Blocking Mideast Peace
Two Cities, Two Stories, One Philanthropist-Kingpin
by Joey Fishkin
Originally published 01 April 2000
in Urim V'Tumim

Spring 2000

(Note: urim v'tumim is a Jewish student magazine at Yale University. This article was written in 1999 but not published until Spring 2000.)

In Abu Dis, a tiny Palestinian town just east of Jerusalem, a secretive Jewish businessman named Irving Moskowitz recently bought land a few months ago for a Jewish settlement. Tensions ran high - the Palestinian penalty for selling land to Jews is death, and this particular site has recently gained international prominence as a possible capitol for a future Palestinian state. The Palestinian and Arab press denounced Moskowitz, and contended that he was acting at the secret behest of Israeli leaders - a view bolstered by the fact that Moskowitz is a personal friend of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many have accused Moskowitz of deliberately disrupting the peace process. Whatever his intentions, this purchase, like several previous high-profile actions by Moskowitz in Israel, could not be better calibrated or timed to imperil the chances of a "land-for-peace" settlement.

Halfway across the world from Abu Dis, a largely Hispanic crowd plays an extremely fast, dollar-a-board game of "speed bingo" in the bingo club of Hawaiian Gardens, California, which at less than a square mile is the tiniest town in Los Angeles County. It's an unusual scene. The glitzy club, open seven days a week, operates like a casino and takes in a staggering $33 million a year. Casinos are illegal in California, but this club is not because the law allows 501(c)(3) organizations such as churches to run volunteer, charitable bingo games. In this club, recent immigrants from Mexico, legally "volunteers," work the tables full time and subsist on tips. It seems almost inconceivable that this oddly intense bingo game, or these Californians, could have anything to do with Palestinian-Israeli politics. Yet, because of Irving Moskowitz, they do.

The 501(c)(3) this unusual bingo club supports is the Irving Moskowitz Foundation, which sends most of its money to Moskowitz' causes in Israel, according to its Form 990 reports filed with the IRS. In addition to the bingo club, Moskowitz now owns and runs the rarest of cash cows in California - a real card-playing casino, legal only because of a special referendum the town passed several years ago, in a high-profile election that involved tremendous spending by Moskowitz. Between the taxes he pays on his casino and other properties, and voluntary contributions he makes periodically through his Foundation, Moskowitz is responsible for much of the City of Hawaiian Gardens' bottom line.

Moskowitz is unquestionably the dominant figure in the political and economic life of this small town, and he has raised many millions of dollars here that have found their way to projects in Israel. But beyond those simple facts, there are two vastly different stories one can tell about Moskowitz and Hawaiian Gardens. The first and perhaps more obvious story - certainly the more pleasant story, and still the dominant public story - is that the man is a startlingly successful real estate developer who has profited while infusing Hawaiian Gardens with needed capital. Beryl Weiner, Moskowitz' attorney, articulated this first story in a long phone interview with urim v'tumim . (Moskowitz himself does not speak to the press.) "There is nobody who has stepped forward to help out the city of Hawaiian Gardens, which has been a community in need of a great deal of support," Weiner said. "Dr. Moskowitz is the only person to step forward, and he should be applauded for his contribution, not attacked." Leonard Chaidez, an outspoken Moskowitz supporter who was elected to the Hawaiian Gardens City Council about a year ago, agrees. "That casino is probably the only saving grace for this city," Chaidez said. "It's a project that benefits the city and the doctor." Chaidez tried to downplay Moskowitz' power in city politics. "He doesn't personally get involved with running the city at all. He sends his representatives in and we go over what is needed, but he doesn't say that he's going to wield power around and affect everyone's situation. He's been very fair in this city, and benefited this city."

Others tell a much darker story about Moskowitz' role in Hawaiian Gardens, a frightening story about one man accumulating almost absolute political power-through means legal and illegal - and using it to turn the town into a massive moneymaker for his enterprises in Israel. "There's a mixture of legality with the threat of force and shadings of things that are not legal," said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a leader of the Coalition for Justice in Jerusalem and Hawaiian Gardens ( www.stopmoskowitz.org ), a group of Jewish and Latino community leaders that formed recently to try to curb Moskowitz' power.

