WASHINGTON: A small group of Californians is trying hard to contribute to the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” by shutting down an important source of financing for religious extremism in the Middle East.
No, the effort is not directed against Arab funding of radical terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. In this case, the target is Jewish extremism in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and the source is a gambling casino located in Hawaiian Gardens, a small, impoverished, predominantly Latino town in greater Los Angeles. The casino is owned by a 75-year-old medical doctor and businessman named Irving Moskowitz.
His Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation has funnelled tens of millions of dollars earned from a bingo parlor next door to the casino since the 1980s through various charities and foundations, some of which are also controlled by him, that support the most extreme elements of the Jewish settlement movement in Israel and the territories, according to tax records obtained by the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem (www.stopmoskowitz.org).
The foundation also provided hundreds of thousands of dollars between 1987 and 2001 (the last year for which records are available) to right-wing US Zionist groups, particularly the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), as well as neo-conservative think tanks among them the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) whose leaders were at the forefront of the drive to war in Iraq and called for stronger US action against Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.
While the foundation’s earnings from the bingo parlor, which grosses around $35 million a year, can be traced through tax records, what Moskowitz does with the profits he makes from the casino, which grosses about $180 million a year, is unknown. As the owner of a private enterprise, his tax records are not publicly available.
Most observers, however, believe he has been spending his casino earnings in much the same way as the bingo profits that is, providing millions of dollars to militant extremist groups, such as the Aterit Cohanim, which occupies houses in the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem in order to consolidate Jewish control of the entire city. Their self-professed goal is to rebuild the Old Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque and perform animal sacrifices, thus hastening the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
While the casino has apparently been a cash cow for Moskowitz since it began operating several years ago, in order to continue operations he must obtain a license from California’s new Gambling Control Commission. The denial of his license application is the goal of the coalition, which consists of community groups, former municipal officials, Latino, Muslim, and Jewish activist groups, including about two dozen rabbis who serve on its advisory council. The coalition is also supported by national peace groups such as the Americans for Peace Now, a predominantly Jewish organization.
The coalition announced Wednesday that it will present testimony opposing the application at a public hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday. Among those testifying will be the coalition’s three honorary chairs actor Ed Asner; film-maker Wallace Albertson; and Stanley Sheinbaum, a long-time Middle East peace activist and former Los Angeles Police commissioner as well as former local officials who charge that Moskowitz has effectively “hijacked” the municipal government to build the casino and enrich his business interests at the expense of the community’s general welfare.
Most of the testimony is expected to focus on specific ways that the casino violated the letter and spirit of the state’s gaming laws. The coalition contends, for example, that Moskowitz spent far more than permitted by law to win approval of the initiative that originally authorized the casino and that much of that money was doled out in cash to city employees and commissioners, as well as street gangs who harassed voters to approve it. In addition, a Joint Legislative Audit Committee charged three years ago that Moskowitz and the city government conspired to illegally divert city redevelopment money to build the casino.
But testimony will also be presented to persuade the three-member Commission that the application should be denied for the same reasons that the Bush administration has pressed Arab governments to shut down charities that fund radical Islamists.
“Knowing how he has used the bingo money to foster extremism and violence, how can you turn around and give him a casino license?” asked the coalition co-director, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak. “When you give someone a license to run a casino, you’re effectively giving him a license to print money.”
Beliak, who serves two Conservative Jewish congregations close to Hawaiian Gardens, referred to several Moskowitz-funded initiatives in Israel and the West Bank, the most deadly of which the excavation and 1996 opening of a subterranean tunnel near Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem sparked three days of rioting that killed more than 70 people, most of them Palestinian.
Since the 1967 war, Moskowitz and foundations controlled by him have secretly purchased often at highly inflated prices Arab homes in and around East Jerusalem with the apparent intent of eventually moving in the most militant factions of the settlement movement. When the Labor government froze funding for such acquisitions in 1992, his purchases became more important by helping the settlement movement plug the gap in financing.
He has also bought tracts of property in strategic locations, such as Abu Dis and Ras al-Amud, around the city to separate nearby Arab towns and villages from the heart of Jerusalem. These activities, he has said, are designed to “redeem” Jerusalem for the Jews and Israel.
He has often arranged to move in settlers or begin construction on his properties at sensitive moments in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, to inflame tensions between the two peoples, spurring Time magazine in 1997 to refer to Moskowitz as “arguably the most pivotal player in the Middle East.”
