Every now and again, the leadership of the Jewish world engages in an act of collective insanity. It is hard to find a better example than the campaign waged by Israeli and American Jewish leaders to procure a pardon for Marc Rich at the conclusion of President Clinton’s second term. A philanthropist who contributed generously to Jewish causes and charities in Israel and around the world, Rich was indicted for tax fraud and illegally trading with Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis, and fled to Switzerland. Never repentant for his actions – he proudly and defiantly defended his dealings with Iran until the end of his life—he called upon Israeli and American leaders to intervene with Clinton on his behalf. An astonishing number obliged, and Clinton gave the pardon just before leaving office in 2001.
The pardon, to be sure, was issued for a variety of reasons, and the American press focused on the contributions made by Rich’s former wife to Democratic party causes. Stung by the completely predictable uproar that ensued, Clinton felt obligated to explain his decision in the New York Times, noting in his op-ed a long list of factors that led to his decision—the last of which was appeals to him by Israeli and Jewish leaders. Intent on making a bad situation worse, a different group of American Jewish leaders then came forward to claim that the former President was “scapegoating” the Jews. But this claim was absurd. Clinton had, in fact, been inundated by appeals from Israeli and American Jewish leaders, and it was not in any way inappropriate for him to mention this. It is hardly fair for Jews to plead with the President to do something and then to blame him when he takes their views into account.
Looking back, it is hard to make sense of all this. The Jewish community was engaged in what appeared to be madness on a mass scale. Marc Rich was a thoroughly disreputable character. He traded not only with Iran but with Libya and Iraq and other rogue states that were devoted to Israel’s destruction. Charged with serious crimes, he chose to live in luxury in Switzerland as a fugitive from justice rather than stay and use his massive resources to fight for his innocence and good name. Clinton’s decision to pardon Rich was a colossal error that tarnished his image and still reverberates twelve years later. And the decision of so many in the Jewish world to support the pardon request was a colossal error as well. There are few people in the Jewish world—or anywhere—that I admire as much as Shimon Peres; why, in heaven’s name, was Mr. Peres in the Marc Rich camp?
From the safety of his Swiss villa, Mr. Rich gave a great deal of money to a great many worthwhile Jewish programs and projects. Wealthy people have influence; that has always been so, and always will be. Precisely for that reason, our tradition discusses at some length how one is obligated to deal with disreputable individuals who use their money for good purposes. Some argue that Jewish institutions should not accept money from habitual sinners (see Hullin 5b), but the majority view is that such gifts are permitted; however, a special effort must be made to guard against the reality or the perception that such a gift will be used to advance the interests of the sinner and thereby to taint the organization receiving it or the community as a whole (see, for example, Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 5:11).
In short, while our tradition expects that our moral compass will always be at work, it calls for special vigilance in cases where our good intentions are likely to be corrupted or where favoritism, sometimes of an unconscious sort, is likely to be at play. It urges us to avoid uncritical deference to anyone, including those of great wealth—indeed, especially those of great wealth—who might be more interested in their own welfare than in the welfare of the community or the sacred purposes of the tradition. It demands that we withhold public recognition for anyone whose actions might taint the good name of our people.
These are the lessons of the Marc Rich case, which lingers in our memory. While they are not new, they are worth repeating and remembering.