.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meyer Lansky, gangster - and Zionist

Ma'ariv has a lengthy article about legendary mobster Meyer Lansky, and how he helped Israel in its early days. Here is a condensed version and paraphrase of the article.

Lansky grew up on the Lower East Side in New York in the early 1900s. He made ​​his fortune in the
bootlegging business with his friend "Bugsy" Siegel, made ​​millions in gambling halls in Las Vegas and Cuba, had police and politicians in his pocket and is considered the biggest Jewish gangster in history. But also - Meyer Lansky was born in Grodno to a Jewish family before they emigrated to the United States, he fought valiantly against the US Nazi demonstrations before and during World War II, he helped the Americans to conquer Sicily, and he raised millions of dollars for establishment of Israel, but when he wanted to immigrate and receive citizenship in the early seventies he was expelled from the country in disgrace.

Lansky's family moved from Grodno (at the time, part of Russia) to the Lower East Side in New York City, a poor working-class neighborhood that absorbed many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Lansky left school at age 15 and by age 19 had already established the first gang along with his friend "Bugsy" Siegel. Lansky was the brain of the organization while Bugsy was the "muscle." "It's always better not to shoot, if it's possible," Lansky once said . "It is better to use common sense, and if that does not work, then move to threats. Violence is a bad substitute for logic."

An Israeli cousin of Lansky, who researched his life, says "Jewish gangsters in America evolved for two reasons. First, to protect the Jews. Jewish women on the Lower East Side could not walk alone on the street filled with Italians and Irish without being attacked and raped. Groups were established to protect the Jews in those cities and neighborhoods. The second reason was that the Jews ln America were poor. Some Jews got into the gangster life to make money and send their children to university. Unlike of Italian crime families, many of which remain active to this day, the entire Jewish involvement in the mob was over in one generation, and many of the children of that generation did not even know what their parents were involved. Some Jewish recipients of Nobel Prizes today are the childrenof the people associated in one way or another with the mafia."


By the late twenties, Bugsy and Meyer were collecting protection money from nightclubs, providing security services to the Italian mafia leaders, were involved in the activities of unions in New York and the occasional burglary and drug trafficking, while leaving behind a growing trail of bodies. This period also strengthened ties between the two and another childhood friend of Lansky, Charlie "Lucky" Luciano. Lansky and Siegel helped pave the way to Luciano to be named named "Capo di tutti capi" - boss of all bosses - through the elimination of other senior Italian Mafia figures. Then Luciano and Lansky built what was called the "National Crime Syndicate" - a national council of gangsters, where strategic decisions were made and disputes settled between families. Syndicate sat together leaders Irish Italian crime families and Jewish. While the Syndicate ended up murdering many people, Lansky was not believed to be involved in murders.

In the 1930s, as Prohibition was ending, Lansky branched out into gambling, using connections with Cuban officials to open up casinos there.

One day turned a Jewish judge and community leader Natan Perlman told Lansky he believed that Jews should demonstrate "a bit more militant" response at rallies that Nazis supporters held in New York. Lansky, becoming aware of the growing plight of his "European brothers," as he called them, was quick to respond to the request. Perlman threw only one constraint: no fatalities. Lansky sent some of his Syndicate friends along with other Jews to terrorize the Nazi party supporters throughout New York City. Flags were torn, skulls were cracked, but there were no fatalities.

After the US entered World War II, in 1943, Thomas Dewey and other US officials told Lansky the U.S. forces are about to conquer Sicily, birthplace of Lucky Luciano, who was then in prison. They asked him to see if Luciano could convince the Sicilians to cooperate with the occupying forces. Lansky visited the prison, and asked him the Mafia in Sicily will cooperate with the Americans. There were two armies invaded Sicily - the first British led by General Montgomery and an American second, under General Patton. The Sicilians supported the invasion, and in return Luciano was released from prison.

After the horrors of the Holocaust were apparent, Lansky felt the need to help his fellow Jews. In 1946, Lansky made a strategic decision: he and his friends throughout the United States must help bring the survivors from Europe to Palestine, and help establish the Jewish state. Lansky gave the order.

Lansky's cousin elaborates: "The goal was to help establish the Jewish state. It meant to buy the ships, help in gathering Jews from all over Europe, bringing them to Israel, to transfer funds to Israel, to arm the military. Whether it was buying Czech planes or training the paratroopers, all of it cost money - and Lansky collected all the money. It was Lansky's gift. He was a man of power and influence, and had the ability to help establish the Jewish state. He was in contact with many people and helped in collecting funds. It is important to emphasize that a lot of Jews not related to the mafia gave money, but those who controlled it, these were people who were close to the leadership of the syndicate."

Lansky's friends managed to get ships from Panama to ship weapons to Palestine, and Teddy Kollek - later mayor of Jerusalem - met with many of the mobster leaders who cooperated because of Lansky's interest. Even Bugsy Siegel, who was not interested in Judaism at all, responded when he heard that Jews were fighting.

In the fifties and sixties Lansky was convicted of gambling offenses and fined several thousand dollars and sentenced to probation, which did not stop him frm conducting business as usual, while the authorities turned a blind eye. Only towards the end of the sixties, and after he retired to Miami, did authorities try to convict him of charges of tax evasion. Then Lansky went to Israel, first as a tourist, and then when the interior minister refused to extend his visa, he requested to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Israeli authorities thought otherwise. After a highly publicized trial, Chief Justice Shimon Agranat rejected Lansky's petition on the grounds that "Lansky's criminal past is a danger to public safety." Lansky was returned to the United States. He died in Miami in 1983.

This history is not well known, apparently because Israelis didn't want their early history to have any association with criminals. Indeed there are many anti-semitic websites that distort this history in order to make it appear that Jewish mobsters built Israel. But it is fascinating nonetheless.

(h/t Yoel)