The Bingo Connection

How an impoverished Southern California town became a cash machine for controversial Jewish settlements in the Middle East

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“Bingo!” 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.

Abutting 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 inßaming 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.”

“Moskowitz 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.”

That 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.”

Hawaiian gardens owes its ßorid 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.”

Almost 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.

A few 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 ßooding 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 the doctor.

“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.

Workers 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.

Low-income 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.”

Halfway 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 relations.

“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 Palestinian capital.

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.

Weiner, 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.

The 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.”

Moskowitz and the other defendants reportedly settled the lawsuit for $281,000. The casino was approved with 57 percent of the ballots.

Following the 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 member.

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.”

Weiner 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 communities.”

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.

The 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 ßow 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.”


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