Search our Archives:
» Opinion & Society
In Search of Meyer
By Jerry Klinger
"Murder Inc.", Balad, the Israel Supreme Court
He sleeps silently in the Mt. Nebo Jewish cemetery in West Miami, Florida awaiting the coming of the Messiah. To the end, he declared himself a Jew, though not a religious one. Meyer shares his gravesite with his oldest son Buddy under the flight path of El Al jets arriving from Israel into nearby Miami International airport. A large pink colored memorial stone carved with the single un-telling name, Lanksy, and an eternal light to one side is at his head. His footstone reads modestly, "Meyer Lansky 1902 -1983", a Star of David serves as the dash between the dates. "Forever in our Hearts" is carved on the bottom row.
His son has only a footstone "Bernard (Buddy) Lansky, January 15, 1930 December 31, 1989." The dates are also separated by a Star of David. The bottom line of the metal plaque on the stone reads simply, "Loving Son."
Mt. Nebo cemetery is in a seedy Hispanic part of town with heavy iron grates on the windows of the houses to keep the criminals in the neighborhood out.
Meyer Lansky's life, on one level, was a simple story. An immigrant child, he struggled hard to improve himself. He attended cheder and carried the Shabbat cholent to the baker for after Shabbat service meals with his family. He never went past the 8th grade. He chose to work in the rough and tumble of business. He married and had three children. His first wife suffered from severe mental illness. His oldest son was cursed with Cerebral Palsy. Quiet, not flamboyant, he was a life-long Zionist and ardent supporter of Jewish charities. Because of a poor choice of friends he was misunderstood and denied his Jewish dream of living his last years in Israel. He died in Miami Beach, Florida having lived his last years very modestly financially; another elderly, sickly Jewish man shuffling along Collins Avenue, sipping a cup of coffee with friends at Wolfie's Rascal House. His funeral was hardly attended.
Yet, he had another life. It was a life of allegations, suppositions, presumptions and very little established in a court of law. It was a life of long time associations made on the tough streets of New York. He had a computer like mind, able to sift through complicated situations and numbers to derive the best probable outcome for money placed at risk. He exhibited extraordinary organizational ability. He was a fearless tough in his youth who did not hesitate to use lead pipes on the heads of Jewish strikebreakers, or try and turn Jewish girls into whores for his control as a pimp. His friends eventually became the most notorious, vicious gangsters in America between 1920 and 1960. Men such as Bugsy Siegel1 and Lucky Luciano2 were among his closest associates. His money skills were legendary. He used his natural abilities to develop gambling and money laundering, from Las Vegas to Cuba, to a skill that the government could never track. His interpersonal management skills brought disparate groups of criminal mobs into national, centralized criminal organized structures. He was reputed to be known as the "Chairman of the Board" of "Murder Incorporated" with a personal net worth of over $300,000,000.00. He was accused of many major crimes and indicted many times. He was found innocent of everything except once, only once. He was convicted of a very minor crime; running a gambling facility in 1950, for which he served a six month sentence. Meyer was arrested and convicted even though the patrons of his casino were the legal, judicial and law enforcement leaders of the community. It was an age of duplicitous hypocrisy, in many ways not unlike contemporary society. Meyer's crime normally would have been a misdemeanor; it was technically classified as a felony. Subpoenaed, he appeared before the famous Kefauver U.S. Senate committee hearing on organized crime. Refusing to place himself in a potentially compromised position he refused to answer questions about his associations by taking the "fifth."
The fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, known as part of the Bill of Rights, was added by President James Madison.
"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."3
Meyer refused to be a witness against himself or to have his testimony used by lawyers into self entrapment. For the rest of his life, until his dying day, he was shadowed by Federal and State agents and newspaper reporters. He was accused many times of many things and convicted of nothing. On paper he led an exemplary, unassuming life. His friends, in the underworld, remained his friends.
Majer Suchowlijaski was born about July 4, 1902 in Grodno, Belarus. Nobody knew his real birth date. It was arbitrarily changed at Ellis Island. Majer's parents, Max and Yetta, left Grodno for the American Promised Land. Max came first, about 1909, slaving and saving to accumulate the money needed to bring Yetta and his two sons to America in 1911.
Institutionalized anti-Semitism in Russia had grown aggressively hungry for Jewish blood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Jews fought back through semi-organized self defense groups but the Cossacks and the Russian hatred were too great. A Suchowlijaski family member, defending himself, had his arm severed in a vicious attack. Jewish life in Grodno was being destroyed after five hundred years of existence.
Majer and his family lived with his beloved grandparents. His grandfather, Benjamin, a respected member of the community, always had a seat up front in the synagogue. A seat up front in the synagogue was a sign of respect and dignity for the many acts of charity and goodness to help his fellow Jews in the community, Majer recalled. My grandfather could not bring himself to go to another Christian country simply to live in another ghetto. "Why go to America" Majer remembered his grandfather saying, "it was a Jew's duty to go to Palestine
Grandfather Benjamin and his wife emigrated to Palestine. Benjamin died in Jerusalem shortly after arriving. He was impoverished but he was in Palestine. His wife died a month later. They were buried on the Mt. of Olives.
Max and Yetta chose differently, as did most Russian Jewish refugees. Palestine was a dream, America was not a dream. America was their direction, their goal. America was their reality.
Max Lansky moved the family repeatedly. He worked long, hard consumptive hours in the "Rag Business." The family's fortunes never prospered. Meyer grew to not respect his father. Moving downward, the family ended up in the squalid tenements and human misery of New York's Lower East Side Jewish Ghetto. They struggled amidst their own, physically trapped between the Italians and the Irish. Shaking off the old world quickly, as did many of the Jewish refugees from a decayed, Jew hating Europe, Max changed the family name to his wife's family name.
Majer Suchowlijaski became Meyer Lansky.
