Bingo King Aids Israeli Right Wing
The money trickles in, $1 at a time, at a smoky bingo hall in Los Angeles County’s tiniest city, the inaptly named Hawaiian Gardens.
It winds up, by the millions, in one of the world’s most sensitive hot spots--the disputed territories within Israel--supporting organizations dedicated to keeping the biblical lands under Jewish control.
In the middle is Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz. The soft-spoken 67-year-old physician made his fortune building hospitals around Southern California, then discovered the new source of riches--the strip mall bingo hall--that helped him become a major player in tinderbox politics halfway around the world.
His Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation has dispersed more than $18 million in bingo profits to various causes in the 1990s, $6 million last year alone.
Some of the money supports charities in Hawaiian Gardens that distribute everything from free groceries to smoke alarms. But records show that far more of the millions goes to groups backing the agenda of the Israeli right wing: by buying up property in contested areas such as Jerusalem and campaigning to defeat peace plans under which Israel would surrender land to its Arab neighbors.
The fate of Israel is an emotional subject for many American Jews. But activists on both sides of the fierce peace debate in Israel say no one pours as much money into the cause as Moskowitz.
An Orthodox Jew who lost 120 relatives in the Holocaust, he has condemned the peace accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors as a “slide toward concessions, surrender and Israeli suicide.” So he shrugs and says he is merely doing the “natural thing for a Jew,” trying to “save our nation.”
His grandfatherly demeanor belies a tough, competitive nature that has enabled him to master one contentious world after another: hospital economics, small-town California politics and the secretive land deals of the Middle East.
He also has found himself embroiled in controversy both in the California city where he accumulates the bingo dollars and in the nation that is his passion.
Some in Hawaiian Gardens now question how the doctor who once delivered their babies--but moved to Florida 16 years ago--has continued to use his influence in the community.
For years, his foundation sent $30,000 a month to a food bank run by the husband of an influential city councilwoman. But in October, the food bank was searched by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which said the husband may have pocketed much of the money. And in February, city officials put Moskowitz in a position to earn millions more when gambling expands beyond bingo in the southeast Los Angeles County city: They approved a poker parlor for land he acquired with $2.7 million in help from the city.
In Israel, meanwhile, the role of the right wing has come under rising scrutiny since the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a law student who came from its ranks.
Although no one accuses Moskowitz of condoning such violence (“a terrible thing,” he calls it), backers of peace talks with the Palestinians complain that he and others engage in “deliberate provocations” by buying property in “the most holy place on Earth.”
“He is a man who lives far away with a big box of matches, facing a huge keg of gunpowder which is Jerusalem,” said Ornan Yekutieli, a left-wing member of that city’s Municipal Council.
“He sits and he throws matches,” Yekutieli said. “And one of the matches will succeed and make a gigantic explosion.”
But many others agree with Moskowitz that it is a recipe for disaster to trade land for peace with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. To them, Moskowitz is “a great hero.”
And even critics grudgingly admire how he backs up his beliefs.
“He has the money,” said Yekutieli, “and he uses it.”
Relatives Killed by Nazis
Like many in America, Moskowitz grew up knowing “the precariousness of Jewish existence,” says a short biography handed out at a banquet where he was honored. Having lost so many relatives to the Nazis, he figured that “but for an accident which brought my parents [from Poland to the United States], my brothers, sisters and I would have also been victims.”
He was born in Manhattan, the ninth son in a family of 12 children. With the Depression brewing, the clan took off for Milwaukee, where a grandfather was eking out a living peddling fish.
The heavily German city was a difficult place for a young Jew during World War II. An older brother, a mailman, found himself delivering anti-Semitic newsletters. And Moskowitz still has the tattered baseball glove he says he won betting a neighbor that appeasement would not keep the Nazis from overrunning Europe.
He is not one for self-analysis. Asked what made him so driven, he simply suggests he was always that way, recalling racing past a cute girl as a youth so “she would be proud of me and like me.”
That speed later won him headlines as a baseball outfielder, but he decided that medicine was a more promising way to escape poverty.
