NEW YORK – Jewish leaders are engaged in a vigorous and increasingly public debate over whether it was morally wrong for some of their most prominent organizations to support Marc Rich's pardon after accepting his donations.
"They were bought," Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Jewish movement, wrote in an opinion piece in The Jewish Week. "If Rich wants to support Jewish causes, that is fine. ... But he is not entitled to koved (Hebrew for honor), to a quid pro quo, or to rehabilitation of his name by the recipients."
The Rich affair will compel "soul-searching, both as Americans and as Jews, about the role money has come to play in our civic and communal life," Rabbi Irwin Kula, who heads the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, wrote in the Forward, another Jewish newspaper.
The debate began in mid-February after former President Clinton wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times that he was influenced in part by Jewish leaders who "urged the pardon of Mr. Rich because of his contributions."
Ronald Lauder, a Republican philanthropist who heads the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, quickly complained that Clinton was using Jews as "scapegoats."
But as details of the lobbying emerged, attention in the Jewish community turned from Clinton to those who had lobbied for Rich, the billionaire financier who fled the United States in 1983 rather than face racketeering and other criminal charges.
Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, admitted last week that he had "made a wrong judgment" in supporting Rich's pardon just months after Rich, who is Jewish, pledged $100,000 to the ADL.
Foxman, noting that the donation is just a drop in the ADL's $50 million-a-year budget, said: "It never dawned on me that anyone would think I had been bought. I never felt the money was given in expectation of doing anything."
But this week, politically conservative columnist William Safire, writing in The New York Times, called for Foxman's resignation "to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences."
Others disagree but say there is a moral in the story of Foxman's mea culpa.
"I don't think he should resign," Yoffie said Monday. "He's one of the Jewish community's most outstanding public officials. He has a lifetime of achievement and we need him to continue in his work.
"But Jewish leadership has to make sure that while it welcomes and encourages donations, philanthropists are not making demands that go beyond what you might reasonably expect."
He added that the impression that writing a check gets you instant access and approval "demoralizes the rest of Jewish community, the people who, out of religious commitment, work hard every day."
Others who supported the Rich pardon include Marlene Post, who heads Birthright Israel-North America, a program that funds travel to Israel by young American Jews, and Michael Steinhardt, who founded Birthright. Rich, like Steinhardt, has pledged $5 million to support Birthright Israel.
Post and Steinhardt declined to comment. Avner Azulay, who heads the Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv, was traveling and could not be reached.
Another letter supporting the pardon came from Rabbi Irving Greenberg on stationery from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Greenberg is chairman of the museum board.
Rich has not given money to the museum, or to the Jewish Life Network, which Greenberg heads. Greenberg declined to comment.
Phil Baum, head of the American Jewish Congress, said this week that the AJC was contacted by representatives of Rich who suggested that if the AJC supported the pardon, a donation would follow. The AJC did not support the pardon, and Rich made no gift.
Clinton's pardon, granted in the last hours of his presidency, is being investigated by a congressional committee and New York's federal prosecutor. They are focusing on donations made by Rich's former wife, Denise, to Democratic causes, including Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.