Meyer was a good boy. He attended cheder,5 he got good grades in school. He was never in trouble. The streets of New York offered much potential, many opportunities and many risks to the Ghetto youth. Lanksy discovered he had an ability or recognizing numbers and calculating combinations watching the ever present street craps games. One afternoon before Shabbat, his mother had given him a nickel to pay the corner baker to cook the Shabbat cholent.6 Meyer felt confident enough to try his luck at the crap game instead. He lost his five cents with the first roll. He learned an important lesson that he ruminated on after services that Saturday afternoon as his family very quietly ate their cold meal. He learned it was a suckers bet to roll the dice. It was a sure bet to control the game. The lesson did him well his whole life. He never gambled again. He controlled the game.
Returning home from school one afternoon, as so often, he stood to watch a floating street crap game. The game soon turned ugly as one of the players realized he was being cheated. A fight broke out and one of the young men was knocked to the ground. A pistol fell out of his coat. Another player grabbed the pistol, aimed at the owner and was about to fire when Meyer jumped in knocking the gun aside. He saved the young man's life. A shrill whistle was heard in the air as the New York cops suddenly bore down on the vanishing game players. The young man grabbed Meyer and the two ran like fleeting rabbits amongst the myriads of confused push carts on the streets. They escaped the cops. The young man gave Meyer one key bit of advice after thanking him for saving his life. Meyer had made a key mistake he was told. The cops had seen him holding the gun. "Never let the cops see who you are" was the advice. Meyer did not forget that. Meyer and the young man grew to be very close, trusted friends. The young man's name was Benjamin Siegel. His street knick name was Bugsy Siegel because of his propensity for sudden blood cold violence. Together they formed the Bugsy and Meyer gang a distinctly violent gang in the 1920's during the Prohibition era. Meyer never was known to use violence again, except in extraordinary situations.
Meyer was the brains, Bugsy was the muscle.
The street was where friends and reputations were made. Meyer was no different. It was common practice for street gangs of Italians, Irish and Jews to terrorize the Jewish Ghetto dwellers. Isolated Jews were the favorite shakedown victims for "protection" money.
Returning from work one evening, Meyer was walking home alone. Physically he was small, a very unthreatening figure. Suddenly, from out of the shadows, he was surrounded by a gang of young Italian toughs demanding "protection" money or he would be beaten. The gang expected a simple surrender of the victim's wages. Most Jews had behaved that way, they did not fight. This Jew was different. Facing the leader of the gang, square in the face, without fear but with a cold ferocious audacity that threatened an unexpected vicious resistance, Meyer refused to give up his money. The gang's leader, himself a seasoned cold, violent young man named Salvatore Lucania sensed it was better to back off. Salvatore, sometimes called by his Americanized named Charlie had felt his luck once again warning him. In later years, when he was a major mob gangster and leader, luck almost always seemed to be with him. The Luck stuck to him with a street name that brought shivers to Americans, Lucky Luciano. Salvatore knew to respect the little Jew and Meyer in turn respected him. They too became life-long friends. Together they united the Jewish gangs and the Italian gangs displacing the establishment criminal control of New York by the older Irish crime mobs. Meyer became the central link between the two immigrant groups working together in common interest.
Meyer's connections to "muscle" were not reserved to simple crime. With the rise of Hitler and the emergence of American Nazism in the 1930's, Meyer was called upon by the respectable Jewish community for help.
"The sense of obligation to protect the Jewish community led some Jewish mobsters to fight against American Nazis and their sympathizers during the 1930's. The Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Europe spurred an increase in anti-Semitism in the United States. The violent and hate-filled rantings of men like Detroit radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin; the quasi-fascist fundamentalist Protestant preacher Gerald Winrod; and the head of the German American Bund (referred to as the Nazi Bund), Fritz Kuhn, worried American Jewish leaders, but they were uncertain how to respond.
Concerned about "what the gentiles thought" and fearful of stirring up even more anti-Jewish sentiment, the American Jewish establishment's response was often tentative and disorganized. One group of American Jews which did not trouble themselves about what the gentiles thought and had no compunctions about meeting the anti-Semites head-on were Jewish gangsters.
Nazi Bund rallies in New York during the 1930's created a terrible dilemma for the city's Jewish leaders. They wanted the meetings stopped, but could not do so legally. Nathan Perlman, a New York judge and former Republican congressman, was one Jewish leader who believed that Jews "have to demonstrate a little more militancy."
Perlman surreptitiously contacted Meyer Lanksy and asked him to help. He assured Lansky that money and legal assistance would be put at his disposal. The only stipulation was that no Nazi Bundists were to be killed. Beaten up, yes. Terminated, no. Lansky reluctantly agreed. No killing.
Always very sensitive about anti-Semitism, Lanksy was acutely aware of what the Nazis were doing. "I was a Jew and I felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering," he said. "They were my brothers."
Lansky refused the judge's offer of money and assistance, but he did make one request. He asked Perlman to insure that he would not be criticized by the Jewish press after he went into action. The judge promised to do what he could.
Lansky rounded up some of his friends and members of Brooklyn's Murder, Inc. mob, and went about New York disrupting pro-Nazi meetings. Young Jews not associated with him or the rackets also volunteered to help, and Lansky and others taught them how to use their fists and handle themselves in a fight.
Lansky's crews worked very professionally. Nazi arms, legs and ribs were broken and skulls were cracked, but no one died. The attacks continued for more than a year.
Judd Teller, a reporter for a Yiddish daily newspaper, characterized one of the actions in New York's Yorkville, the center of pro-Nazi sympathy, as a miniature reenactment "of the night when God struck all the firstborn in Egypt." According to Teller, some gangsters infiltrated the meeting while others waited outside. At a prearranged time, the men inside the hall bounded from their seats and charged the speakers, while their confederates outside rushed the sentries guarding the door and burst inside. A third group of invaders climbed the fire escapes and clambered through the windows.
The mobsters worked expertly and swiftly, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. There were no fatalities and no permanent injuries, only dislocated limbs, bloodied heads and noses, and damage requiring dental work. "Like commandos, they were gone before the police arrived, "writes Teller."