He portrays other turning points in his life as accidents: A radio report on California weather, during a Milwaukee winter, led him to take a hospital internship in Long Beach after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin medical school, at age 23, in 1952. A patient’s remark about “a [half-built] hospital you gotta come see” led him to buy his first hospital within a decade for a $75,000 down payment.
What was no accident was how his career quickly became intertwined with his interest in Israel. As soon as he leased out the 67-bed hospital in Buena Park, he and his wife, Cherna, made their first trip to the Jewish homeland.
In 1960, he was part of a Los Angeles delegation that greeted Menachem Begin, who went on to become Israeli prime minister. And years later, when Iraqi Scud missiles terrorized Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, he spearheaded Operation Torah Shield, in which a jumbo jet of American students flew to Israel to offer moral support.
“What could be more natural for a person with [my] upbringing,” he asked, than “to want to help his people in Israel who are being surrounded by people that want to destroy the country?”
It also seemed natural that the man who became a whiz at California real estate while barely in his 30s--engineering zoning changes for new hospitals and commercial developments--would take an interest in land in Israel.
Moskowitz cites a letter he received from that country’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, after the 1967 Middle East War in which Israel captured the areas that remain in dispute today. “We need more Jews,” Ben-Gurion wrote, in “the liberated territories.” A year after the war, Moskowitz assisted one of the first Jewish settlement attempts in the captured areas.
Nowhere was the turf battle fiercer than in Jerusalem, which Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital. After Israel captured East Jerusalem, many officials insisted that the only way to keep peace there was to preserve the city as a mosaic of separate communities. But some religious Jews, whose prayers for centuries have included the plaintive pledge “Next year in Jerusalem,” defied that approach by creating Jewish enclaves in the Arab quarter, hoping to make redivision impossible.
While some American Jews became avid settlers, Moskowitz had more than his body to offer. He said he used profits from his first “big win” in business--the sale of four hospitals to the National Medical Enterprises chain--to buy a stone building in Jerusalem for Beit Orot Yeshiva, an ultranationalist education center. And he sold a convalescent home in 1985 to buy another prime building, the Shepherd Hotel, for more than $1 million.
Arabs who own such properties risk their lives selling to Jews. But they could be swayed by “prices well above the market,” Moskowitz said, although they had to negotiate through third and fourth parties. He especially relished getting the hotel, just outside the walls of the Old City, for it had been used by the Mufti of Jerusalem, the Muslim spiritual leader. During the Palestinian intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation, Moskowitz leased it to the Israeli border police who were working “to stop the Arab terrorists,” he said.
Still, such purchases by private individuals were of secondary significance until 1992, when the current Labor Party government came to office and began talks with the Palestinians. It was disclosed then that the previous Likud administration, which was much more hard-line, had funneled tens of millions of shekels to buy buildings in contested areas.
When Labor officials froze such funding, private money became the sole way to continue the acquisitions. Although the efforts drew backing from wealthy Jews, such as Canadian corporate raider Marc Belzberg, Moskowitz became “the driving force,” according to Daniel Seidman, an attorney for the dovish Peace Now movement, which opposes the “Jewish beachheads” as dangerous provocations.
Indeed, the turn of events in Israel came as Moskowitz’s foundation overflowed with funds from a source even the millionaire doctor found “unbelievable.”
A Prolific Builder
Moskowitz said he earned $10,000 a year when he entered private practice in Long Beach. But soon, there were “hospitals all over [the area] he built,” said his longtime attorney, Beryl Weiner.
Moskowitz can rattle off the dates decades later: “Oct. 28, 1963 . . . Nov. 4, 1968. . . .” He explains, “It’s like my children.”
Located in the fast-growing working-class suburbs south of Los Angeles, they opened just as Medi-Cal and Medicare enabled many patients to stop using county hospitals and go to private ones near their homes. “I just was there at the right time,” Moskowitz said.
With his first hospital, he had to survive a boycott by local doctors, who hoped to scoop the facility up when he failed. When competitors fought the opening of others, he bused residents to hearings to convince regulators a need existed.
