Originally published 01 September 2000
in Mother Jones
How an impoverished Southern California town became a cash machine for controversial Jewish settlements in the Middle East
shouts an ecstatic winner. The tense silence in the musty, jam-packed hall
erupts in a collective exhalation of disappointment. Hundreds of players
review their ink-stained bingo sheets, shake their heads, and pull out fresh
stacks of $1 bills for the long night ahead. Others race outside to relight
half-smoked cigarettes. During the smoking recess, a gaunt, hollow-cheeked
woman says she's been coming to the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club for years,
spending up to $3,000 a month. Gamblers are drawn to the club's promise of
"fast-paced, no-nonsense bingo" from noon to midnight, 363 days a year.
a mini-mall of liquor and check-cashing outlets, the club is the only reason
visitors come to Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny enclave of ramshackle bungalows
and burrito stands on the edge of Long Beach. The town -- the smallest incorporated
municipality in California -- is a bleak urban outpost beset by high unemployment
and gang wars. A fifth of its 15,000 residents, most of whom are Hispanic,
live below the poverty level.
Like all bingos in the state, the Hawaiian
Gardens club is run by a not-for-profit foundation that gives to charity.
But while most bingos raise less than $100,000 a year for local churches
and schools, Hawaiian Gardens is neither small nor local. The club rakes
in up to $50 million a year and, after expenses, donates as much as $17 million.
"I've never heard of any bingo coming close to that," says Bill Dorn, publisher
of Bingo Business Magazine. And instead of going to toys for tots, many of
the proceeds support militant right-wing groups in Israel dedicated to erecting
Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods -- developments that threaten to
undermine peace with the Palestinians.
The operator of the club, a
retired Miami Beach physician named Irving Moskowitz, has made international
headlines for inaming tensions in the Middle East. In 1996, Moskowitz helped
finance a tunnel in Jerusalem next to land considered sacred by Muslims;
the opening sparked days of riots that resulted in the deaths of 60 Palestinians
and 15 Israelis. The following year, with peace talks at a delicate stage,
Moskowitz moved Jewish settlers into a house he owned in an Arab neighborhood,
prompting more demonstrations and arrests. And with negotiations now at another
critical juncture, he plans to open a Jewish settlement with 134 units in
an Arab section of East Jerusalem -- a move many fear will incite more confrontations.
"Moskowitz creates more violence and tension in the city," says Barak Zemer
of Peace Now, an Israeli group based in Jerusalem. "He makes life harder
for the people who live here."
A close examination of tax records
reveals that much of the money that ends up in the Middle East settlements
comes from the bingo riches Moskowitz harvests from Hawaiian Gardens. Since
the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation took over the bingo club in 1988, it has
handed out nearly $50 million in grants -- much of it to groups in the United
States and Israel that help fund settlements in East Jerusalem, Hebron, and
the Golan Heights. At least $7 million has gone to an American conduit for
Mercaz Harav Kook, which one scholar calls "the intellectual leadership and
core of the settler movement." Nearly $5 million has gone to a U.S. branch
of Ateret Cohanim, an Israeli organization that pledges "stone by stone,
house by house" to restore Jerusalem "to her rightful owners." Another $522,000
has gone to Americans for a Safe Israel, whose director denounces efforts
to create a Palestinian state as "another Holocaust in the making."
and the settler organizations are in close, close relations," says Daniel
Seidman, an attorney in Jerusalem who has challenged Jewish settlements in
court. "He has a title among them: the 'renowned contributor.' He is of mythic
proportions. I know of nobody else who funds and supports them to this extent."
generosity comes at the expense of Hawaiian Gardens. The bingo club in the
impoverished town serves as a cash machine for his foundation, yet Moskowitz
has given only a third of every charitable dollar to local groups. The money
has afforded him a strong grip on the town. Residents struggling to make
ends meet serve as "volunteers" in the bingo club, working solely for tips.
Some were forced out of Moskowitz-owned apartments that sparked complaints
to health officials. And the town, which has been unable to pay its own police
force, agreed to spend heavily to help build a for-profit casino that is
generating additional millions for Moskowitz.