Years later, Lansky recounted one of the onslaughts in Yorkville to Israeli journalist Uri Dann. "We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts," he said. "The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action.
"We attacked them in the hall and threw some of them out the windows. There were fistfights all over the place. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up, and some of them were out of action for months.
"We wanted to teach them a lesson," Lansky said. "We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults."
Reflecting on his role in these episodes many years later, Lanksy fumed that though he helped the Jewish community, all he got for his trouble was abuse. He believed the city's Jewish leaders were pleased with the actions, but they failed to stop the Jewish press from condemning him. When the press reported the anti-Bund incidents, they referred to Lansky and his friends as "the Jewish gangsters." This infuriated Lanksy.
"They wanted the Nazis taken care of but were afraid to do the job themselves," he said. "I did it for them. And when it was over they called me a gangster. No one ever called me a gangster until Rabbi Wise (Stephen Wise) and the Jewish leaders called me that."
Lansky never forgot the slight."7
Lansky's defense of Jews and Jewish interests against bigotry and blatant anti-Semitism by Jewish "muscle" was not unique. Samuel "Nails" Morton (Markowitz) enlisted in the 131st Illinois Infantry, the famed "Rainbow Division," in 1917. "Nails rose through the ranks to become a first lieutenant, and received the Croix de Guerre, France's highest decoration for bravery, for capturing a German machine gun nest despite being wounded." He returned to Maxwell Street a hero, became a bootlegger, and put his training in warfare and weapons to practical use. After his death, Nails was characterized as a man who led a number of lives. To one set of acquaintances he was a gallant soldier. To another, a dauntless defender of Jewry. And to the police a notorious gangster."8,9
"As a youngster, Abner "Longy" Zwillman10 earned the gratitude of local jewish peddlers because he and his gang, the "Happy Ramblers," defended them from assaults by Irish thugs. Old-time Jewish residents of Newark still recall that whenever the Irish came into the Jewish district to create trouble, the cry "Ruff der Langer" (Call the tall one") went up. And quick as a flash, Zwillman and his pals would stop whatever they were doing and rush to help. As a result, Longy acquired a reputation for assisting Jews that remained with him all his life.11
One of Zwillman's most loyal lieutenants, Max "Puddy" Hinkes, protected elderly Jews when he was a young man. A friend of Puddy's remembers him as a "tough kid who liked to fight. He was a prizefighter and he had a mean streak.
"When the goyim, particularly the Irish toughs, would come into Prince Street area, where the Jews congregated in Newark, and they would beat up elderly Jews or belittle them and pull their beards, the old Jews would holler for Puddy. And Puddy provided physical protection for these old-timers. It was Puddy's great pleasure to take a stick and beat a bunch of guys and break heads. He loved a good fight.
"Puddy came from a good Jewish home. His mother was president of the synagogue sisterhood. Puddy was devoted to his parents and he would never allow anyone to badmouth Jews."12
"Minneapolis, Minnesota was also a hotbed of anti-Semitism during the 1930's, only here, the problem was William Dudley Pelley's pro-Nazi Silvershirt Legion. 13 A California native, Pelley was a former screen writer, crime reporter, novelist and magazine journalist. He hated President Roosevelt and wanted to rescue America from an international Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Pelley created the Silvershirts, he said, to "save America as Mussolini and his Blackshirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his Brownshirts saved Germany."
Minneapolis had a long history of anti-Semitism and was one of the few American cities to successfully bar Jews from the service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions) and civic welfare organizations. Because of Minneapolis' anti-Jewish tradition, Pelley felt it would be easy to gain a foothold there.
At the time, the city's gambling czar was Davie Berman, an associate and sometimes rival of Isidore Blumenfeld. Berman despised anti-Semites and determined to destroy the Silvershirts. He found out where they met and prepared his men for a raid.
One evening the call came to Berman's bookmaking operation at the Radisson Hotel. "Tonight there's a Silvershirt meeting at the Elk's Lodge at eight P.M.," said the caller.
Berman immediately called his men. "Be at the office at seven P.M. and bring anybody and everything you've got," he said.
When his men arrived, Berman distributed brass knuckles and clubs. He and his men then drove in a convoy of Cadillacs to the Elk's Lodge and waited for the right moment to attack.
The hall inside was decorated with Nazi banners and portraits of Hitler, and the crowd waited expectantly for the meeting to begin. As soon as the Silvershirt leader mounted the podium and began shouting for an end to "all the Jew bastards in this city," Berman's lookout signaled to him.
Berman and his men charged through the door and began beating every Silvershirt within reach. The meeting turned into pandemonium, with the audience screaming and running for the exits followed by every Silvershirt still able to stand.
The attack lasted ten minutes. When it was over, Berman, his suit covered in blood, took the microphone. "This is a warning," he said in a cold controlled voice. "Anybody who says anything against the Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse." He then took out a pistol and fired a shot into the air." 14
From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, Jewish gangsters faced the American Nazi movement tooth and jowl.
"Among Jewish youngsters growing up in the ghettos, respect for the gangster as a tough and fearless protector of his ethnic group became something akin to idolization."15 The Jew who fought back was a new kind of Jew to many of them.
The struggle in Palestine, the Zionist goal to recreate a national home for the Jewish people, gripped the imagination of American Jewry and the world. The Jew, after being nearly exterminated in Europe by the Nazis, their allies and an uncaring anti-Semitic world, was rising up, were taking control of their own fate as a people. The British, the Arab world, the Palestinian Arab, many of whom had recently migrated, like the returning Jew to Palestine seeking personal opportunity, were intent on once again denying the Jew the right of self determination. All American Jewry understood the struggle and meaning of a national home for the Jews, especially after the Holocaust. Respectable Jews and not so respectable Jews joined together to provide, money, support and even guns.
