a variety of major institutions in Israel, including Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Ben-Gurion University, the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation.
According to the correspondence between Rich and his supporters, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and several other Israeli political leaders spoke with Clinton about the pardon in his last months of office.
The pleas came as Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders across the political and religious spectrum were urging Clinton to pardon Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence officer who has been serving a life sentence since 1987 for spying for Israel.
There is mixed opinion about whether the efforts on behalf of Rich undermined simultaneous efforts for Pollard.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he was surprised to learn that Barak and others had been lobbying for Rich.
Hoenlein, who met with Clinton and other administration officials about Pollard in December, said there is concern that Israeli leaders are using their influence with the United States to grant pardons rather than saving their political capital for “when there are vital issues at stake.”
For his part, Wiesel, the scholar, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said that while he was approached by Rich’s advocates to speak to the president on his behalf, he declined to get involved because he wanted to focus his attention solely on Pollard.
According to the released documents, Rich’s advocates felt that Wiesel could be the perfect “moral authority” to present Rich’s case to Clinton.
One advocate said he had been “assured” that Wiesel had called the White House over the matter.
But Wiesel told JTA on Monday that he did not discuss the matter at the White House and did not know his name was associated with the Rich case until the e-mails were released.
Wiesel said he did not think the Rich and Pollard cases were related and that he wouldn’t have supported Rich’s petition even if Pollard’s wasn’t also being considered.
Wiesel said he didn’t want to pass judgment on others who got involved in the Rich case, but for his part, “he’s a man who has done things I don’t like.
“I don’t know him. Why should I help someone I don’t know?”
The e-mails suggest that other Jewish leaders were hesitant to support Rich because of its potential impact on the campaign to release Pollard.
In one message, Avner Azulay, who runs Rich’s foundation in Israel, writes that Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg would only support Rich if World Jewish Congress leaders Bronfman and Israel Singer do the same.
On why, Azulay, a former Mossad agent wrote: “I don’t know but suspect that this has to do with JPoll,” apparently referring to Pollard.
Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director, said neither Bronfman nor Singer raised the issue with the president.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the Rich efforts may have had some effect on Pollard, because it gave Clinton a choice of who to pardon and still show support with the Jewish community.
But because the arguments for the two men were radically different and the politics of the situations were different, it was not a complete choice between two equals.
“It may not be quite the trade-off that it seems at first glance,” Saperstein said.
With Rich, Clinton was likely to anger the prosecutors who had charged Rich and watched him evade prosecution, including New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani.
But in pardoning Pollard, Clinton would have gone against many in the national security community who have argued against pardoning Pollard.
However, Saperstein did express concern that the current Jewish embroilment over the Rich pardon would have an effect on Pollard’s chances for a pardon in the future.
While there appears to be no dispute that Israel’s political leaders advocated for Rich, an Israeli official in Washington said there was “no doubt about it” that their main concern and emphasis was on Pollard.
But while questions remain about how Rich’s pardon request affected Pollard, some Jewish leaders are questioning whether prominent members of the Jewish community should have aided Rich at all.
In his op-ed, Yoffie notes that several prominent Jewish leaders participated in the Rich campaign, and accuses them of being pressured by Rich’s contributions to advocate on his behalf.
In the piece that was scheduled to run in the New York Jewish Week and the Washington Jewish Week, Yoffie wrote: “The result is we have undermined our community’s moral fabric, jeopardized our political standing, disillusioned our youth and compromised the sacred values of our tradition.
“In short, the moral stain of this sordid affair has begun to engulf us,” he said.
Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council in Washington, apologized to the museum council last month for writing to Clinton in support of Rich on museum stationery.
But he did defend his support for Rich, saying in a statement, “I became aware of other of his good works, including matters done with no expectation of recognition or reward.”
And Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has come under fire by some for writing a letter to Clinton on Rich’s behalf.
Foxman could not be reached for comment, but ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum confirmed he sent a letter Dec. 7 that said that “we are a country that was founded on the belief in second chances.”
Shinbaum said that she did not know if Rich had contributed to the ADL.
A Jewish leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended the Jewish campaign for Rich, saying, “Just because someone’s charitable shouldn’t prejudice him from getting something he’s entitled to.”
The leader added: “I don’t think you can blame people because they wrote letters,” “I don’t think they were motivated by anything but feelings that it was a good thing to do.”