By the time he sold his first four hospitals to NME in 1969, he was a power in the field--ready to open five more during a frenzy of deal-making. One, in Paramount, prompted a bitter legal fight with NME, which said he violated an agreement not to build so close to the hospitals he sold.
But another of the new facilities proved to be one of those turning points in his life--for it was in the tiny city next to Long Beach.
Hawaiian Gardens got its name from the thatched roof “punch” stand of a 1920s bootlegger. Though the name suggests a breezy paradise, it became a prototype of California sprawl. Today, 14,000 residents are crammed into rows of stucco bungalows--along with a strip of pawnshops and burrito stands--in 0.9 of a square mile off the 605 Freeway.
The city has long fought an inferiority complex. Whereas neighboring Cerritos had dairy land that later provided space for upscale subdivisions, Hawaiian Gardens got “housing that was built for the [cow] milkers,” said former Councilman Don Schultze. So when Moskowitz built his hospital there, the city celebrated Irving Moskowitz Day in 1972.
Moskowitz treated area residents until 1980, when he leased his remaining hospitals to the Charter chain and moved to a spacious waterfront home in Miami Beach.
There he received a call in 1988 about a new opportunity. Hawaiian Gardens faced a crisis: Its charity bingo hall was closing after the operator faced criminal charges in Orange County. The city, which got 1% of the gross, stood to lose more than $200,000 a year. The bingo also financed a food giveaway run by the husband of Councilwoman Kathleen Navejas.
Plenty of groups offered to take over the games, because the 800-seat bingo hall was one of many around California that stretched the definition of “nonprofit.” But most hardly seemed civic-minded--a principal in one proved to be a fugitive from New York’s French Connection heroin case.
Moskowitz said a city official asked him, “Do you have a charitable foundation?,” the prerequisite for running bingo. He did have one, as well as a long record of philanthropy, including giving $65,000 to start a Long Beach Jewish Community Federation.
On Sept. 13, 1988, the Hawaiian Gardens City Council named the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation to take over the bingo games. Declared Navejas: “Whatever [Moskowitz] does turns to gold.”
The Games Add Up
Signs around the cavernous room call it “The Fastest Game in Town.” Through the haze of cigarette smoke, players peel off single after single for $1 bingo cards and pull tabs. The buy-in is small and so are the prizes, $250 per game, because of state limits that cover all but Indian bingo halls. The law does not say how many games you can play, however, so the caller shouts out a new number every four seconds. A game is over in minutes and a new one starts . . . for up to 10 hours.
By 1991, The Bingo Club was taking in $33 million a year, according to foundation tax returns.
That was hardly all profit: $24 million in prizes were given out, along with the city’s 1% fee and salaries for a large security force. But even with such costs, the bingo quickly transformed the Moskowitz Foundation into a major giver.
Records show that the foundation gave away $57,000 in 1987, the last year before bingo. By 1991, it was able to dole out $1.5 million. The figure rose to $4.3 million by 1994--the last year for which detailed accounting was filed--and $6 million in 1995, according to the foundation’s attorney.
Some of the money stayed in Hawaiian Gardens, with $30,000 a month going to the food bank and other funds supporting an anti-gang program and the like.
But the giving more often reflected Moskowitz’s interest in Israel. “It’s obvious,” he said, “that it’s allowed me to be more active.”
He says the foundation is “not buying the land,” merely supporting groups “for humanitarian purposes, for scholarships . . . [for students] studying to be rabbis.”
Many beneficiaries, however, are American “pass through” organizations designed to help Israeli counterparts, including groups involved in the property purchases and settlements in contested areas.
Foundation records show that the largest single amount in 1994, $1.03 million, went to American Friends of Everest, which Moskowitz set up “to acquire an important religious building in the holy city.”
And the leading recipient through 1994, getting $2.35 million, was American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, which supports a yeshiva in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. Members believe they have a God-given mission to buy property and protect Temple Mount, revered as the site where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the site of the First and Second Jewish temples, the latter destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Ateret Cohanim members believe that the rebuilding of the temple, and the coming of the messiah, are imminent. But that would mean tearing down the third-holiest site in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, built over the temple ruins.