Bugsy Siegel was deeply involved in the birth and development of Las Vegas. Approached by a clandestine fund raising effort from the nascent Jewish independence movement responded:
"Reuven told him his story, the Haganah's need for money and weapons with which to fight. When he finished Siegel asked, "You mean to tell me Jews are fighting?"
"Yes," replied Reuven.
Siegel, who was sitting across the table, leaned forward until the two men's noses were almost touching.
"You mean fighting, as in killing?" he asked.
"Yes," answered Reuven.
Siegel looked at him for a moment and said, "I'm with you."
"From then on," recalls Reuven, "every week I got a phone call to go to the restaurant. And every week I received a suitcase filled with $5 and $10 bills. The payments continued until I left Los Angeles."
Reuven estimates that Siegel have him a total of $50,000." 16,17
"Yehuda Arazi, a long-time gunrunner for the Haganah, came to the United States to assist in the arms purchasing effort
At the time the government of the United States maintained an arms embargo against Israel. This embargo did not apply to the Arab states, which could always import military hardware.
Arazi knew that the Mafia controlled the port in New York.18 He approached Meyer Lansky and asked him to find out what weapons passed through the port targeted for Arab countries and, if possible prevent them from reaching their destination. Lansky said he would handle it.
Lansky contacted Albert Anastasia, who controlled the long-shoremen's union and the docks. Anastasia's men made certain that weapons destined for the Arabs mysteriously got lost, fell overboard or were mistakenly loaded onto ship bound for Israel." 19
Senator Estes Kefauver, 20 a populist, Democratic senator from Tennessee, headed a U.S. Senate committee investigation into organized crime. Traveling to over 14 cities and calling over 600 witnesses while using the new medium of mass culture, television, he brought American attention to the American underworld. The organized criminal world had always been part of American folklore but it now had faces attached to it. Organized crime leaders such as Willie Moretti, Joe Adonis, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky became household names. Called upon by Kefauver to testify against his friends, Meyer repeatedly refused to testify, or to potentially self incriminate himself, citing the protection of the fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution over 600 times. In the American public's mind, refusing to testify became confused with being tried in court by the rules of evidence and law with being guilty.21
Organized crime moved its focus to easier areas of operation for legalized gambling and prostitution; Nevada, Cuba and the Caribbean in the 1940's and the 1950's. Meyer Lansky became an intimate of Cuban president and dictator, General Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and, allegedly, a quiet investor in the Flamingo Hotel and other operations in Nevada. In Havana, Lansky invested $16,000,000 of his own money in a major casino and hotel project. The Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro in 1959 saw all of it lost.
Though always trying to remain out of the public's attention Lansky did so only with great difficulty.
Henry (Hank) Messick22, was a popular culture crime investigative journalist. Messick's career was focused on exposing organized criminal activity through the media. After a series of investigative news stories for the Miami Herald in 1965. Messick linked Lansky with organized crime. Lansky lived in Miami. For the rest of Messick's journalistic career, Lansky was a focus of his. One of the greatest unproven inventions of Messick was his allegation that Lansky was worth $300,000,000. Lansky had never lived ostentatiously. Yet Messick's allegation of Lansky's enormous hidden wealth and a distortion of an off-hand comment he had made to his second wife, Teddy, created a ghost that Lansky could never shake. Messick reported, that Lansky had bragged to a fellow crime boss that they were bigger than U.S. Steel.
Popular culture found Meyer. 1969 Mario Puzo, an immigrant Italian-American government clerk and not particularly financially successful writer, set out to link the stories of the Mafia he had heard growing up. Puzo wrote a major bestselling novel, largely a work of fiction but with enough popular cultural truth to it to make it seem believable. Published, with popular culture conspiracy theories of the Vietnam War, the murder of John Kennedy conspiracy theories and the reality of the underworld links of one of President Johnson's chief advisors, Bobby Baker, the book, The Godfather, became overnight phenomena. Hollywood recognized a winning combination quickly and with Puzo's script writing assistance they developed the blockbuster movie, the Godfather. The movie starred Marlon Brando23 and was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.24 Released in 1972, the Godfather broke attendance records and convinced American popular culture of the venal penetration of the criminal world into American society. The movie was quickly followed by two subsequent movies, the Godfather II and the Godfather III. A major character in the movie was Hyman Roth, portrayed loosely to be Meyer Lansky.
The Reader's Digest, an American magazine of condensations of popular culture journalism, published a major piece about Lansky. May, 1970, the monthly magazine, with a circulation estimated at 30,000,000 ran, The Shocking Success of "Public Enemy No. 1," based on Lansky's life, his reported $300,000,000 and his criminal background. A few weeks later, the Atlantic Monthly carried an article, written by Nicolas Gage. The article was titled "the Little Big Man Who Laughs at the Law," alleged that "Lansky is the main architect of the giant conglomerate that is organized crime in the United States.
October 28, 1969 Meyer was served with a subpoena, along with three of his friends while sitting in the Doral Beach Spa steam room on Collins Avenue, to appear before a Federal Grand jury. The Grand Jury was investigating newspaper reports of an alleged skimming operation that Lansky was involved with in the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
March, 1970, Meyer and his wife were returning from a vacation to Acapulco. They were pulled aside for special search attention when they arrived in Miami. A vial of Donnatal tablets were found that Lansky used for his bleeding stomach ulcers. It had been filled at his local drug store however a prescription for the drug had not been found. The Miami Herald ran a headline the next day "Lansky is Jailed on Drug Counts." "Lansky was taken to the Miami Strike Force offices where he was fingerprinted, and charged with two indictments, one a felony, one a misdemeanor, for possession of barbiturates and unlabeled drugs without a prescription. The felony charge carried a two-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $1,000, the misdemeanor, six months in jail and $500
Florida criminal court judge Carling Steadman was not impressed. He wasted little time in dismissing the charges
"If the Defendant were John Smith instead of Meyer Lanksy," said Varon (Lansky's attorney) after the case, "there would never have been a prosecution."25
Meyer sensed his time was drawing to a close. The U.S. government wanted to get him on something even if he was a "retired" old man of 68 living on a small income and social security. His senses warned him that he was the focus of popular media driven efforts to get him. He knew his connections to the past, to friends that largely were no longer there, could not help him. His friends were dead, deported or also retired. The new generation that succeeded or replaced his friends did not know or care much about him. They were unreliable at best. Meyer's health had become increasingly precarious in his later years. He wished to live quietly, only where?
