Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Meyer Lansky was a legendary organized crime leader who co-founded and headed the notorious “enforcement” syndicate “Murder, Inc.,” which emerged in the early 1930s as successor to the warring Prohibition gangs and the old-line mafia.

Known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” he was universally recognized as one of the most powerful men in the United States, as he played a major role in the development of the National Crime Syndicate. He also managed (and laundered) mafia funds, financed major endeavors, bribed and extorted authority figures and key individuals, and developed an international gambling empire. A member of both the Jewish and Italian mafias, he played a large role in the consolidation of the criminal underworld.

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Born Meyer Suchowljansky to a Polish Jewish family, Lansky (1902-83) attended cheder in his native Grodno as a child and carried the family’s cholent to the baker where it would be stored until the Shabbat afternoon meal. Suffering under the Russian pogroms, the Lansky family immigrated to America and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1911, where Meyer became childhood and lifelong friends with Benjamin (“Bugsy”) Siegel, with whom he later formed one of the most violent Prohibition gangs, and Charles (“Lucky”) Luciano, who first met Lansky while trying to extort “protection” money from him.

Lansky played an unsung and largely unknown role in stemming the spread of fascism in America during the rise of the Third Reich and in protecting America against Nazi stealth attacks, as he battled American Nazis and their sympathizers and used violence to disrupt the activities of the Nazi Bund and other Nazi groups.

In the 1930s, pro-Nazi groups – including Defenders of the Christian Faith, the Christian Front, the Silver Shirts, the Knights of the White Camelia, and the Friends of the New Germany (a.k.a. the “Nazi Bund”), the largest American anti-Semitic group, with some 20,000 members – began to proliferate in the United States. American Jews, who were intimidated by the groups’ parades and rallies in which they openly proclaimed their hate for Jews, were fearful that any defensive measures would stir up even greater anti-Semitism – a sad 2,000-year refrain the merits of which are best left for another day.

Determined to address this daunting problem, Nathan Perlman, a judge and former Republican congressman, asked Lansky to enlist the mob to intimidate Nazi supporters by any means necessary (except killing) in exchange for cash and some protections from the court system. Lansky readily agreed to become involved, but refused to take any money. He said, “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers.”

Lansky did, however, have one condition: His sensitivity to his own Judaism was such that while he was unconcerned with public opprobrium about his criminal gangster activities, he was deeply concerned about condemnation he might receive from the Jewish press for attacking the Nazis. As such, he asked Judge Perlman to do his best to protect him from criticism by the Jewish press.

When the press later reported critically on his anti-Nazi activities and Jewish leaders refused to defend him, Lansky furiously stated, “They wanted the Nazis taken care of but were afraid to do the job themselves. I did it for them. And when it was over, they called me a gangster. No one ever called me a gangster until Rabbi [Stephen] Wise and the Jewish leaders called me that.”

Lansky recruited Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen to send well-trained teams to bludgeon and bloody Bund speakers on the stage and beat up Bund event attendees, carefully keeping his promise that no one would be killed. He rejected his buddy Luciano’s offer to help, maintaining that it was a “Jewish fight” and said he “wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

Lansky and his associates achieved dramatic results in spreading fear amongst the Nazis; many suddenly became disinclined to attend Nazi rallies and demonstrations, the Bund virtually disappeared, and public pro-Nazi rallies essentially ceased.

During World War II, Lansky also played a key role in assisting the Office of Naval Intelligence’s Operation Underworld’s recruitment of criminals to guard against German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs. With the American government worried about Allied shipping vessels being sunk by German subs all along the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean coast, and with spies still regularly sabotaging chemical plants, railroad lines, and warships in New York Harbor, the U.S. Navy turned to Lansky because of his important connections to shipping and dock workers and unions.

Lansky successfully negotiated a deal pursuant to which the mafia would provide security for the warships being built along the New York docks in exchange for the government releasing Luciano from prison. (Luciano’s sentence was commuted by New York Governor Thomas Dewey, and he was deported to Italy.)

* * * * *

A lifelong Zionist who saw himself as a Biblical-like defender of the Jews, Lansky could not stand by and permit the country where his refugee grandparents were buried (his grandparents had fled Russia for Eretz Yisrael) to be destroyed by the Arabs. A passionate supporter of Jewish charities, including synagogues and an assortment of Jewish causes, he made significant financial contributions to the Yishuv and helped to arrange and finance gunrunning operations to the Haganah.

In 1946, Lansky ordered his men to help bring Holocaust survivors to Eretz Yisrael and facilitate the establishment of the Jewish state. Toward that end, he raised millions of dollars to purchase the ships that would bring the survivors to Eretz Yisrael, and transferred vast sums to arm, train, and equip the military.

At a time when the American government maintained an arms embargo against Israel but permitted arms shipments to Egypt, Lansky – with help from Albert Anastasia and Joe Adonis, who controlled the longshoremen’s union and the docks – helped Israeli agents conceal arms purchased for Israel and helped get illegal military hardware onto ships bound for Israel. At the same time, arms bound for the Arabs were “mysteriously” lost.

Since Israel’s founding, some leading Jewish-American mobsters, including Joseph (“Doc”) Stacher – who built up Las Vegas by pairing the Jewish and Italian mafias into a national organized crime syndicate – have sought to flee criminal prosecution by using Israel’s Law of Return (passed July 5, 1950), pursuant to which “every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant]” and gain Israeli citizenship.