Jewish activists and
Latino residents of Hawaiian Gardens have formed a coalition to stop the
casino and underscore the link between this Southern California slum and
violence in the Middle East. "Because of Moskowitz's activities," the group
wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Barak last November, "the future of the Israeli
and Palestinian peoples are intertwined with the future of the people of
Hawaiian Gardens." A resident evicted from a Moskowitz-owned apartment put
it in more personal terms. "I feel like I understand what the Palestinians
are going through," Arturo Perez told Jewish Week. "It's the same thing like
what we are going through here."
gardens owes its orid name to a Prohibition-era entrepreneur who erected
a bamboo shack covered with palm leaves by a roadside rest area. There, a
local history recounts, "if you made a special request, your soft drink could
be hardened up a bit with a little homemade moonshine." After several takeover
bids by neighboring towns, Hawaiian Gardens incorporated in 1964 -- "finally
a city, officially sanctioned to determine its own destiny."
from the start, however, the town's destiny was determined in large part
by Irving Moskowitz. Born in 1928, Moskowitz was raised in a family of 13
children in Milwaukee during the Great Depression. As a Jewish teenager during
World War II, he watched as his older brother, a mailman, delivered anti-Semitic
newspapers to German American residents along his route. During the Holocaust,
says Moskowitz, the family lost 120 relatives, cementing his desire to escape
poverty and help build a strong Israel.
Robert Silverstein, a childhood
friend, recalls the young Moskowitz as "a rascal, but a nice guy" who grew
up "terribly poor. He would steal comic books and then turn around and sell
them. He always was industrious. He was so bright, there was no question
he was going to make it."
After graduating from medical school in
1952, Moskowitz moved to Long Beach to begin his career. In 1961, he bought
his first hospital, and soon owned a profitable chain. In 1970, Moskowitz
built Cerritos Gardens General Hospital in Hawaiian Gardens. "The doctor,"
as he was known around town, delivered babies and treated residents until
1980, when he moved to a large waterfront home in Miami Beach.
years later, Moskowitz talked with Kathleen Navejas, a four-time mayor of
Hawaiian Gardens. The town's charity bingo hall was closing, its operator
facing criminal charges. Could the Irving Moskowitz Foundation take over
the bingo games?
"Moskowitz seemed like the most humble, kind, gentle
man you ever met," recalls Navejas. The doctor's foundation assumed control
of the bingo operations and was soon ooding the town with gifts. He financed
a city park and Little League (both bearing his name), donated graciously
to the city food bank, and provided millions in seed money to launch a center
for troubled youths. The bingo club also pumped millions into city coffers
-- at times supplying half of the town's entire budget. In 1996, the foundation
gave the city more than $2 million, an infusion that enabled Hawaiian Gardens
to pay its workers. The cash-starved town became completely dependent on
"I have donated to the town millions of dollars," Moskowitz
told Mother Jones. "We've created many jobs for them. I feel like I'm part
of the fabric of the community."
But while his bingo parlor supplies
millions for his tax-exempt foundation, Hawaiian Gardens remains mired in
poverty. Bound by a freeway, sprawling shopping malls, and an elite gated
community, the town encompasses one square mile of stucco cottages, dollar
stores, and fast-food taquerias. According to census data, more than a third
of its residents are foreign born. Thirty percent of adults never made it
beyond the ninth grade. Some 1,000 families, about 70 percent of them Latino,
come to the town's food bank for help. "This is a very low-income community,"
says Lupe Cabrera, a city council member and former mayor. "We have a lot
of strawberry pickers and minimum-wage workers. We have a lot of people living
in garages, and a lot of overcrowding."
Thousands of Latino immigrants
scratch out a meager living in gardening, day labor, factory and farm work,
and babysitting. And many work for Moskowitz in his bingo club. By law, all
bingo operations must run on volunteer labor -- so staff at the Hawaiian
Gardens club work for tips from bingo winners, seven days a week. Workers
and their advocates say that nightly shifts sometimes bring as little as
$20, even though the "volunteers" essentially function as full-time employees.
"These people are working at the lowest tier of employment possible," says
Marc Coleman, a Long Beach attorney who has investigated workers' claims.
also say many at the club are undocumented. "The company knows we don't have
papers," one volunteer said in Spanish, shortly after her shift ended at
midnight. Beryl Weiner, an attorney for Moskowitz, denies the accusation.
tenants, too, have found it tough to oppose Moskowitz. In 1997, the doctor
forced a handful of families out of run-down apartments he owned along an
alley next to the bingo. According to Jewish Week, five residents defied
eviction notices delivered by the doctor's Israeli son-in-law and held out
for relocation money. But most left without protest, saying they feared for
their jobs at the club. "They told us we have to move," one tenant told the
paper, "because if we didn't we could be fired."
Weiner insists no
such threats were made. He says that Moskowitz offered relocation money to
all the tenants -- some of whom then lodged complaints with health officials
"to make trouble."
around the world, Moskowitz has gained considerably more notoriety as an
absentee landlord. In 1985, he sold a convalescent home in the United States
to buy the Shepherd Hotel in Jerusalem, a building used by Muslim spiritual
leaders on the outskirts of the Old City. According to the Los Angeles Times,
Moskowitz leased the building to Israeli police "to stop the Arab terrorists"
during Palestinian uprisings. He also formed a Miami-based group called American
Friends of Everest and gave it $4.2 million from Hawaiian Gardens "to acquire
an important religious building in the holy city of Jerusalem very close
to the very holy Western Wall."
