Spurred by a grass-roots alliance of local Jews, Latinos, labor unions and clergy, California’s state legislature is investigating the business dealings of Dr. Irving Moskowitz, a controversial sponsor of Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.
The probe, by the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee, will look into Moskowitz’s drive to start up a local casino seen by Jewish critics as a potential source of new revenues for his Jerusalem efforts. The casino’s financing, which includes government redevelopment funds, is being probed under the committee’s broad mandate to investigate reports of government corruption and waste.
The provisionally operating casino, for which Moskowitz is now seeking a permanent license, is located in Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny, low-income Latino enclave outside Long Beach.
A charitable bingo club Moskowitz now runs there has already channeled millions in tax-exempt funds to Orthodox settler groups in Jerusalem. The groups, such as Ateret Cohanim, are devoted to buying up properties in the city’s Arab sectors, evicting the Arab residents and moving in Jews. These projects have sparked bitter protests and occasional riots by Palestinians. The bingo club’s revenues also fund American groups critical of current Middle East peace efforts, such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Washington-based Center for Security Policy.
Moskowitz, who lives in Miami, is also funding a Jewish housing development in the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud from his own pocket. Both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have opposed the project, on which construction is nevertheless proceeding.
As a charitable enterprise, the bingo club’s earnings — about $30 million per year, gross — must be given only to groups that, like Ateret or ZOA, claim to be engaged in religious, educational or other charitable activities. But funds from the for-profit casino, which is expected to gross $100 million, can be used by Moskowitz, as he pleases.
Opponents of Moskowitz’s activities in Jerusalem cheered news of the probe, though its focus on Moskowitz’s California activities is unrelated to their cause.
“Dr. Moskowitz is undoubtedly the largest bankroller of settler efforts in Jerusalem today,” said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem attorney who has fought many settler projects in court. “So if monies from questionable sources in Hawaiian Gardens are being put to disreputable use here, that should be attacked from both ends.”
Groups supported by Moskowitz, however, dismissed such concerns as pious hypocrisy.
“I know of no left-wing organization that is concerned with the source of money contributed to it — not one,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “What is the source of the money Peace Now gets? I’d like to know.”
The powerful Joint Legislative Audit Committee is strictly focusing on the casino’s legality under California law. But sources close to the investigation say Moskowitz’s activities in Hawaiian Gardens were first brought to its attention by the Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem, an unusual coalition of local Jewish activists, Hawaiian Gardens residents and others who decry his role in both cities.
Alluding to documents brought to state probers by the coalition, a source close to the investigation said, “We understand there was something like $20 million in city redevelopment money that went into this gambling operation. If we were to confirm that was so, that would be a violation [of California law].”
Moskowitz’s Los Angeles-based attorney, Beryl Weiner, failed to return a phone call seeking comment. But if it finds a violation, the committee can direct the state auditor to probe Moskowitz’s casino. Any finding that Moskowitz violated public funding restrictions could force him to return the sums involved.
Anti-Moskowitz activists hope to use any such finding for their larger goal: convincing the state attorney general to deny Moskowitz a permanent casino license. The law grants the attorney general wide discretion to deny such licenses if he finds an applicant “unsuitable” for any reason.
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, coordinator of the Coalition for Justice, claims his group has a mailing list of about 800 and a “hard core of about 40 or 50 clergy” from various denominations who actively back it. One of its major funders is the Shefa Fund, which describes itself as devoted to supporting “Jewish involvement in economic and social justice” and “Middle East peace work in North America.”
Moskowitz’s activities in Hawaiian Gardens, a crime-ridden town beset with high poverty rates, have long generated controversy. But no government agency to date has charged any of his enterprises there with illegality.
His charitable bingo club, the largest in the state, was granted a license in 1988 by city officials who hoped its earnings would address local needs. But in most years, the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation, which operates the club, has given all but a small percentage of its disbursements to his Jewish and Israel-related causes.
Critics charge that Moskowitz wields control of the tax-exempt bingo money he does give to Hawaiian Gardens together with his considerable personal fortune to politically control the tiny town. In some years, Moskowitz Foundation donations to the city, though a small portion of its disbursements, funded more than half the municipal budget. Moskowitz has several times cut off this flow when displeased with city policies.
In 1993, Moskowitz persuaded city officials to acquire the new casino site for him by having the municipal redevelopment agency buy it for $5.5 million and selling it to him at half that price. Moskowitz told officials then that he planned to build a large shopping center there. But Hawaiian Gardens’ former Mayor Lupe Cabrera, told The Jewish Week, “That was a pretext. [We] always knew it was going to be a casino, even though no one would admit it.”
In 1995, Moskowitz spent nearly $600,000 of his personal money to fight off opponents of the casino and win a state-required referendum on it. That amounted to about $200 per vote in the tiny town. Moskowitz later funded successful recall campaigns against city council members who opposed him on the casino.
“The Orthodox rabbis in our group find this most painful, because they do believe that Zionism should conduct itself in an upstanding way,” said Rabbi Beliak, of the Coalition for Justice. “Moskowitz has blackened Zionism in their eyes.”