“Jerusalem is . . . almost too delicate to be spoken about in rational terms,” said Peace Now’s Seidman.
In June, Moskowitz visited the yeshiva to donate a Torah scroll in memory of a student stabbed to death by Arabs. By now, some of his eight children, two of them rabbis, were raising their own families in Israel. “After 2,000 years of sacrifice for the dream of returning to Jerusalem, we cannot allow it to be taken away,” he said.
His foundation has aided settlements in other areas, as well, including the sensitive Palestinian town of Hebron in the West Bank. And, in 1993, it gave $100,000 to Bar Ilan University, which is viewed as mainstream but faced scrutiny after law student Yigal Amir shot Rabin.
Though Moskowitz had likened Rabin’s policies to the appeasement of the Nazis before World War II, he condemned the assassination as “not good for peace [or] the Jewish nation.” But he added: “It doesn’t change the fact that the Arabs still commit terror against the Jews.”
That view, that the Arabs cannot be trusted to make peace, is spread by advocacy groups in the United States that get major funding from his foundation. Frank Gaffney, a former Defense Department official who runs one of the groups, the Center for Security Policy, credits Moskowitz with spotlighting an “alternative view . . . not well represented among the establishment Jewish institutions.”
But such efforts break the long tradition of having a strong, single-voiced “Israel lobby” in Washington--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
AIPAC carefully mutes its criticism of the Moskowitz-backed groups, not wanting to “overplay their influence.” A spokesman merely termed “inappropriate” how they have broken the “consensus that our role is to respect the decisions of the government of Israel when it comes to security and life-and-death matters.”
Others are less polite. “He is a major funder of anti-peace movements,” said Jim Zogby, president of the Arab-American Alliance. “Why one man devotes his life and fortune to perpetuating violence is a mysterious thing.”
But the “pro-peace” side cannot match the fervor of a Moskowitz or Manfred Lehmann, a Florida friend who uses his millions to warn that leftist Israeli leaders risk letting their country “vanish.”
“It’s not a question of cocktail party talk. To us it’s existential,” Lehmann said, calling Moskowitz “a great Jew” and a “hero.”
Hundreds who felt the same way crammed into a Manhattan ballroom a year ago to attend a banquet at which Moskowitz was honored for “dedicated service.” Among them was Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who could become Israel’s next prime minister after national elections May 29 if hawkish sentiment continues to rise due to the recent violence.
“If you asked most people who [Moskowitz] is they would [not] have any idea,” Gaffney, who spoke at the testimonial dinner, said later. “His influence is a function of his financial support.”
And he soon could have far more funds at his disposal.
Protest by Residents
There was a packed crowd, too, in Hawaiian Gardens in February, but not for testimonials. Dozens of angry residents came to City Hall with signs saying “No More Sweetheart Deals” and “Investigate Irving Moskowitz.”
Hawaiian Gardens was debating whether he was, in fact, a grandfatherly benefactor . . . or someone who had used the community for his own ends.
The issue was poker.
In 1993, city officials allotted $5.5 million in redevelopment funds to buy several acres, next to the bingo hall, and give the land to a corporation headed by Moskowitz. He was to repay half the money and develop a Smith’s supermarket, generating $250,000 in yearly sales tax for the city.
The project was controversial because it would level landmark businesses such as the Plow Boys market, opened 35 years ago to sell area farmers’ produce. “We are little fish,” said Dennis Duski, whose garden center also was displaced. “He owns Hawaiian Gardens and they do whatever he wants.”
But city officials insisted that redevelopment was needed to remove the blight--and denied whispers that it was a ruse to bring in a lucrative card club. Mayor Robert Canada swore he would “not vote in any form for a poker casino.”
Last year, however, the mayor joined a unanimous vote to hold a poker referendum. It was approved by 57% of city voters.
The turnaround was part of a turbulent 1995 in which increased gambling was promoted as vital for fiscal survival. A new police force, to replace county sheriff’s patrols, was projected to cost $500,000 more a year--and the city was broke.