When Lansky sought to employ that very tactic, Prime Minister Golda Meir, haunted by visions of “an army of Wise Guys at the Wailing Wall,” sought to prevent him from coming to Israel under an exception to the Law of Return that grants governmental discretion to exclude citizenship applicants with a criminal past.

Golda’s problem, however, was that Lansky was a brilliant criminal mastermind who was always one step ahead of the law. For example, to protect himself from the type of prosecution that had sent Al Capone to prison for tax evasion and prostitution, he transferred the illegal earnings from his growing casino empire to an anonymous Swiss bank account and purchased an offshore bank in Switzerland to launder money through a network of shell and holding companies.

Although he faced countless indictments and accusations of major crimes, and despite a half-century as a leading organized crime figure, Lansky was acquitted of every charge he ever faced, except one: a minor conviction for illegal gambling in 1950.

In this December 21, 1970 correspondence to his daughter, Sandra, and her husband, Vince Lombardo, Lansky notes arrangements for his personal financial records to support his petition to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and mentions payment to David Rosen, the attorney who would later represent him in his skimming and tax evasion trials:

I paid a check to [tax defense lawyer] David Rosen Dec. 15 $1000.00. I don’t think I have notified you about it. Did my last letter state 2 checks that I made out here one cash; the other for my bank in Tel-Aviv … Ben Messinger [a New York attorney] will be in Miami Dec. 28. Uncle Jack [Lansky’s brother] can inquire where he is staying. He will need my records: deposit slips; check book and cancelled checks. Don’t let him tear the pages out of the check book of my withdrawal – let him copy it. It is better for my records to have the check book in tack [sic] … You also inquire what a boat charges I want you to send me some things; I have plenty of time for the need so I may have you ship it by boat … It is important to see Messinger it will save you a lot of bother later.

Under investigation for tax evasion, Lansky fled in July 1970 to Herzliya Pituach in Israel, hoping to avoid prosecution. Seeking citizenship under the Law of Return, he wished to set his financial records straight back in Miami as this historic letter confirms.

After Israel’s Interior Minister, Yosef Burg, barred Lansky from obtaining Israeli citizenship, Lansky appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court, and a highly-publicized trial began on March 23, 1972, after Lansky had been in Israel on a tourist visa for almost two years. Asked by Justice Chaim Cohen if he considered Lansky’s criminality to be proven, government prosecutor Gavriel Bach stated that he would be satisfied with even “hearsay evidence” in Lansky’s case.

Without a shred of proof, Bach argued that Lansky was acquitted of all serious crimes only because law enforcement officials were allegedly under his influence and witnesses were afraid to testify, adding disingenuously that, although Lansky was never convicted, “evidence” built up over years of Senate hearings in the United States “proved” that Lansky was a prominent gangster.

Original newspaper photograph, March 30, 1972: “TIME OUT FOR LANSKY – Meyer Lansky, reputed American underworld figure, takes a break outside High Court of Israel in Jerusalem where he is appealing for permission to stay in the Jewish state as an immigrant. The Israeli government argues Lansky’s presence in Israel would “endanger public welfare.”

America had threatened to withhold much-needed Phantom jets from Israel unless it expelled Lansky, and Israel found it expedient to sacrifice an old friend. In a travesty of justice, the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously rejected Lansky’s petition on September 11, 1972 based upon his “reputation” as an elusive and dangerous mob kingpin, and ordered his extradition back to the United States.

After being denied entry to several countries, he returned to Miami in November 1972 and was immediately arrested aboard the plane. One consequence of this affair was that Lansky’s idea to turn Eilat into “the Las Vegas of the Middle East” was never developed.

Even after his deportation by Israel, Lansky continued his support for the Jewish state. In a December 20, 1972 correspondence, he wrote, “I was much disheartened when I read the article in our newspapers about the $10,000 reward for the Eichmann case. I wish I would have known about it. I would raise the money myself.” In a poignant August 20, 1973 letter, he wrote with respect to the Yom Kippur War:

Say what you may and blame whomever you want – you are a great people a heroic people. The World will never forget when History is written the Military Strategy this little Army has shown. Also the Military bravery of its men. We saw a picture on television of a group of prisoners with a Torah; that picture will never leave my mind.

Following the resolution of all his legal problems in his favor toward the end of 1974, Lansky renewed his efforts to settle in Israel, but not if doing so would harm the Jewish state:

I’m anxious to visit Israel but not on the strength of publicity. Publicity will not help my return. I also don’t have a desire to create any friction in Israel. Israel has enough problems without me. I also don’t intend to beg for permission to visit Israel. Regardless of what may be the outcome my second land is Israel, I would love to visit my friends again next year in Jerusalem.

Lansky never did get back to visit his beloved Israel, and he was buried at Mt. Nebo, an Orthodox cemetery in West Miami.

To be clear, it is not my intent here to laud Lansky, who was a brutal thug who committed atrocious acts during his long life of crime. However, I do believe that it is important to recognize his generally unknown contributions to the Jewish people and the Jewish state, particularly because Israel understandably sought to suppress them lest its early history be tainted by an association with criminals. Indeed, anti-Semites continue to falsify history by alleging that “mobsters built Israel.”

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.
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