With support from the Shefa Fund, a Jewish philanthropic organization concerned with social justice, the Coalition is for now simply trying to untangle the marionette strings of financial and political influence in Hawaiian Gardens that allegedly lead back to Moskowitz. "There are shell companies, pass-through foundations - it's a criminal empire based on finely tuned financial wizardry," said Rabbi Beliak. Hawaiian Gardens City Council member Placidel Alvarez minces no words in describing Moskowitz' pervasive influence in Hawaiian Gardens. "When people don't agree with his tactics, he'll use something to get rid of them," he said simply. "He has the money and the power."

These two stories about Dr. Moskowitz diverge wildly, not only in spin, but in their basic accounts of the facts of the past ten years. The disagreement presents a significant problem for journalists trying to understand Moskowitz and Hawaiian Gardens. It may partly explain the stunning near-silence in the national media, the local and Los Angeles media, and even the Jewish press about this story. The idea that an ostensible Jewish philanthropist might actually be an exploitive local kingpin is just so difficult to swallow that it is easier to accept the first story and ignore the second.

Here are the facts, as far as urim v'tumim has been able to reconstruct them. By all accounts, Moskowitz has been a prominent figure in Hawaiian Gardens for decades as the owner of the town's only hospital. In 1988, the city asked him to take over a bingo club after the previous owners were embroiled in a corruption scandal. At the time, the bingo club generated some badly needed revenue for the city through a 1% tax, though that tax was later outlawed by the state. Still, most of the revenue from the rapidly expanding charitable bingo business went to the Irving Moskowitz Foundation.

"The foundation has generously supported people and groups in need in Hawaiian Gardens." said Beryl Weiner, Moskowitz' attorney. Weiner cited a new food bank, the hospital (which Moskowitz has spun off as an independent nonprofit entity), a dental clinic, and most of all, the city's Public Safety and Police Foundation, to which he said the foundation gave over $2 million in 1998.

Others see the Foundation's contributions in a different light. "The bingo money goes from one organization to another organization in which he and his wife are the only ones on the board," said Kathleen Navejas, a former mayor of Hawaiian Gardens. She says Moskowitz has always used charity to gain political power, and has refused to fund some existing community organizations he did not control, such as the food bank that had been run by her husband (until he was publicly accused of embezzlement, in a strange controversy she says Moskowitz instigated and that ended with no charges filed).

Navejas and others have accused Moskowitz of "self-dealing," but Weiner emphatically argues that none of the Foundation's contributions have made their way back to his own pocket. "Doctor Moskowitz has never received a dime of remuneration from the Moskowitz foundation, nor has any member of his family," Weiner said, while acknowledging that the bingo parlor and the hospital do pay rent to Moskowitz, who owns the land on which they sit. Still, he said, the hospital has not paid all the rent due, and "although Doctor Moskowitz has had the right for two and a half years to evict the hospital, he never has done so. That shows that nature of his generosity."

In 1993, Moskowitz signed an agreement with the city to redevelop a large portion of the city's only commercial street as a supermarket. Controversy still swirls around that agreement. Several people, including some eyewitnesses and then-city council members, charge that Beryl Weiner substituted a different agreement for the negotiated one at the last minute, making the terms dramatically more favorable to Moskowitz. Weiner emphatically denied this charge; the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem called a press conference last week comparing the signed agreement with a copy of the original they say they obtained.

In an unusual arrangement that critics say constituted a gross conflict of interest, Beryl Weiner represented both Moskowitz and the city's redevelopment agency for a period starting around when the two negotiated the initial redevelopment agreement. Weiner argued that he was one of several redevelopment agency lawyers, and says he was not involved with that side of the negotiations. In addition, he noted that "to the extent that there was a conflict of interest, it was waived in writing by the city." Placidel Alvarez said Weiner's dual role resulted in a deal in which the city paid most of the costs a developer would usually cover. "He wanted to benefit his client," Alvarez said. "His number one client was the doctor."

