Pardon Reignites Jewish Stereotypes

Walter Reich, a psychiatrist and professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998

The Marc Rich story disproves the adage that all politics are local. Here, the machinations of Jewish politics have gone national with a vengeance. The cast of characters in this squalid miniseries is--let’s face it--overwhelmingly Jewish. The central protagonists themselves--financiers Marc Rich and his partner, Pincus Green--are strongly identified as Jews, as are by far most of the big shots, both in Israel and the United States, who have supplicated former President Clinton, in writing and in person, for the pardon.

And while this fact is not something we might like to discuss in polite society, it’s necessary that we do so. Why? Because the insider dealings of some of the most highly placed players in this scandal seriously compromise the two major themes that have defined Jewish life in the last half-century, Israel and the Holocaust, and because their intrigues touch directly on some of the most incendiary stereotypes about Jews.

That Israel’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Barak, saw fit to lobby the president so ardently to pardon Rich, one of the Justice Department’s most-wanted fugitives, is nothing short of alarming. It’s no secret that the United States is Israel’s most important ally and protector, upon whose continued support the very survival of the Jewish state depends. As in any close and complicated relationship, there is a limit on how many favors can be asked and the nature of the help that can be solicited before the benefactor gets fed up. To call in a chit on Rich’s behalf from the necessarily finite cache of U.S. goodwill stored up for Israel is reckless in the extreme. Who knows what vital national need, involving the basic security and essential survival of Israel, might arise in the future for which this pardon might have been traded?


The ill-considered nature of Barak’s intervention cannot be exaggerated. Indeed, in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eric Holder, Clinton’s deputy attorney general, cited the Israeli prime minister’s intervention, which he claims to have interpreted as a “national security” imperative, to justify his own tilt toward favoring the pardon. Clinton himself, in defending the pardon in the New York Times, pointed to intercessions by Israeli officials. A request of any sort by the prime minister of Israel to the president of the United States is by definition made in the name of Israel, and if the president is tarnished by the pardon, so is Israel. To squander on Rich any portion of Israel’s security, always so fragile and vulnerable, is profoundly irresponsible.

Like Barak, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the presidentially appointed chairman of the governing board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, traded on, and thereby debased, the sacred trust he held. When he petitioned Clinton to pardon Rich, flattering the leader of the free world by informing him, with a pastoral seal of approval, that he, the president, is in a position to “perform one of the most God-like actions that anyone can ever do,” Greenberg was automatically doing so in the name of the Holocaust.

That he made his request to the president on official Holocaust Museum stationery makes matters even worse. But in any case, as the head of the museum, any statement he makes is inevitably made in the name of the museum and of the Holocaust dead. It was, in a way, as if the 6 million murdered Jews were beseeching the president, through their official spokesman, Greenberg, to pardon Rich.

This exploitation of the Holocaust in support of a billionaire on the lam is a grave cheapening of Holocaust memory and a devaluation of its moral force. It is a trivialization, politicization and corruption of the museum’s mandate of remembrance and education, and it reflects a cynical abuse of the tragedy on the part of those charged with commemorating it, which can only inspire cynicism in turn. When you add to this the very questionable spectacle of one part of the federal government--the museum is a congressionally funded federal agency run by a presidentially appointed board--petitioning another part of the federal government, the White House, to pardon a fugitive, you are left with a very dismaying business indeed. This business is rendered more dismaying still in the light of reports that Rich gave millions to a charity with which Greenberg is associated.

Such behind-the-scenes exercises of power and influence-peddling--combined with the obvious coupling of Jews and money, Jews and international maneuverings and Jews and contempt for the law to which all others are subject--are major plot lines in this wretched melodrama. All of this plays into the oldest and most damaging stereotypes and canards, and it is likely to give aid and comfort to the worst varieties of anti-Semitism. To be sure, other pardons and commutations were given by Clinton to non-Jews for whom letters were written by friends in high places, both financial and clerical. Yet given the ancient and deep legacy of anti-Semitism, it’s the canard of the Jewish connection with money and power that’s easily evoked in the public imagination. Ironically, one of those who wrote on Rich’s behalf, Abraham Foxman, is head of the Anti-Defamation League, which is supposed to fight anti-Semitism, not provide fodder for it.

It is for these reasons that the significant Jewish subtext of this story should be forthrightly acknowledged by responsible Jewish leaders, most of whom, when confronted with the issue, have ducked it or failed to identify its origins among some of their own colleagues. The most common response, itself stereotypical, has been to denounce as scapegoating Clinton’s statement that he had been influenced to grant the pardons by Israeli and Jewish communal leaders. The problem wasn’t Clinton’s scapegoating. It was the self-serving intercessions that made Clinton’s scapegoating not only possible but also credible.

What truly responsible Jewish leaders--and other members of the Jewish community--should now do is emphatically dissociate themselves from the reckless betrayal of trust committed by those of their colleagues who, to satisfy trivial needs, some of them personal or organizational, have put at risk the safety of Israel, the integrity of Holocaust memory and, indeed, the good name of the Jewish people. Jews should let it be known that these operators do not represent what they stand for and hold dear, and that they do not speak for them.