The Readers Digest attack piece had come out in May, the Atlantic Monthly piece in June. The Godfather novel was a major hit, the government was searching for any excuse to prosecute or harass him. Hank Messick was busily working on a book to come out about Lansky. Meyer asked his lawyer to discretely inquire with the FBI if there was any pending investigation against him or any possible indictment or legal impairment that would impede his desire to travel abroad. There was none.
Meyer Lansky arrived in Israel, July 27, 1970. Meyer had been to Israel as a tourist in 1962. Now, he arrived with Teddy, his wife, and bruiser his beloved Shih Tzu to stay. If no country would have him, then as a Jew, under the Law of Return, he would come home. He would finally fulfill Grandfather Benjamin's admonition. "Why go to America" Meyer remembered his grandfather saying, "it was a Jew's duty to go to Palestine
The Law of Return represented the prime reason for Israel to exist.26
"On July 5, 1950, the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, enacted item 5710-1950 the Law of Return. Follow-up legislation on immigration matters was contained in the Nationality Law of 1952. These two pieces of legislation combine religion, history, nationalism, and democracy, in a way unique to Israel. Together, the legislation grants special rights to Jews with the aim of facilitating their immigration to the Jews' ancestral homeland.
The Law of Return declares that Israel constitutes a home not only for the inhabitants of the State, but also for all members of the Jewish people everywherebe they living in poverty and fear of persecution or in affluence and safety.
The law gives the right of return to those born Jews (having a Jewish mother or grandmother), those with Jewish ancestry (having a Jewish father or grandfather) and converts to Judaism (Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative denominationsnot secularthough Reform and Conservative conversions must take place outside the state, similar to civil marriages).
The Law of Return gave a legal basis for one of the objectives of the Zionist movementto provide a solution to the Jewish people's problem by the re-establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. In the Law of Return, the State of Israel put into practice the Zionist movement's "credo" as pledged in Israel's Declaration of Independence and recognized by the League of Nations in 1922, when charging Britain with the duty of establishing a Jewish National Home, and by the United Nations within the Partition Plan of 1947 which provided for establishment of Israel as an independent Jewish state."27
Lansky, Teddy and Bruiser settled themselves into the Dan Hotel facing the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv. His routine became like any unassuming retired gentleman. He arose early, before 7:00am, and took Bruiser out for a walk along the waterfront. Returning to the hotel, he would enjoy a typical Israeli hotel smorgasbord breakfast of five types of herring, ten types of cheese and breads, salads to choose from spiced with Middle Eastern spices and various Middle Eastern pastries and hot dishes. Little by little, he developed a circle of friends, through Doc Stacher, a former friend and business associate who had been deported to Palestine in 1946. He would sit and talk for hours about life in Israel, West Bank settlements, the Arab issues, Israeli politics and the like in the hotel lobby over steaming pots of coffee and cigarettes.
Meyer, probably for the first time in his life, began to feel as though he had come home. It was time to think about something more permanent than a twelve week tourist visa. Meyer's thoughts and hopes turned to making Aliyah, to go up, to become something more than just himself, to live and die in the land of Israel.
The basic Law of Return was amended in 1954. Section 2(b)(2) was added to deny the automatic right of return under certain circumstances.
2. (a) Aliyah shall be by oleh's visa.
(b) An oleh's visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is satisfied that the applicant
(1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; or
(2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.
Meyer had a potential problem. He contacted a young, bright constitutional expert and attorney, Yoram Alroy, during the fall of 1970. The name Meyer Lansky meant nothing to him. Lansky being uncharacteristically open and up front when he met Alroy as he sought his legal help. He gave him a copy of the May, 1970 Reader's Digest article "The Shocking success Story of 'Public Enemy No. 1." The man seated before Alroy did not seem like, did not seem to be possible, did not resemble in any way the evil organizational monster that the Reader's Digest portrayed. Alroy looked over the old man and reread the article. The condemnation and conviction that the Digest projected was based upon supposition and not proven courtroom evidence. It was allegations based upon rumors, based upon feelings, based upon associations nothing that Meyer Lansky had ever been convicted of doing.
The fundamental principle of the Law of Return was being questioned. If a Jew could be accused of a crime, in a Christian or Muslim country or any foreign country, never convicted, never tried, never sentenced for anything he was accused of, real or trumped up, the Law of Return and its purpose was clear. When the world accused the Jew as a scapegoat without evidence or fact, the purpose of the law was to provide the victim with recourse a home a country that was willing to grant him safety. The Reader's Digest public conviction was based more upon a bad reputation and associations than hard fact. Alroy agreed to take the case. He believed that Meyer would be granted permanent legal rights as a Jew to live in Israel. Meyer's civil rights as a Jew were clear.
December 7, 1970 Meyer wrote to Israel's minister of the Interior, Rabbi Yosef Burg,28 requesting permanent citizenship under the Law of Return. In an affidavit a week later, Meyer wrote, "My association with Israel stands for many years back
. I was born a Jew, have all my lived as a Jew and have never changed my faith."29
What Meyer had not said was that he had been and remained an active supporter of Israel and contributor to Israel and various Jewish charitable efforts all his life.
It was Yosef Burg who as the Minister of the Interior would make the final ruling as to whether or not Lansky would be given Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Burg knew little about Lansky and until his decision was made, was perfectly happy continuing to renew Lansky's twelve week visas indefinitely.