In 1995, the supermarket plan became a casino plan - a change that required a special city referendum under California law. In almost all cases, California casino referenda fail. But in Hawaiian Gardens, Moskowitz spent over $500,000 on the campaign, and the referendum passed with 965 out of 1687 votes. Leonard Chaidez observed sanguinely, "that's the nature of the beast in America. If people want something to be passed, they spend money on it to get that particular issue passed."

But the referendum campaign, critics charge, was a different kind of beast. "It wasn't even an election. It was vote-buying," Navejas said, arguing that the campaign expenditures consisted mainly of contributions to individuals. "Practically everybody was on their payroll. The city employees were getting two paychecks for a substantial amount of time. The city employees were campaigning while they were working." Rabbi Beliak said the campaign went even further. "Moskowitz' people hired gangs to make sure people voted correctly," he said. "People who were in the opposition were beaten up. There has always been a subtext of violence." Two other sources present during the election have echoed this charge.

Weiner acknowledged that Moskowitz spent at least $500,000 on the election, but argued that his spending was simply an effort to counteract campaigns by other nearby gambling establishments to keep the casino out. He emphatically denied any involvement with hiring youth gangs, calling such accusations "the worst kind of yellow journalism." Navejas and others confirmed that nearby casinos did attempt to support the anti-casino side in the election to some degree.

Kathleen Navejas was a strong supporter of Moskowitz until the casino election, when, as she puts it, her "rose-colored glasses were removed." After she helped file a series of lawsuits attempting to stop the casino referendum because of various irregularities, Navejas suddenly found herself the target of a recall campaign, which she describes as part of a general purge of the city government masterminded by Moskowitz. The crucial moment was apparently a special meeting of the Hawaiian Gardens City Council on August 9, 1995. The night before, "Bob Canada, who was the mayor at the time, serves us all with a piece of paper. It was a special meeting for the next day," Navejas said. "Never got advertised, never got posted, never did any of the things we normally do. And the agenda was to fire everybody," including the city attorney and the city administrator.

Weiner denied that the alleged purge took place, and said he and his client "were not directly involved in the recall campaigns" of Navejas and others. "She was run out of office by the voters of Hawaiian Gardens," he said. When asked about the special session of the city council, he said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

The purge "was the beginning of the end," Navejas said. "From that point on, it went from Moskowitz getting what he wanted to Moskowitz getting everything he wanted."

Moskowitz has maintained a solid majority of three supporters on the five-seat Hawaiian Gardens City Council during each of the past few years. Placidel Alvarez, who is one of two dissenting voices this year with Lupe Cabrera, said he has received both offers and threats. "I was told by other city council members that if I didn't get his support, I wouldn't make it," he said. "In 1997, I was approached by a gentleman who worked for the doctor who said 'we can put a thousand dollars here, another thousand from another account.'" Alvarez said he refused the offer of support. "I'm not for sale," he said, adding that he believes this principle cost him an election in 1995.

Alvarez also experienced the darker side of the town's politics. "I was threatened. I don't know by whom. I work at a traffic school, and two gentlemen visited me there, left a written note with the secretaries, for some reason on an Italian bill. They told my sister, who works there, that I should pull out of the race, or else I would end up in a closet."

The Coalition for Justice, Navejas, Alvarez, and several others have alleged that the threat of violent force in Hawaiian Gardens is a constant fact of life. Weiner and Chaidez dismissed this idea as a complete fabrication.

It is difficult to construct an objective account of law enforcement in Hawaiian Gardens. On the one hand, according to both Weiner and some of Moskowitz' opponents, when Hawaiian Gardens had its own police force, the police chief was personally fairly sympathetic to Navejas and other Moskowitz foes. On the other hand, for several years now, the police in Hawaiian Gardens have been paid not by the city, but by a Public Safety and Police Foundation that received its funds from the Moskowitz Foundation, whose donations were apparently irregular. At one point, a funding crisis prompted the city to disband its police force; today it contracts out police services to a sheriff.

