Bingo! One Man’s Battle to Buy Up Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The Forward, March 25, 1994

NEW YORK — Many men have conquered Jerusalem — Saladin, Allenby, Dayan — but Irving Moskowitz is the first to defend his campaign in the language of the American civil rights movement — and the first to finance his conquest in part by operating a bingo parlor.

A physician and real estate developer whose charitable foundation owns one of California’s largest bingo operations, Dr. Moskowitz is emerging as the linchpin of the increasingly desperate effort by right-wing Jews to buy up property in Arab-dominated East Jerusalem in advance of peace talks. Sources here and in Israel say that Dr. Moskowitz is the prime bankroller of such far-right yeshivas as Ateret Cohanim and Beit Orot, which are snapping up Arab-owned buildings at a rate that has frightened Yasser Arafat and spooked the Israeli government and its American Jewish allies. Sources say money earned at the Los Angeles-area bingo parlor owned by the Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation is funneled to Israel through the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a support group based in New York. Dr. Moskowitz could not be reached for comment, despite efforts of intermediaries to locate him. Messages left in Miami, where he now lives, went unanswered and one colleague said that Dr. Moskowitz is now in Israel.

‘Facts on the Ground’

The goal of Dr. Moskowitz and his allies — who include Ariel Sharon, the former hard-line Likud housing minister — is nothing less than the “Judaization” of all Jerusalem, and their impact on the future of the Middle East cannot be minimized. Dr. Moskowitz’s plan is to place, in the language of pioneer Zionism, so many “facts on the ground” — Jewish settlers in Arab areas of Jerusalem — that the Labor government would find it impossible to offer even the most limited form of autonomy to the city’s Arab residents.

“He is the patron saint of the East Jerusalem settler movement, no doubt about it,” said Danny Seidemann, a Jerusalem-based attorney for Peace Now, a left-wing group, who has fought Dr. Moskowitz’s land purchases in court.

Until its defeat in 1992, the Likud government joined private donors such as Dr. Moskowitz in abetting the goal of the rightists, secretly channeling at least 10 million to Ateret Cohanim and other groups to help them buy buildings in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter and other exclusively Arab areas. But with the Labor Party’s ascent, the secret pipeline was exposed and shut down, forcing the groups to seek financing almost solely from wealthy Diaspora Jews. According to several prominent Jewish activists in the Miami area, Dr. Moskowitz, an observant Jew, makes no bones about his support for the yeshivas. During at least two fund-raising meetings in Miami, observers heard Dr. Moskowitz compare the joy other wealthy men receive from buying Rembrandts to the pleasure he gets from buying land in Jerusalem.

Peace Now recently handed Dr. Moskowitz one of his few defeats, when the Israeli Supreme Court last week canceled his purchase of land in Abu Dis, an Arab village within the Jerusalem city limits. Peace Now argued that the land was purposefully undervalued by government agents in order to ease its purchase by Jews. Dr. Moskowitz is said to be appealing the ruling.

Mr. Seidemann said the Hebron massacre has given the Israeli left renewed energy to fight the placement of hard-core rightists in Arab neighborhoods. “Now that the government is thinking of closing Beit Hadassah a Jewish enclave in Hebron, is this the time to be planting new Beit Hadassahs in Jerusalem?”

Question of Rights?

Though he has lost, for the moment at least, the land in Abu Dis, Dr. Moskowitz has had some notable successes in other parts of the holy city. Sources in right-of-center Zionist groups here say that Dr. Moskowitz’s money helped finance the controversial 1990 Ateret Cohanim takeover of the St. John’s Hospice near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and they said his support was crucial in the purchase by the settler group El Ad of houses in Silwan, an Arab village just outside the Old City walls. Last year, Dr. Moskowitz purchased land in the Arab neighborhood of A-Tor on the Mount of Olives, which he handed over to the Beit Orot yeshiva. The yeshiva wants to build a Jewish neighborhood there.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post in 1990, Dr. Moskowitz stated that “the idea of segregated quarters, or neighborhoods, is unacceptable in the United States and in all democracies. It should be unacceptable in Jerusalem….Those who champion the rights of blacks to live in all parts of Johannesburg but denounce Jews for wanting to live in all parts of Jerusalem are decades behind the times.”

Arabs Are Banned

Though he speaks in the language of the civil rights movement, Dr. Moskowitz’s writings do not generally take one fact into consideration — that Arabs, by Israeli Supreme Court edict, are not allowed to buy property in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter; nor can they buy land owned by the Jewish National Fund. Dr. Moskowitz’s critics on the left say that even if Arabs were not barred from buying in the Jewish Quarter, they would still face significant, government-inspired, financial hurdles.

“The massive amount of public funding the settlers receive is completely disproportionate to their housing needs,” Mr. Seidemann said.

It is unclear just how much money Dr. Moskowitz has given to the cause. His friends say he is a multi-millionaire, having turned a series of savvy investments in for-profit hospital corporations into a real estate empire in California, where he lived before relocating to Miami. According to the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Moskowitz opened his foundation’s bingo parlor in 1988 in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawaiian Gardens. A city official in Hawaiian Gardens said she did not know how much money the 600-seat parlor, known as the Bingo Club, earned last year, but a 1988 Times story said that the group that owned the club before the Moskowitz Foundation took in about 2 million monthly.

“He’s given just mind-boggling amounts for land, in the millions,” says Manfred Lehmann, a Moskowitz ally who is chairman of the World Committee for Israel, a new group formed to oppose the Middle East peace process. “He’s very much opposed to the Bolsheviks,” he said, using Likud shorthand for Israel’s current Labor government.

Another member of the close-knit network of religious nationalists in America, Shani Hikind, the executive director of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, said Dr. Moskowitz’s foundation is a significant supporter of her group, but she refused to discuss the extent of Dr. Moskowitz’s financial help. Mrs. Hikind, who is married to Dov Hikind, the Brooklyn state assemblyman who is perhaps the best-known leader of the pro-settler camp in the American Jewish community, said that her group funds Ateret Cohanim’s school operation and also subsidizes the renovation of buildings the yeshiva buys in the Old City.

Ateret Cohanim, which translates as “the priestly crown,” was founded in the late-1970s in part to teach the Temple rituals to Cohanim, or priests. The yeshiva hopes to speed the redemption, experts say, by turning Jerusalem into an all-Jewish city through the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, its real estate branch.

Buying up East Jerusalem is not Dr. Moskowitz’s only passion. He is sometimes-columnist for The Jewish Press, a weekly far-right newspaper in New York, and he underwrote the publication of two volumes of Dead Sea scrolls brought out by Hershel Shanks, the publisher of Moment and Biblical Archeology Review. Even this project, though, had its roots in Dr. Moskowitz’s belief in Jewish control of the biblical land of Israel. He told The Washington Post two years ago that he helped Mr. Shanks because the scrolls “established in my mind the Jewish claim to the West Bank. It provides proof that we were there first and reinforces our legitimate right to Judea.”