An October 29 shooting attack at a Los Angeles synagogue, initially thought to be a hate crime or terrorist attack, is in fact being investigated by L.A. police as an Israeli organized crime hit.
The Jerusalem Post broke the story on December 1, but inexplicably buried the lede in the middle of a feature-y interview with a visiting LAPD official, headlined “LAPD official: Israeli organized crime on the rise.” The official, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, in Israel for a conference on policing methods, said the department’s intelligence bureau suspected Israeli mobsters within hours after the event because of certain tell-tale signs — particularly the fact that the gunman shot his two victims in the kneecaps. Kneecapping is commonly employed by gangsters as “a severe warning,” Downing told the Post.
The Los Angeles Times, which picked up the story on December 2, reported that the attack took place just before morning services in the parking garage of Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Synagogue in North Hollywood. The two victims were taken the hospital, but nobody ended up in the morgue this time.
In a follow-up story the next day, the Times explained that Israeli organized crime “has operated in Los Angeles” since the mid-1990s, “with the growth of the Ecstasy drug trade.”
It’s a pity the Times reporters didn’t spend more time in their own newspaper’s morgue. They would have learned that Los Angeles is Ground Zero of Israeli organized crime in America, the place where the so-called Israeli mafia first entered the public eye — not the 1990s, but in 1979.
In October 1979, almost exactly 30 years before the Adat Yeshurun shooting, Los Angeles was riveted by news of a spectacular double-murder at the posh Bonaventure Hotel. Two Israeli nationals were murdered there by two other Israelis, apparently in a cocaine deal gone bad. The crime was discovered the next morning when the victims’ dismembered body parts began showing up in plastic garbage bags stuffed into trash cans around the San Fernando Valley. A bloody hotel towel stuffed in with the remains led police to the hotel room. The perpetrators were identified and arrested within two weeks when police found a pair of bloody jeans in one of the bags, discarded by a perp who apparently forgot that his clothes carried a laundry mark spelling out his name.
The investigation uncovered a gang of Israeli émigrés, calling themselves the Israeli Mafia, who specialized in drugs and extorting and terrorizing local Israeli-owned electronics stores. Police told the media that the killers were just local thugs, not part of any larger criminal organization. In fact, however, the U.S. Justice Department was in the process of setting up a task force that would include the LAPD and a dozen other federal, state and local agencies in at least four states to investigate what they believed was a nationwide network with international links.
In 1981, when I was working as a reporter in Los Angeles, a task force investigator agreed to meet me and tell the story and show me documents. He said the task force had been disbanded months earlier at the insistence of the State Department, under pressure from the Israeli government. The task force had uncovered a network of Israeli émigré gangs operating in California, New York, Arizona and Texas. In addition to drug-dealing and extortion, they were said to be involved in major international drug smuggling and massive credit card fraud.
A private investigator tracking the Israeli gangs for insurance companies told me that they were part of a loose network of Israeli criminals operating in Europe and South America as well as the United States. The network was an inadvertent side-effect of the Six-Day War of 1967, he said: As Israel’s prisons started filling up with Palestinian terrorists, common criminals were offered early release on condition that they leave the country and not come back. The private eye believed, though he couldn’t prove it, that the various mobs were coordinated by a “spider” who sat in Tel Aviv or Holon and spun his webs.
In three decades since the Bonaventure killings, Israeli gangs have surfaced periodically in legal documents and news reports like this and this about the 1980s, this and this about the 1990s, and this and this about the 2000s. What they have in common is the repeat cast of criminals and their constant shuttling between America and Israel. One day they’re in Netanya, the next day in Brooklyn and the day after, or so it appears, in North Hollywood.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).