Some whisper that Moskowitz maintained the threat of force in part by literally owning the police. "One of the questions that remains is, can a city receive money like this?" Rabbi Beliak said. "Police are supposed to be for the entire city, not the public-private property of the richest guy in town." Weiner argued that, whoever paid the bills, when it came to loyalty "exactly the opposite was true - the chief of police was extremely antagonistic towards Doctor Moskowitz."

Regardless of whose side the police were on, there is little question that City authorities today are not interested in investigating Moskowitz. "Moskowitz can do anything and nothing happens," Navejas said. "People think this guy's just invincible. The only hope we have is that there are authorities that are bigger than Moskowitz who can take him on."

In the first major development on that front, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee of the California state legislature is finally investigating Moskowitz' dealings with Hawaiian Gardens. Weiner and others play down the scope of the investigation, asserting that it is narrowly focused on the question of whether the casino agreement between Moskowitz and the city took place before or after the cut-off date specified in the so-called "Isenberg Law," a 1996 state measure that put a moratorium on new casinos.

However, sources close to the investigation have indicated to urim v'tumim that the scope of the investigation is significantly broader, and that after poring over documents, transcripts, and footage, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee will issue multiple reports on different aspects of Moskowitz' dealings with the city. As of this writing (2/16/99), the first such report is expected in two weeks or less. "The fact that there's an investigation is like a beacon of light for people," Rabbi Beliak said. "If the state acts, then people will not be afraid."

While it is understandable for some of the people of Hawaiian Gardens to be waiting anxiously for the results of the investigation, it makes less sense that the media has done the same. After all, if journalists always relied on legislative committees to come up with the facts before we reported them, no news critical of the state would exist. In this case, Rabbi Beliak says, the media blackout may be due in part to this story's overwhelming complexity and deep disagreements over basic facts. It could also be due in part to some journalists' reluctance to single out a man who is, at least ostensibly, a Jewish philanthropist. Beliak says that legislators and the Attorney General have also indicated this concern to him.

In response, Beliak has made a significant effort to show that the Jewish community does not necessarily back Moskowitz. He led a successful campaign to convince the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis to pass a resolution supporting the legislative probe - which resulted in a parade of rabbis protesting in front of Moskowitz' casino.

Weiner views such actions with disdain. "Too often," he says, "Jews have an easier time attacking other Jews than focusing on what should be their real goals." By all accounts, Moskowitz is more certain than almost anyone that he knows those goals. Moskowitz donates millions to right-wing Zionist groups ranging from the well-known ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) to more obscure and hard-line organizations like Ateret Cohanim, which supports a yeshivah and discreetly purchases land within Jerusalem's Muslim quarter. But Moskowitz' most controversial and high-profile personal purchases cross lines that even his allies respect. "We have no activity over the green line" that marks the edge of municipal Jerusalem, said Yossi Baumol, Executive Director of Ateret Cohanim. "But," he adds, "we would support Dr. Moskowitz and his goals."

Half a world apart, Moskowitz' efforts in Jerusalem and Hawaiian Gardens trace strangely parallel paths. In both cities, he has used money in unusual ways to leverage surprising and disproportionate power over the government. In Israel he undermines the negotiating power of the Barak regime, while in Hawaiian Gardens, he has allegedly undermined the integrity of the entire political system. In both cases, it is not just Moskowitz' wealth, but his unique ways of deploying that wealth, that have made him an undemocratic power broker on two continents.

The Coalition for Justice hopes to overcome Hawaiian Gardens' recent anti-democratic legacy. It is raising funds now to support programs that "teach people that they don't have to be victims, that they can have a democratic process and look out for their own interests." It may seem almost too basic, to teach democracy. But in a town as polarized, exploited, and cornered as Hawaiian Gardens has become, rebuilding civil society from the ground up may be the only realistic choice.

Copyright 2000, Urim V'Tumim For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

View all articles


2003 design by elbop for the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem