Birthright Israel’s Disgrace

This past January, Birthright Israel, the organization that has sent thousands of young Jews on free trips to Israel, honored several of its main financial backers before an audience of a few thousand Birthright participants in Jerusalem. Nothing unusual, except that one of those recognized, billionaire commodities trader Marc Rich, had only a year before been one of America’s most wanted white-collar fugitives.

Marc Rich had been a fugitive since 1983, when he was indicted on charges that included evading $48 million in federal taxes and “trading with the enemy” for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran during the American embassy hostage crisis. Rather than face the charges in court, Rich fled to Switzerland where he lived a life of luxury. There he continued his business activities, which reportedly included profiting from predatory practices in economically vulnerable countries.

Marc Rich made headlines in January 2001 when he received a last-minute pardon from President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s pardon of a man who had placed himself above the law was roundly denounced in the press and is likely to remain a lasting stain on his presidency. A mini-scandal also erupted in the Jewish community because prominent Jewish figures, many of whose organizations had benefited from the fugitive’s philanthropic largesse, had written letters urging that Rich be granted clemency.

Birthright Israel was one of the many Jewish organizations that accepted money from Rich while he was still a fugitive from justice. In 1999, Birthright–an organization that mainly benefits and is in large part funded by American Jews–accepted a pledge of $5 million dollars from a man who, at the time, stood accused of cheating American taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Birthright’s North American Chairperson Marlene Post had the chutzpah to then cite Rich’s support of Birthright–support that never should have been accepted in the first place–in a letter urging Clinton to grant him clemency.

And now Birthright, notwithstanding the considerable controversy generated last year over its relationship with Rich, honors him in a public ceremony. This at a time when the Jewish world is trying to engage its youth by emphasizing Jewish ethics and social justice.

One might rationalize Birthright’s decision to merely accept Rich’s money as follows: It is better that Birthright have the money than Rich. Of course, that’s not the tack Jewish leaders have taken when they call on politicians to return donations from individuals who are hostile to Israel. And it’s not even the tack that Birthright has taken. Instead, Birthright’s co-founder, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, has said that Rich’s background was “no source of concern,” explaining: “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.”

While sending young Jews to Israel to reconnect with their heritage is certainly laudable–and Birthright is a great program that has impacted many lives for the better–it’s not as if Birthright is feeding starving children. There’s simply no urgency that requires Birthright to take money from just anyone; there can and should be ethical limits to who is deemed a fit donor. Where exactly to draw the line is a difficult issue, but accepting money from an indicted fugitive should be well beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. Moreover, Birthright’s behavior is unseemly, and disrespectful of our fellow Americans (i.e. accepting money to give free Israel trips to Jews from someone indicted on charges of essentially stealing from Uncle Sam).

Why single out Birthright for criticism, though? After all, Birthright is far from the only Jewish organization that accepted Rich’s support. The Anti-Defamation League, for instance, accepted $250,000 from the fugitive commodities trader. (Will the ADL now answer anti-Semites who smear Jews as unscrupulous businessmen lacking in national loyalties by saying: “No, that’s just our supporters.”?)

But Birthright Israel isn’t just any Jewish organization. Birthright is, as its own publicity materials state, “a unique partnership” that, in addition to Marc Rich, includes North American Jewry’s central institution, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for our Jewish community federations. And so Birthright’s actions reflect poorly on the entire Jewish community.

I also single out Birthright because it is an organization that serves young Jews. Birthright accepted money from a fugitive in our name. It is honoring Rich in our name. It is embarrassing the Jewish community in our name. And I, for one, feel ashamed.

I have heard Birthright’s founders–who, I might add, do care deeply about the Jewish future–speak eloquently about the importance of young Jews taking ownership of their Birthright gift, and of their Jewish heritage. It is time that we do so.

We need to let Birthright know that its relationship with Marc Rich is unacceptable. We need to tell Birthright that Rich’s tainted money should be returned. If we don’t speak up and redeem American Jewry’s honor, nobody else will. Then again, that’s part of the responsibility that goes along with young Jews taking ownership of our Jewish heritage.

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