Burg's lack of knowledge as to who Lansky was alleged to be was changed by the diligent snooping of the Miami Herald. November of 1970, the Miami Herald located their favorite criminal in Israel. The Herald, together with Hank Messick, alerted the less than observant Israeli press that a major underworld crime figure was walking the streets of Tel Aviv. Lansky's move to Israel tied in perfectly with Messick's conspiracy theories and assumptions that the Chairman of the Board of the National Crime syndicate had relocated to Israel to avoid prosecution in the U.S. Messick, working on a new sensational crime book about Lansky, hastily rewrote a final chapter suggesting that Israel was going to become the new U.S. crime control location under Lansky. The sensational story alerted, alarmed and turned on the Israeli press to an American styled conviction by popular culture.
By the end of 1971, though Dr. Burg had renewed Meyer's visa, the public issue of Meyer Lansky was a situation that involved the entire Israeli government. Over the summer, Burg had discretely let Prime Minister Golda Meir know that they had a problem. The Prime Minster at first did not understand the problem until Burg used one word Mafia. Golda reacted with an American's visceral response she had learned while living in America. "No Mafia in Israel," she is reputed to have said. Golda was in delicate negotiations with the Nixon administration for the delivery of the last of 74 promised Phantom Jet fighters. She understood, as Dr. Burg did not, the meaning of the word Mafia on the American mind. She understood clearly the meaning of not permitting Lansky to stay.
The Israeli media's focus against Lansky also raised support for Lansky amongst other elements of Israeli society. Yoram Sheftiel, a young Hebrew University law student, organized a student petition led drive to permit Lansky to stay under the Law of Return. Sheftiel's grass roots support reflected on the complex nature of the Jewish state and the extraordinary dynamic forces of free speech and thought. Thousands of names of students and faculty signed the petition from Hebrew University alone. For Sheftiel it was a simple matter of a Jew escaping to the sanctuary of a Jewish homeland from a Christian environment whose laws had been shaped by thousands of years of anti-Semitic molding. Though his background may have been soiled at best, it was Lansky's right to return.
Sheftiel, long after his controversial support of Lansky, continued his career as a defense attorney, free thinker and anti-establishment agitator. In the 1990's Sheftiel worked as the defense attorney for John Demjanjuk, "Ivan the Terrible", the sadistic murderer of the Sobibor concentration camp. Demjanjuk was found not guilty. Five Israeli Supreme Court judges ruled that there was a reasonable doubt raised over his true identity due to the passage of time and the spoliation of evidence.30
Rabbi Burg reached his decision on Meyer Lansky in September, 1971. It was his opinion, after careful examination of the evidence that Meyer Lansky was a person with a criminal past and was likely to endanger the public welfare. His application for Israeli citizenship was denied.
Lansky's lawyer, Yoram Alroy, had one option left, to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. He was very confident that when the courts examined the lack of evidence and that Burg's opinion was based popular cultural opinions alone, Lansky would win. There was one condition he made to Lansky directly, before going before the Supreme Court. Alroy did not want to be surprised by anything that the other side might turn up about Lansky. An unusual agreement between Lansky and his attorney ensued. Alroy was allowed to ask him anything at all about his past. If he felt Lansky was lying, even once, he would abandon Lansky instantly. Over the next few months, Alroy did ask Lansky everything he could think of. Lansky answered. Alroy was more than satisfied that after Castro came to power and Lansky lost his money, Lansky had retired from his former life to live quietly. He was further satisfied that drugs, prostitution and violence had not been avenues of Lansky's entrepreneurial direction. He was strictly involved in money and its 'management' for himself and his associates. The reputed figure of Lansky having secreted a secret stash of $300,000,000, Alroy would only say that it was a pure fantasy. Lansky never had anything even remotely close to that amount of money. The Messick allegation was a pure fabrication, he reported.
March 22, 1972, the fight, Lansky vs. the State of Israel, moved to the Israeli Supreme Court. Due to the important issues involved the full court of five Judges heard the case led by chief Justice Shimon Agranat.
The State of Israel was represented by Gabriel Bach. Bach had made his reputation as one of the prosecutors of the mastermind of Jewish mass murder under the Nazis, Adolph Eichmann.31 Bach researched Lansky extensively, even traveling to the United States and being granted unusual access to Attorney General John Mitchell and all the Justice Department files on Lansky. Bach collected illegal wiretaps of Lansky that would never be admitted into court evidence, as well as piles of popular culture writings on Lansky and transcripts of Lansky before the Kefauver Committee to reinforce Rabbi Burg's decision to deny Lansky the Right of Return.
Bach was startled to learn that the U.S. Justice department does not rely on local law enforcement or local States Attorneys for evidence. The U.S. Justice department felt that the local Justice System officials were corrupt and unreliable. It was a central concept for Bach as to why Lansky had escaped conviction so many times. It also framed Lansky in Bach's mind as a serious corrupting influence on the Israeli legal fabric if he should remain in Israel. Lansky had never been accused of or convicted of direct tampering with the American legal system, yet it was enough for Bach. Bach would later say, "I felt very strongly," he says that we had not set up this state to become a haven for people like this."32
During the trial, Bach's arguments became more strained yet it reached a sympathetic ear in the legal panel. Bach argued that Lansky's repeated use of the U.S. Constitutional protection of the Fifth Amendment and his refusal to answer questions to the Kefauver Committee could be reasonably interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt.
"Shimon Agranat, the chief justice, broke in. Lansky, he pointed out, had been exercising the constitutional right of any American citizen.