In addition to any personal money he may have used to acquire these properties, his foundation poured some $4 million between 1993 and 2001 for such purchases to the Miami-based American Friends of Everest Foundation (a play on the verse in the Book of Isaiah that identifies Zion as the world’s highest mountain), which is controlled by Moskowitz and his family, according to the tax documents.
Indeed, he has poured millions of dollars through many “American Friends” foundations, including the American Friends of Ariel, one of the more prominent settlements’ American Friends of Ateret Cohanim to which he contributed nearly $6 million from his foundation’s bingo earnings between 1990 and 2001; American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva; American Friends of Mercaz Harav Kook ($7.3 million between 1997 and 2001); and several others.
The foundation’s support for the settler movement in the West Bank and the Golan Heights has been continuous. Between 1995 and 2001, it provided nearly $750,000 to the Hebron Fund and related charities which, according to Beliak, have supported Beit Hadassah, a settlement located in the heart of the West Bank city for about 500 settlers who have repeatedly clashed with Palestinian residents and even the Israeli Army when it has tried to restrain them.
Beit Hadassah is closely linked to a much larger settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, the home of Baruch Goldstein, the US-born settler who massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s central mosque in 1994 before being overcome and killed. His grave at Kiryat Arba has become a shrine for the settler movement.
The residents of another settlement, Beit El, set in a densely populated Palestinian area near Jerusalem, also have a history of clashes with their Arab neighbors and are led by the Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon. Elon, a rabbi who frequently speaks before Christian Right audiences in the US, is a long-time associate of Moskowitz and one of Israel’s most outspoken supporters of “transfer” that is, moving all Palestinians in “Greater Israel” to Jordan and denying citizenship to all those who resist moving
Most of the bingo money Moskowitz has contributed to the settlement movement has been earmarked for religious schools, or yeshivas, that are the center of community life. According to Beliak, who was trained in Israel, the yeshiva, or “beit midrash, is both the linguistic and theological counterpart of the Islamic madrassa.
As in the Islamic world, most such schools teach a moderate form of Judaism, while others instruct a far more radical and political vision. These are the ones that Moskowitz has favored, Beliak said.
“Students are taught that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people; that it won’t be fertile until Jews are in full control of it, at which point it will respond miraculously to the presence of Jews,” Beliak said.
“Moskowitz is not supporting the people who sit and study; he funds those that are ideologically mobilized, whose students are prepared at any moment to take part in protests and demonstrations, and who think it is their right to uproot olive trees on Arab land, overturn vegetable stands in Arab markets, and wreak havoc,” he added.
To these groups, the Oslo peace process or any negotiation that envisages the surrender of territory to the Palestinians has been anathema. And it was from one of them that Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, emerged. Amir was a law student at Bar Ilan University, whose religious studies program Moskowitz’s foundation has helped support, according to the tax records.
Moskowitz, who had compared Rabin’s policies to Western Europe’s appeasement of the Nazis before World War II, condemned the assassination as “not good for peace or the Jewish nation” but reportedly was more ambiguous in a private conversation with a close childhood friend.
Remarkably, in February, 2000, Israel’s Yedioth Aharanot newspaper traced an internet assassination “game” that invited visitors to “destroy” then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Labor Party leaders to Cherna Moskowitz, Irving’s wife and business partner who also serves as an officer in his foundations.
The game, which was quickly removed after complaints were received, encouraged visitors to click on a leader’s picture which would then “explode” on the screen, accompanied by the sound of screaming.
To the coalition which saved a copy of the game such incitement offers further ammunition for their case that the Moskowitzes do not meet the “good character” criterion California law requires of a gambling license. And they believe that the Bush administration should back up that position.
“If the administration wants to be credible in demanding that Arabs close down charities that fund radical madrassass,” says Jane Hunter, the coalition’s co-director, “then it should also cut the flow of tax-free US dollars to their Jewish equivalents, the yeshivas that Moskowitz funds.”
According to the Coalition’s records, Moskowitz’s foundation has also contributed to Christian Zionist groups that have in turn supported the settlement movement and to US policy groups that identify with extreme Israeli nationalists, including about $500,000 to Americans for a Safe Israel and some $650,000 to ZOA, whose president, Morton Klein, has courted the Christian Right, particularly the Republican House Majority Leader, Representative Tom DeLay, who was the keynote speaker at the group’s annual dinner last month.
The foundation contributed nearly $500,000 to CSP between 1987 and 2001 and a total of $300,000 to AEI in 1996 and 2000, apparently to help fund the work of David Wurmser, a Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and the main author of a series of papers that called for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the destabilization of Syria.