Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg has built a reputation as a man of letters, but not of the kind that have swirled around him lately.
In the latest volley in an escalating war of words, a majority of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council is defending Greenberg, the embattled council chair, against a campaign to unseat him over his role in the Marc Rich pardon scandal.
Thirty-five members of the 50-plus-member council were preparing a letter this week backing Greenberg, who is under pressure to resign for lobbying on Rich’s behalf.
Even his backers admit that Greenberg made a mistake when he sent a letter on museum stationery in December asking President Clinton to pardon the financier. Yet this week’s letter went on to say, “We have complete confidence that the museum will continue to flourish under Rabbi Greenberg’s leadership.”
The pro-Greenberg letter came in response to another letter, signed by 18 current and former members of the council, that was made public last week.
That letter recognized Greenberg’s “long and distinguished career as an educator and as a leading proponent of Jewish thought.” But it called on him to resign for his role in the Rich pardon, saying he had unintentionally “entangled the museum in a political controversy inimical to its mission.”
The scandal is the latest involving the museum, which has drawn close to 16 million visitors and widespread praise since it opened in 1993, but has also made headlines for political squabbles and infighting.
Depending on whom you talk to, this latest crisis may or may not be partisan in nature. In any case, it also appears to be driven by other forces, including disagreements over the future direction of the Washington-based museum.
But Greenberg’s detractors say it is his actions alone in the Rich scandal that led to their campaign.
“There is no rationale to involve the museum in the pardon of Marc Rich, the pardon of a fugitive,” said Deborah Lipstadt, one of the signatories to last week’s anti-Greenberg letter.
“This museum was created to commemorate the vision of the Holocaust,” and the damage done by Greenberg’s lobbying for Rich “can’t be repaired” by an apology, said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Lipstadt said Greenberg’s actions on behalf of Rich are exacerbated by the fact that Greenberg also directs Michael Steinhardt’s charitable foundation, which helped establish Birthright Israel. Rich contributed $5 million to Birthright, which sends North American Jews on free trips to Israel.
“No one is suggesting a quid pro quo, but appearances count,” Lipstadt said.
Judging from the latest letter, most of the council disagrees with Lipstadt’s faction.
Among the signers of the pro-Greenberg letter are several prominent members of the museum council, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and two former members of the Clinton administration, Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat. The council oversees the museum.
Greenberg “made a mistake on Marc Rich, but for 40 years, he has worked as a teacher and a Jewish leader” to commemorate the Holocaust, Wiesel said.
A longtime council member, Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi best known in the Jewish community for his writings on the Holocaust and his leadership at two organizations that promote Jewish pluralism and learning: the Jewish Life Network and CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The pro-Greenberg faction criticizes the tactics of his critics.
Greenberg apologized at a January council meeting, and his apology was accepted by the council and the museum’s Executive Committee, his backers say. The matter was not raised at February and March council meetings, they add.
In addition, Greenberg was presented with the letter calling on him to resign on April 4, just one day before the letter’s contents appeared in the New York Jewish Week.
The way in which Greenberg’s critics conducted their campaign was “stealth terrorism,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a council member and Greenberg supporter.
For his part, Greenberg said last week that he would not quit over his role in the scandal surrounding Rich, who became a major philanthropist to Jewish and Israeli causes after fleeing to Switzerland in 1983 to escape prosecution.
“I have no intention of resigning,” Greenberg said, adding that he would pursue the museum’s goals “vigorously” until his term ends in January.
President Bush can then appoint another member of the council to be its chair, and many believe he will appoint someone with closer ties to the Republican Party than Greenberg, who was named to the post by Clinton last year.
In 1998, the museum came under fire for its on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. Arafat eventually declined the invitation.
Soon thereafter, John Roth, an appointee to head the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, was criticized for making comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. Roth eventually resigned his post under pressure.
In addition, there have been political tensions on the council of the museum, which receives funds from the U.S. government, since the museum opened.
Observers say the council’s Republican-leaning members have been miffed since 1993, when Harvey Meyerhoff was removed as chairman in what Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition called a “humiliating and offensive manner.”
“Clinton politicized the museum in a way that was not done under Bush and Reagan,” Brooks claimed.
Greenberg first came under fire earlier this year, after a public speech characterized as anti-Israel by an opinion writer in the Wall Street Journal.
Greenberg said the opinion piece not only was “an outrageous misrepresentation,” but portrayed the opposite of what he actually said.
Both Lipstadt and Ruth Mandel, the council’s vice chair and another signatory to the anti-Greenberg letter, deny that the present campaign is politically motivated.
Any partisan feuding has only been heightened by tension between Greenberg and the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield.
Bloomfield was unavailable for comment.
In their letter, the pro-Greenberg faction wrote, “We also believe that it is in the best interests of the museum and council that the Rich matter be considered concluded. The unfortunate public letter of our colleagues can only serve to distract from our important work in Holocaust remembrance — an issue around which unity is uniquely important.”
If the past is any teacher, it seems unlikely that this unity will occur soon.
JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.