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Holy Land Gangland

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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An Israeli policeman carries a blood-stained stretcher through the scene of an explosion in a foreign currency exchange shop December 11, 2003 in Tel Aviv, Israel. At least two people were killed and twelve were injured in the blast which police believe to be an attempt on the life of Israeli criminal boss Zeev Rosenstein. (Getty Images)

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

“See how it is now?” Ilan Benshoshan said.  “Since all the assassinations started, every young mob guy goes everywhere with two bodyguards.”

We were just off Rehov Etzel, the main avenue of Tel Aviv’s notorious slum, Shchunat Hatikvah, inching our rented Mazda down a narrow lane to the entrance of a secret loansharking office run by Yossi, one of Ilan’s childhood friends.  A late-model SUV was parked out front, and from the front seat, two granite-jawed recent IDF vets in sports jackets—Yossi’s security detail—locked eyes with us.

The son of Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish immigrants, Ilan grew up on the streets of Shchunat Hatikvah (literally “the Quarter of Hope”), long a breeding ground for Israel’s toughest mob bosses, bullet-scarred loansharks, drug-dealers, and junkies. And though he has lived in New York for over a decade, many of Ilan’s childhood friends stayed in Tel Aviv, rising through the criminal hierarchy to positions of power in the rackets. Ilan himself scrapped his way out of the hood, becoming an expert kickboxer. For a week now, he has been acting as my translator, driver, and hypercaffeinated guide to the deadly precincts of Israel’s underworld, often invisible to outsider eyes.

Ilan was raised in poverty on Etzel Street, the pulsing artery of Israel’s gangster territory, where his mother ran a brothel located a stone’s throw from the popular steakhouse where Yehezkel Aslan, the most infamous Israeli mob boss of the 1970s and 1980s, regularly held court at a sidewalk table. Aslan, an Iraqi Jew, had a face you couldn’t forget:  He’d been shot nine times in an assassination attempt, and his mouth and jaw were badly deformed from the bullets.  After relocating his family to the more affluent northern suburbs of Tel Aviv, Aslan was gunned down for keeps in 1993, reportedly at the order of his archrival, the rising mob kingpin Ze’ev Rosenstein. A Robin Hood figure of sorts, Aslan balanced crime with charity, funding a local soccer team and helping many of the neighborhood’s poorest residents. His funeral, Ilan remembered, was like nothing before or since, with ordinary people and politicians, mob bosses and movie stars all paying their respects. To many of Hatikvah’s old timers, Aslan is still remembered as the prototypical Godfather.

The difference between the old days and now is striking.  “Aslan, if he had a problem with you, trust me, he will deal with it himself.  Ya’akov Alperon, Nissim Alperon, Arye Alperon—” Ilan said, referring to another renowned crime family, whose surname rhymes with “Capone”— “any of the Alperonim have a problem with you, it’s an Alperon who is going to handle it.” But as the two armed bodyguards standing watch in front of Yossi’s office showed, the days of hands-on problem-solving are long gone. Paranoia and itchy trigger fingers reign in the Quarter of Hope; Hatikvah is an urban battlefield where hired muscle lurks in the shadows, waiting for anyone to make a false move.

We parked the car and walked up to the building. The bodyguards took a closer look at Ilan, and nodded their heads, recognizing him and letting us through. A buzzer sounded and we entered the little first floor office. Yossi, a tall, thin, 30-year-old in Nike Air Max, gave Ilan a smothering hug.  They exchanged kisses on the cheek. I settled for a handshake. The Mizrahi—Israelis who, like Ilan and Yossi, hail from Arab countries—are famous for their hospitality to strangers, and as I sat on the sofa, I was constantly offered various Moroccan pastries, cups of espresso, and cigarettes. I noticed several chamsahs hanging on the walls—the upside-down hand, an ancient amulet against the evil eye, meant to represent the hand of the Almighty.  On one silver chamsah, I read the Birchat Ha-Esek, the Hebrew religious blessing for the success of a business. On the table was a small blue charity box with a picture of the Baba Sali, one of the most revered of the Sephardic rabbis.