Bach responded by agreeing that this argument was legally correct in a courtroom situation, when it came to deciding what evidence might properly be considered by a judge or jury. But the minister of the interior was not a judge. He was a bureaucrat trying to assess the criminality of a difficult and elusive man, and faced with such a challenge, argued the state attorney, the minister was entitled to take account of all the circumstances. Meyer Lansky had been given the chance by the Kefauver committee to clear his name in the public and official forum, and had declined the offer on the grounds that any answer he gave might tend to incriminate him. The Israeli minister of the Interior was entitled to draw the same conclusion from that as any reasonable man in the street." 33
The writing was on the wall, the words hung in the air. The decision came later, September 11, 1972; Rabbi Yosef Burg's decision to deny Meyer Lansky the Right of Return was upheld. Burg was not a judge hearing evidence in a court of law. He was an administrator making a reasonable man decision about what he believed to be the truth. Bach looked at Lansky and felt vindicated. Evil in his view did not necessarily look evil. Bach had stared at the inconsequential bureaucratic face of the penultimate evil, Adolph Eichmann, eleven years earlier. To Bach, Lansky was, as Hannah Arendt described Eichmann, the banality of evil. Bach was victorious. He felt he had saved Israel.
Years later Gabriel Bach was appointed to the Israeli Supreme Court.
Israeli Supreme Court hearings revolving around the Law of Return continued. Many controversial ruling have since been developed. The implications and irony of the Lansky ruling remain.
"The Supreme Court of Israel ruled in 1989 that Messianic Judaism constituted another religion, and that Jews who had become Messianic Jews were not therefore eligible for Aliyah under the law. The government of Israel used this ruling to exclude anyone who was a Messianic Jew.
On April 16, 2008, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled in a case brought by a number of people with Jewish fathers and grandfathers whose applications for citizenship had been rejected on the grounds that they were Messianic Jews. The argument was made by the applicants that they had never been Jews according to halakha, and were not therefore excluded by the conversion clause. This argument was upheld in the ruling, and the government agreed to reprocess their applications"34
The Law of Return was upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court for Messianic Jews. In 2008, the passport of Shalom Rubashikin, an indicted, American orthodox Hassidic Jew, accused of running Agriprocessors as corrupt abuser of American child labor laws and violating American immigration law. He is accused of importing and working illegal aliens for sub standard wages and forcing them to live in inhumane environments to work his Kosher meat packing plants in Iowa35
The sensational story has divided the American Orthodox community with Chabad on Rubashkin's side and a divided Orthodox Union on the other. The American Justice department confiscated Rubashkin's passport as they felt he was a flight risk to Israel and would be protected under the Law of Return. "In September 1997, Samuel Sheinbein and his former classmate at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Aaron Benjamin Needle, killed Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr. and then dismembered and attempted to cremate his body in Aspen Hill, Maryland." Sheinbein fled to Israel using his father's Israeli citizenship as a cover under the Law of Return eventhough he had never been to Israel or expressed a desire to go there. Sheinbein applealed to the Israeli Supreme Court that he not be extradited back to Maryland for trial. The Israeli Supreme Court agreed and Sheinbein was tried in Israel where he is currently serving a twenty four year sentence for the grisly killing. He will be eligible for parole in 2013 when he is 33. The trial brought about clarifications of the Law of Return.
Since the 1980's over a million Russian Jews were admitted to Israel under the Law of Return. Many of the Russians never identified or considered themselves as Jewish yet by definition of the Law of Return they were permitted citizenship. Many are considered Jewish only under a don't ask don't tell policy. Amongst the many Russians who came to Israel, under the Law of Return, was a distinct sub class of extremely violent, even anti-Semitic, criminal element. They are known as the Israeli Russian Mafia.
Dr. Yosef Burg died in 1999. His son Avram Burg became a member of the Knesset and head of the Jewish Agency. In 2007, Avram Burg recommended that the Law of Return be rewritten so that the law no longer referred to a Jewish State but a State of the Jews. In essence, the former head of Diaspora Jews called for an end to the Law of Return. He further advocated that Israelis avail themselves to obtain foreign passports. He has chosen to live in France rather than Israel. 36
"Balad is an Arab Nationalist party founded by Israeli Arabs in 1995. They ran candidates for the Israeli Knesset starting in 1999. Prior to the 2003 elections, the Central Elections Committee banned the party from running by a one-vote margin, claiming it did not respect Israel's legally-mandated status as a Jewish state and that its leader supported terrorism.
However, the bans on both parties were overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice Misha'el Kheshin told the election committee that Bishara's past expressions of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon had angered him, although he voted to allow him to run in the elections because "Israel's democracy is strong and can tolerate irregular cases", and thought that there was insufficient evidence for the ban. Balad won three seats in the elections, filled by Bishara, Wasil Taha, and Jamal Zahalka.
On January 12, 2009, Balad was disqualified from the 2009 Israeli elections by the Central Elections Committee by a vote of 26 to three, with one abstention. It was disqualified on grounds that it does not recognize the State of Israel and calls for armed conflict against it."37
January 19, 2009:
"Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al, the two Arab political parties that were disqualified from running in February's elections, appealed on Monday with the High Court of Justice."38
"Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa: Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, said last week his center was not surprised by the election committee's decision.
It is part of a "fascist atmosphere that exists in the media and in political parties
that is excluding the Arab community in Israel," he said. "It's the same atmosphere that is enabling the IDF to commit crimes against civilians in Gaza
It's an ongoing process of de-legitimization of the Arab community in Israel."
Farah added that it was unfortunate that "once again the Supreme Court will be the one to protect what remains of Israeli democracy."
"Following the committee's decision, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said "the next step is to declare Balad illegal because it's a terror organization that seeks to hurt Israel."
"An attorney representing Lieberman's party said that former Balad head Azmi Bishara, who fled the country under suspicion of spying for Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War, was still consulted regularly by party members.39
“Members of the CEC later conceded that the chance of the Supreme Court's upholding the ban on both parties was slim.” 40
“In a ruling that disappointed right-wing leaders including Israel Beiteinu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman, the Supreme Court Wednesday (January 21) overturned a decision to disqualify two Arab parties from running for the Knesset.