“That’s why we need the cards,” said City Clerk Dominic Ruggeri, who viewed that use of the redevelopment land as inevitable. “I had been talking to Dr. Moskowitz about it for four years.”
Still, Moskowitz said he was shocked in July when Councilwoman Navejas called him and pleaded for a poker hall, which officials estimated could double the city’s $3 million annual revenues. “I said, ‘What?’ Because every year I had to swear . . . ‘No card club.’ ”
Navejas later denied making the call. But Moskowitz insisted that she even suggested he pay $160,000 to a “top-notch campaign group” to get a referendum passed. Moskowitz said it seemed “very suspicious,” and he turned her down.
In September, Moskowitz stopped funding the food bank run by Navejas’ husband, Carlos. Moskowitz said he asked to see its records and was refused.
On Oct. 27, district attorney’s investigators searched the food bank. A “statement of probable cause” questioned $190,000 in checks made out to cash, and suggested that “only a fraction” of funds went for food for the poor.
With the Navejases denying any wrongdoing, the investigation is ongoing--as is the name-calling.
Kathleen Navejas emerged as a leading critic of granting Moskowitz a card club license. She distributed fliers asking, “Where does the Hawaiian Gardens Bingo Club Thirty Million Dollars Go?”
“He is a great manipulator,” she said. “He makes you feel like he is a caring individual [but] they are not in it to take care of the city.”
So--much as in the Middle East--Moskowitz plows on amid angry rhetoric, the final chapters of his legacy still to be written.
Yet the scandal may have a silver lining. After the food bank closed, he recruited a top expert, Dianne Wright, to start a new one.
Some 700 families receive potatoes, rice and canned goods in a computerized operation that could become a model private social service agency, with plans to add day care and job training.
“It’s a hoot,” said Wright, noting that in most places there are “a million needy people and a million good ideas--but no resources.”
“Here,” she said, “people in town, if they need something . . . they call the doctor.”
Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.
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Where the Money Goes
Records of the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation show how the cause of buying up land in Israel--particularly in areas coveted by Arabs--is a major beneficiary of his bingo riches. The totals below are for 1994, the latest year for which donations have been made public.
* Amount: $1,031,060
* Recipient: American Friends of Everest, Miami
* Use of funds: The organization, formed by Moskowitz himself, used the money “to acquire an important religious building in the holy city of Jerusalem . . . very close to the very holy Western Wall.”
* Amount: $576,000
* Recipient: American Friends of Ateret Cohanim Inc., New York City
* Use of funds: Benefits the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, a militant Jewish school in the heart Jerusalem’s Arab quarter.
* Amount: $514,000
* Recipient: National Council of Young Israel, New York City
* Use of funds: Benefits organizing body of more than 150 Orthodox synagogues in the United States and Israel; often critical of Israeli peace proposals.
* Amount: $360,000
* Recipient: Hawaiian Gardens Social Service Agency, Hawaiian Gardens
* Use of funds: Supported a food bank and other services provided by an organization headed by Carlos Navejas, husband of a Hawaiian Gardens city councilwoman. But donations ceased Sept. 1 and it closed after authorities searched it for evidence of embezzlement.
* Amount: $225,000
* Recipient: Hawaiian Gardens Coalition for Youth Development Inc., Hawaiian Gardens
* Use of funds: Anti-gang and other programs.
* Amount: $216,000
* Recipient: P.E.F. Israel Endowment Fund, New York City
* Use of funds: 74-year-old organization passes on funds to various causes, in recent years helping new immigrants to Israel, primarily from Russia and Ethiopia.
* Amount: $200,000
* Recipient: American Hechal Shlomo Committee, Brooklyn, N.Y.
* Use of funds: Gives grants for building, maintaining and expanding synagogues in Israel.
* Amount: $200,000
* Recipient: Zionist Organization of America, New York City
* Use of funds: Historic group now focuses heavily on lobbying and has emerged as a voice critical of Mideast peace proposals.
* Amount: $200,000
* Recipient: Yemenite Heritage Foundation, Brooklyn, N.Y.
* Use of funds: Helps Jews relocating from Yemen to Israel.