His attempts to stake out land in
Arab neighborhoods became too much even for Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime
minister of Israel. The two men were already friends by the time Moskowitz
helped finance a research institute named after Netanyahu's brother, Yonatan,
who died during the Entebbe raid in 1976. But in September 1997, when Moskowitz
moved three Jewish families into a house he owned in Ras al-Amud, an Arab
section of East Jerusalem, Netanyahu's government demanded that the doctor
remove the settlers. In a compromise, Moskowitz agreed to install yeshiva
students to guard the property. An editorial cartoon in Israel depicted Moskowitz
as an American fat cat tossing matches into the powder keg of Israeli-Palestinian
"What they are trying to do is establish a Jewish stronghold
in Arab neighborhoods with the eventual goal of taking over," says Lewis
Roth of Americans for Peace Now.
Undaunted, Moskowitz is pushing ahead
to build a 134-unit Jewish settlement in Ras al-Amud. The day after Ehud
Barak was elected prime minister last year, bulldozers began clearing the
grounds for the four- acre settlement. A protest at the site by Palestinian
leaders, including legislator Hanan Ashrawi and PLO head Faisal Husseini,
ended in a bloody clash with Israeli police. In May, the city of Jerusalem
granted approval to a group funded by Moskowitz to build a 200-unit Jewish
settlement in Abu-Dis, an area considered by some a possible site of a future
Moskowitz insists his projects are not intended
to be provocative, but rather to create safe Jewish communities. "They're
not settlements," says the doctor, who rarely speaks to the press. "It's
a neighborhood just like any other in California or anywhere else. We have
a very good rapport with the Arab neighbors there. It's friendly. We visit
them and drink tea."
Supporters insist that Moskowitz is simply pro-Jewish.
"He wants to promote rapprochement of Arabs and Jews. He is as pure as can
be," says Morton Klein, president of the far-right Zionist Organization of
America, which has received $639,000 of bingo money from the Moskowitz foundation
over the years. (But, Klein quickly adds, "Arabs become extremely upset when
Jews move anywhere near them.") Dov Hikind, a New York assemblyman and one
of the doctor's strongest allies, calls Moskowitz "a wonderful and very special
person who puts his money where his mouth is, into making sure that Jerusalem
will be a unified city under control of Israel."
But others say Moskowitz
makes no secret of his hostility towards Arabs -- and towards Jews who seek
reconciliation. "I can't believe he's doing this to cause peace between Arabs
and Jews," says Silverstein, who grew up with Moskowitz in Milwaukee. In
November 1995, Silverstein was preparing to visit the doctor in Miami. Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had just been assassinated. "I called him
to set up the meeting," Silverstein recalls. "There was a pause in the conversation,
and I said this business with Rabin is too much. Suddenly there was a cold
silence. Then he said, 'You don't know all the facts.'" Shocked, Silverstein
concluded that Moskowitz supported the assassins. He soon called back to
say he wouldn't be visiting, ending the men's lifelong friendship.
the doctor's attorney, says, "The guy who shot Rabin is not a hero for Dr.
Moskowitz." He also disputes a report last February in the Israeli newspaper
Yedioth Aharonot that described an "assassination game" found on a website
registered in the name of Moskowitz's wife, Cherna. By clicking on pictures
of Barak and Israeli labor leader Shimon Peres -- identified as "enemies
of the Jewish people" and "Judenrat" -- players could make them explode.
Weiner says the site was created by opponents intent on discrediting Moskowitz.
The doctor has sued the paper and demanded an investigation.
gaudy new casino Moskowitz opened earlier this year promises to expand his
clout, both at home and abroad. Towering over the run-down streets of Hawaiian
Gardens, the casino sports a 10-foot-high volcano that smolders and periodically
spits out fire. Speakers hidden in fake volcanic rocks blare Hawaiian tunes
that are straight out of the Honolulu Hilton. At the entrance, in front of
billowing, white Taj Mahal-style tents that house the card tables, stand
immaculate rows of freshly planted palm trees. "COME GROW WITH US," a Vegas-like
sign solicits. "OPEN 24 HOURS."
Winning support for the card casino
was a tough fight. City records and former town leaders, along with an investigation
released in June by the chairman of a joint committee of the California Assembly,
indicate that Moskowitz used his financial leverage to pave the way for the
new gambling hall. "In this poor community, he's figured out how to manipulate
poverty for his benefit," says Navejas, the former mayor. "He has bought
and paid for the city. He owns it."
The casino actually started out
as a shopping center. In 1993 Moskowitz approached city officials at the
Community Redevelopment Agency with a proposal to build a supermarket. The
city bought the property for $5.5 million -- and then sold it to Moskowitz
for half-price. Town officials backed the project, hoping for $250,000 in
yearly sales tax from the development.
