September 19, 2008
Forgetting sixth commandment
Jewish gangsters were once known in organized crime circles as the "Kosher Nostra."
Jewish history is largely one of derogation, often culminating in violence, both individual or mass, spontaneous or organized, local or continental, frequently lethal. In the face of this enduring adversity, it's no wonder Jews are proud of their accomplishments, which are many and impressive. Yet, along with every other people, Jews have always had their share of villains and thugs of which a sizeable contingent helped develop, maintain and expand organized crime.
Jews have been involved in prostitution, usurious money lending, money laundering, booze running (during Prohibition), illicit drug sales, illegal gambling, extortion and contract murders. The violence accompanying these criminal activities was rarely directed against law enforcement agents, some of whom were "on the take," mostly it was to eliminate competitors, punish tardy or defaulting gambling debtors as a warning to others and to terrorize reluctant "protection" – get money from clients by, for example, breaking their store windows.
Crime has always been a feature of human existence. Significantly, the first death in the Bible was a murder. Organized crime, depending on how it is defined, dates from the beginnings of civilization. Even chimpanzees engage in organized intra-tribal violence. To put things in perspective, over the centuries, chattel slavery, genocide, burning of witches and aggressive war were the worst expressions of organized violent crime, all performed by the state or with state sanction.
Organized crime can be defined as engaging in illicit activities for profit by more or less (usually less) enduring groups of several collaborators who plan the operation among themselves. Canada's experience with criminal gangs closely matches that of the United States. In the mid-19th century, the Irish, fleeing the potato famine, dominated organized criminal activity in New York and Montreal. Around the turn of the century, leadership went to the Jews fleeing czarist-organized pogroms and, only since the first third of the 20th century, did Italians become dominant.
The Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, differs from its predecessors by its perseverance and its scope, involving different countries, by sustaining a variety of enterprises in large urban areas, although it has lost considerable strength since the use of anti-racketeering legislation and witness-protection programs. Blacks and Hispanics usually have parallel but unintegrated criminal activities.
In 1908, New York City's head cop stated that half of the city's criminals were Jews. He may have been expressing a bias, but it seems he wasn't too far off. A century later, Jews have a much lower level of criminality, its most significant portion involving financial swindles, for example, those of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, both convicted in "junk bond" deals, yet regarded as "brilliant" by admirers who applauded Boesky outside the courthouse in which he was found guilty and sentenced.
Prohibition in the United States provided enormous opportunities on both sides of the border. Moe Dalitz was called "the first Jewish admiral" because his "navy" criss-crossed Lake Erie, bringing Canadian booze to thirsty Americans. In Canada, the Bronfman family benefited from cross-border bootlegging operations. After repeal, organized crime drifted into gambling and was heavily involved in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And, of course, the illegal drug market now involves enough money to be considered one of the biggest international businesses.
The list of notorious Jewish underworld figures includes thugs like Allen Dorfman, Phil Strauss, "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum, Harry Greenberg, Jake Guzik, "Dutch" Schultz, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro, Abe Reles, Mickey Cohen, Harold Konigsberg, Meyer Rosenberg, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Ruby Stein, Joseph Stacher, Harry Teitelbaum, Harry Greenberg, Louis Kravitz, Louis Strauss, Richard Wiseman, Abner Zwillman and, of course, Meyer Lansky, who, despite his diminutive physique, started as a "shtarker," a "muscle man," but abandoned the personal use of violence, operating as the chief "financial planner" for the mobs, especially with Lucky Luciano, with whom he had close and long-lasting personal ties. Some of them, like Cohen, were handsome, highly virile men who attracted more public admiration, especially from women, than condemnation. The attraction criminal life has for the general public is a real, on-going phenomenon that should be subjected to a serious analysis, especially by the entertainment industry, which responds to it and promotes it.
I grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the centre of what was then Murder, Inc., a gang of thugs, all Jews, who carried out contract killings of foremen plaguing their workers, union organizers, gamblers reluctant to pay off their debts and, although they allegedly avoided personally motivated killings, occasionally an unwanted spouse or a romance rival. One young man who lived on my block was killed because he didn't pay off his bookie after getting five broken fingers worth of notice. Everyone agreed he had it coming. How could bookies make a living if their clients could default on a bet?
Bookies typically had an "office" in a booth of a soda parlor/candy store that had two public coin-operated telephones. Since so few neighborhood people had phones, I used to earn money hanging around and fetching someone who was wanted on the phone, for which I got a nickel or a dime and lots of good exercise. Only one of the two public phones in the candy store could be used for this. If anyone tried to use the other, the bookie, whose phone connection with "the syndicate," rumored to be in New Jersey, was essential to his business, would leave his paperwork for a moment, reach over and push down the receiver. Nobody ever complained.
On my way to school once, I passed a garage in which a man had been killed with an ice pick. Everyone had an icebox so it was a convenient weapon. If the instrument penetrated the heart, each contraction would force blood into the pericardium, causing back pressure that would squeeze the heart to stop. It was all quite physiological and it all happened quickly.
As kids, we saw all of this, the murders, the gambling, the pimp, always with a pearl grey homburg, buying fancy lingerie for his "girls."
In 1935, the Chicago police listed Luciano and five Jews, including Luciano's close associate, Lansky, and four other Jews, as the "Big Six" of Chicago's crime syndicate. And, in 1963, a United States Senate subcommittee concluded that of the 29 leading mobsters in the "Chicago family," 14 were Jews.
Lansky, Siegel and others were instrumental in promoting the gaming industry into big business, starting with Saratoga Springs and going on to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. While Lansky was certainly a catalyst, once governments at all levels became aware of the revenue to be made from gambling, it became part of our licit culture.
One thing of which Lanksy was especially proud is that one of his sons graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Lansky always considered himself a patriot, as did other organized crime figures. On at least two occasions, they assisted the government during the Second World War. Once was in convincing New York's Italian fishermen community to help make observations about offshore enemy activity when German U-boats were exacting a terrible toll on U.S. shipping of men and material to Britain. The other time was in supplying information about connections in Sicily before the Anglo-American invasion of that island. The Mafiosi were very happy to see Mussolini go. He was their most implacable enemy, much more effective, using his dictatorial powers, than any postwar Italian government. But, of course, his state crimes vastly outdid anything the Mafia were equipped to do.
When Lansky, who had done small jail time and only once, was being seriously investigated, he sought refuge under the Law of Return in Israel, to which he had consistently made heavy financial contributions and was very disappointed when he was turned down. He died at the age of 83 in Florida, where he had been living in retirement for some time.
Eugene Kaellis is a retired academic living in New Westminster.