"Aharon Barak said that democracy doesn't have to kill itself in order to prove its strength. The court threw that statement in to the trash today, and gave the Arab parties a license to kill Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," Lieberman said following the court's decision. "We will not give up. In the next Knesset we will pass the Citizenship Law which will put a border on the disloyalty of some of the Israeli Arabs." 41
"In the first days of June 1971, the coverage (Israeli media coverage of Lanksy) reached a climax when Benny Sigelbaum, who had been traveling in Europe and was on his way to visit Meyer in Israel, was stopped by immigration police at Tel Aviv airport. Sigelbaum was interrogated, placed in a waiting room for an hour or so, then put on a plane leaving the country."
"We do not want the State of Israel to become a meeting place for undesirables," said a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry.
Sigelbaum flew home deeply incensed, insisting to anyone who cared to listen that his journey had had no more sinister purpose than to pick up some cash in Switzerland and to deliver it to his old friend Meyer. Previously a generous contributor to Zionist causes, Benny Sigelbaum never gave a dollar to Israel again." 42
Meyer Lansky returned to Miami in 1972. He was immediately arrested for contempt of court when he failed to appear when a subpoena was issued. He was subsequently tried for money skimming and laundering in his 1960 involvement with the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel. The contempt of court case was thrown out as being ridiculous by the court. Lansky had been given 1 ½ days notice to return from Israel for the court hearing in Miami before the over-zealous prosecutor pursued him for contempt. The money skimming court case was a sham prosecution as well. The chief government witness against Lansky was Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa. Teresa testified in court that he passed money to Lansky on a specific day in Miami, Florida. Lansky was in fact in Boston recovering from a hernia operation. He had been in surgery the day Vinnie claimed he gave him the illegal money in Florida.
Lansky was a free man.
He and Teddy returned to their home at the Imperial House on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. He took his dog Bruiser for a daily walk, shadowed by the FBI and the press for the rest of his days. His historic generosity to his synagogue, to Israel, to Jewish charities dried up. He was nearly tapped out. His money almost gone, he struggled to help pay for his son Buddy's medical needs. Meyer Lansky succumbed to lung cancer in 1983. He was buried in a modest, poorly attended ceremony at the Mt. Nebo cemetery in West Miami. No trace has ever been found of the millions that Hank Messick claimed he had had.
Jerry Klinger is president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation
Little man, Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Robert Lacey, Little Brown and Co., 1991. pg. 19
Jewish religious school, usually for children up to age 13.
But He Was Good To His Mother, Robert A Rockaway, Gefen Publishing Jerusalem 2005. Pgs 228-231
Ibid Pg. 220-221
Zwillman had a long history of community and social charitable giving to Jewish and non-Jewish needs alike. He supported soup kitchens and even provided college education to the deserving. During the depths of the depression when hunger was a reality he supported the soup kitchen in the basement of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street. When the Archbishop of Newark, Reverend Thomas J. Walsh was questioned why did take soup kitchen take money from a gangster to feed the poor. The Archbishop replied, "$50,000 of that money is blessed."
But He Was Good To His Mother, Robert A Rockaway, Gefen Publishing Jerusalem 2005 Pg. 224
But He Was Good To His Mother, Robert A Rockaway, Gefen Publishing Jerusalem 2005. Pg. 233-234
Ibid. Pg. 227
Ibid. Pg. 248
A fascinating possibility that could have c hanged the course of the Holocaust's course occurred in the 1930's, involved Bugsy Siegel. He was in Rome, involved with an Italian countess when Hermann Goering arrived for a meeting with the Italian fascist leader, Mussolini. Siegel understood and hated the Nazis. He commented to his mistress it would be simple to "bump him off." Siegel's mistress begged him not to do it because her husband would be blamed for the act. Siegel relented. A second Jewish mob story involved the assassination of Adolph Hitler. Though never much more than talk and preliminary consideration, the threat to kill Hitler alarmed Hebert Hoover. Hoover had the FBI dedicate many FBI resources in 1933, and for a number of years afterward, to capture those that threatened Hitler. The FBI was eager to prevent the Jewish mobsters from assassinating the German head of state.
Meyer Lansky's relationship with the Italian underworld had been very helpful to the American war effort during WWII. American ships were being sabotaged in New York harbor. German submarines were stalking American convoys from when they left port in New York and New Jersey. American security used Lansky to contact his close friend Lucky Luciano, who was in jail at the time to see what could be done. Quietly as always, Lansky met secretly with Luciano in his prison with governmental acquiescence. Attacks, on American ships in port and information going to German submarines waiting offshore to kill, were severely disrupted. The Jewish Italian connection had worked its magic. Luciano was released from prison and deported to Italy after the war. The entire affair and help that Lansky provided American defense was hidden.
Ibid. Pg. 246
Trial by media is a major issue in American contemporary culture. Recent convictions, by activist prosecutors, of Americans such as White House advisor, Scooter Libby and popular culture's Martha Stewart for perjury, when they declined using the Fifth Amendment, are a few notable examples. They were tripped up on their own confused testimony. The prosecutors could not convict Libby or Stewart on allegations of criminal activity but did convict them on the basis of "false" or contradictory evidence given under oath to a grand jury. Lansky refused to be pulled into the morass, choosing to repeatedly use the protection of the fifth, to the frustration of the Kefauver committee's attorneys.
Little man, Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Robert Lacey, Little Brown and Co., 1991. Pg. 322
Little man, Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Robert Lacey, Little Brown and Co., 1991. Pg. 330
Little man, Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Robert Lacey, Little Brown and Co., 1991. pg. 343
Ibid. Pg. 344.
"The goals of Hamas and Balad are the same: to destroy Israel," said Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman. "The difference between them is that the Hamas is outside of Israel, in Gaza, whereas Balad is not only within Israel, but sits in its parliament."
"The power of a democracy is not just allowing representation of the minorities that live within it, but also the obligation to defend itself from those who wish to exploit the freedoms that it enables in order to destroy it," the ruling faction said in a statement.
42 - Little Man, Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life, Robert Lacey, Little Brown and Co., 1991, Pgs. 332-333
from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine