Holocaust Museum Chief Stumbles Into Flap Over Pardon of Scofflaw Rich

Stephen Schwartz - Forward - February 9, 2001

WASHINGTON — Fresh from weathering an attack for a talk he gave last fall on Israeli military ethics, the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, is under fire again, this time in the Marc Rich pardon controversy.

Rabbi Greenberg has admitted writing a letter dated December 11 to President Clinton on the stationery of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, recommending a pardon for Mr. Rich, the mysterious commodities trader, tax cheat, and alleged spy. The letter asked for the pardon as "one of the most Godlike actions that anyone can ever do." President Clinton issued the pardon January 20, his last day in office, touching off a storm of controversy.

Rabbi Greenberg said in a public statement this week that he had requested the pardon because of Mr. Rich's philanthropic involvement in a foundation that Rabbi Greenberg directs, the Jewish Life Network, which is headed by philanthropist-financier Michael Steinhardt.

Rabbi Greenberg is employed by the Jewish Life Network, and serves with the Holocaust council in a volunteer capacity.

"When asked to write a letter in support of Mr. Rich's pardon, I obliged," Rabbi Greenberg said in his statement, "because I knew him through his philanthropy. He was an early and helpful major partner with Jewish Life Network (the foundation of which I serve as president) and I became aware of other of his good works including matters done with no expectation of recognition or reward."

Associates of Rabbi Greenberg say the pardon letter was a legitimate act, but that the letter should have been written on the foundation's stationery, not the museum's.

"Yitz admits he wrote the letter," said Arthur Berger, the museum's director of communications. "He told me and the council, at a meeting last week, that printing out the letter on museum stationery was a mistake. He wrote the letter as head of the Jewish Life Network, and the letter was supposed to appear on their stationery."

Mr. Rich fled the United States in 1983 during an investigation that led to his indictment on 51 counts of tax evasion, racketeering and violating trade sanctions against Iran. Accused of evading $48 million in taxes, he will be able under the pardon to return to America without facing criminal charges.

The incident was the second in as many months in which Rabbi Greenberg's volunteer position with the museum came under a cloud because of actions stemming from his professional duties as foundation head. The previous attack stemmed from a November talk he gave to a Jewish group on the ethics of Jewish power. Critics said he described Israeli soldiers' actions during the Palestinian uprising as "gun-happy" and "overreaction," leading to rebukes from The Wall Street Journal, the Zionist Organization of America and others.

Rabbi Greenberg's defenders said his November talk was actually a defense of Israeli soldiers' behavior, and that the phrase "gun-happy" was drawn from a passage in which he said that even if a few soldiers overreacted, Israel's overall record was exemplary.

In both cases, Rabbi Greenberg's activities were depicted by conservatives, led by The Wall Street Journal, as part of an alleged pattern of politicization of The Holocaust Museum under the Clinton administration, leading to calls for President Bush to replace Rabbi Greenberg as head of the museum's parent body.

With the disclosure of his role in the Rich pardon, Rabbi Greenberg's troubles have escalated a notch. The pardon of Mr. Rich is the most controversial of the 170 acts of clemency taken by President Clinton on his last day in office. In the ensuing furor, press attention has focused on Mr. Rich's connections to Israeli and Jewish causes. Pleas on his behalf came from figures as diverse as Rabbi Greenberg and former Israeli intelligence chief Shabtai Shavit. Recent disclosures suggest that Mr. Rich may have worked with Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, reporting on his dealings with Iran.

"It's pretty well known that Marc Rich acted for Mossad when he approached the Iranians," said a Washington insider. "He was attempting to help Israel get its soldiers back after they had been kidnapped by militias allied with the Iranians. A lot of people would say that was a good and noble thing to do."

Mr. Rich's primary connection to Rabbi Greenberg and the Jewish Life Network appears to be a $5 million contribution to Birthright Israel, a program that subsidizes youth travel to Israel. Mr. Steinhardt, the head of the Jewish Life Network (and vice chairman of this newspaper) was a founder and is a major funder of Birthright.

Mr. Rich also maintains his own personal foundation in Israel, through which he has donated to a variety of major institutions including Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Ben-Gurion University, the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation. He also was personally instrumental in bringing dozens of Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen to Israel, Avner Azoulay, a former Mossad agent who runs Mr. Rich's foundation in Israel, told Israeli media.

The executive director of one Israeli nonprofit said that despite its extensive giving, the Rich Foundation is "not very public" in Israel and that until recently few Israelis were aware of Mr. Rich's American legal troubles.

Mr. Steinhardt, for his part, said in an interview last week that the charges against Mr. Rich were "no source of concern."

"Marc Rich is a well-established Jewish philanthropist and has given to many Jewish causes and I'm pleased he's chosen to give to Birthright as well," Mr. Steinhardt told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page