Glaring in the background were the monitors of a closed-circuit surveillance system, showing four different camera angles on the approach to the office. We sipped espresso, and every few minutes a new face would be buzzed inside, his hand full of shekel notes. The loansharking system in Israel, Ilan explained, was different than in the United States. Here, debtors were expected to come every single day to make their payments, which usually had a 30 percent interest tacked on. During each exchange, Yossi’s older brother would take out an index card and neatly use a yellow highlighter to record the daily payment. Once or twice he meticulously dabbed Liquid Paper on one of the debt cards. When one middle-aged guy came in to pay his final loan installment, Yossi gave a congratulatory nod and tore the index card to shreds.

Most of the debtors, Ilan explained, weren’t the sorts of degenerate gamblers you hear about getting in hock to Mob loansharks in America.  These were all regular working-class Israelis, struggling to make ends meet, And for the working poor in neighborhoods like Hatikvah and Givat Shmuel, these are among the toughest economic times in recent memory.

As the economic opportunities contract—this year, according to Israel’s Central Bank, marked the country’s worst recession in its 61-year history—and as more and more of the market in this formerly socialist country is privatized, Israel’s underworld, once a dangerous if quaint West Side Story-like demimonde governed by its own code of honor, has rapidly morphed into a hellish landscape, similar to the blood-soaked world of the Camorra and Sicilian Mafia as rendered in the book Excellent Cadavers and the film Gomorra.

As long as the mobsters stuck to that age-old social contract to keep homicide within the mishpochah, the mob killings of the Holy Land generated considerable tabloid sensation but little public condemnation.  Bosses like Yehezkel Aslan were known more for their patronage and protection and, among the general public, inspired more awe than terror.

Today’s breed of Israeli mobsters, however, are far more violent, ruthless, and young—many still in their 20s and early 30s.   Obeying none of the boundaries of the older generation and harboring few qualms about killing innocent bystanders, the new crime tycoons are making many Israelis feel an acute sense of crisis and insecurity, as if the country is being swept by a wave of organized crime.

This is no baseless paranoia. The news in recent years has been filled with the Israeli gangsters’ escalating violence. Scores of brazen daylight bombings.  Hired assassins smuggled into Israel from Belarus.  A judge shot dead point-blank outside his home by a gunman who escaped on a motorcycle.  A 31-year-old social worker gunned down in front of her horrified husband and young children on a busy strip of Tel Aviv beachfront in a botched mob hit attempt.

Given this climate of violence, it’s no wonder that Yossi seemed jumpy, eager for us to leave his office.  “Will I see you at the gym later?” Yossi asked Ilan, standing, carefully adjusting the drape of his gold chain.  Kickboxing gyms are the hang-out—and stress-reliever—of choice among the young mobsters.  “Yes, we’ll train,” Ilan said.  But Yossi hardly seemed in a mood to wrap his hands and spar.  Throwing back the dregs of another espresso, he glanced at the closed-circuit screens with unmistakable anxiety.   I wasn’t sure if he feared a raid from the cops or an assassination attempt from a rival gangster crew.

Shadows flickered, but the only movement out in the lane was the stray cats leaping up on white and tan concrete walls, as nimble as squirrels in Central Park.  Through the black-and-white TV images, I read the spray-paint scrawl that said, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab”—the Mizrahi, with their roots in Arabic countries, tend to be among the most hawkish members of Israeli society—and posters urging Jews to follow the teachings of various ultra-Orthodox rabbis.  And another piece of spray-painted graffito.  “Mahvet L’Masheneem,” or, “Death to the Snitches.”  These days in Hatikvah, that Hebrew rendition of the code of omerta might serve as the underworld’s unofficial slogan.

Tomorrow: Part II of Holy Land Gangland: The Economic Logic of Violent Crime

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Holy Land Gangland

A Tablet investigative series looks inside the world of the Israeli mafia

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