But when the moment came to
approve the deal, the redevelopment agency went into closed session. When
officials emerged, they approved an amended document more favorable to the
doctor. The new agreement slashed the deposit Moskowitz was required to make
from $3 million to $25,000, and eliminated his responsibility to improve
the site. The agency, unable to pay for the improvements itself, arranged
to borrow as much as $4 million at prime interest. The source of the money:
a casino corporation set up by Moskowitz.
Then, in August 1995, the
city again amended the deal with Moskowitz to allow for a "general commercial"
development instead of a supermarket. Two days later, officials began preparing
for a special election to permit the doctor to build a casino on the site.
Once again, Moskowitz used his wealth to win support for the measure and
punish those who opposed him. According to campaign disclosure statements,
the doctor and his hospital corporation spent a staggering $540,124 on the
contest. Weiner says the money was used to print and circulate brochures
countering an anti-casino campaign run by competing card clubs in the area.
But the investigation by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the California
Assembly found that "the majority of funds were apparently spent employing
or otherwise paying a number of city voters."
A lawsuit filed by casino
opponents also charged that cash from Moskowitz went directly to individual
residents, some of whom were put on the payroll of the bingo club. "He was
literally paying everybody in the city," says attorney Fred Woocher. "We
were receiving reports of people being paid in cash by the bingo operation."
and the other defendants reportedly settled the lawsuit for $281,000. The
casino was approved with 57 percent of the ballots.
vote, Moskowitz went after those who had dared to oppose him. He backed and
won a recall of Navejas, who was serving on City Council and had taken part
in the suit, and he spent $16,925 on the recall of a Navejas ally. "They
spent a lot of money to get Navejas out of there," says Cabrera, the council
Moskowitz also cut off his donations to the city for a time
in 1997 -- forcing Hawaiian Gardens to shut down its police department and
slash city staff from 105 to 30. Walter McKinney, the town's former police
chief, recalls Moskowitz attorney Beryl Weiner "holding the city captive"
by withholding contributions. "He would hold the check out and hold it back
until the council said they would approve whatever Weiner wanted."
denies using contributions as leverage, but the legislative committee that
investigated the casino found that Moskowitz funneled money to the city from
his foundation through two nonprofit funds to gain concessions for the casino.
"The city of Hawaiian Gardens has received and continues to receive substantial
cash payments and loans from Moskowitz-controlled entities, apparently for
its support of the venture," the report states. The committee found "numerous
instances where the city and agency have accommodated the private interests
of Moskowitz and Weiner at the expense of citizens and taxpayers of those
Some of those citizens include owners of a dozen local
businesses who were forced to shut down to make way for the casino -- destroying
family firms and prompting lawsuits that cost the town upwards of $2 million
to settle. John Silva, who owned a well-known meat market called Plow Boys,
lost his business and was plunged deep into debt when the city padlocked
his doors in 1995. A year later, Moskowitz employees removed Silva's equipment,
and police tracked some of the missing goods to the food bank funded by Moskowitz.
casino deal "illustrates a gross abuse of redevelopment for the benefit of
a single private interest," the state investigation concludes. "It demonstrates
how a cash-strapped redevelopment agency with the hopes of eradicating blight
in its impoverished small town fell victim to an aggressive and litigious
redeveloper and his attorney." What's more, the report adds, the casino was
"illegally subsidized" by $12 million in city redevelopment money (such public
support for gambling is prohibited by state law). Moskowitz should repay
the city, the report recommends, and federal authorities should investigate
the deal for criminal wrongdoing.
Even though the casino opened with
a temporary license in February, residents are continuing to fight the facility.
Members of the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem hope
they can stop Moskowitz in Israel by cutting off his power and money in Hawaiian
Gardens. To broaden support for the town, the coalition has allied itself
with Jewish groups in Israel and the United States. In March, the Central
Conference of American Rabbis issued a scathing resolution protesting the
Moskowitz foundation's "documented methods of political manipulation and
labor exploitation perpetrated against the impoverished community of Hawaiian
Gardens." The rabbis condemned the bingo nonprofit for using gambling money
"for the apparent purpose of funding activities that cause agitation and
threaten peace in the holy city of Jerusalem."
Leaders of the coalition
are quick to add, however, that they want to do more than cut off the doctor's
ow of gambling money to the Middle East. "It's not enough to stop Moskowitz
from getting his casino license or controlling bingo," says Rabbi Haim Dov
Beliak, who serves three synagogues in the Los Angeles area. "A whole new
series of institutions have to rise up in Hawaiian Gardens to gain independence
from Moskowitz. We want to free the city to make its own decisions, to repair
the social damage that has been done." What do you think?
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