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Insider Led Agents to Rabbis, Pols

All it took was one man, officials say

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Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra, Jr., and Weysan Dun, FBI special agent in charge in Newark, at today’s news conference.(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

FBI agents this morning raided 54 homes and offices in New Jersey and New York and arrested a total of 44 people, including five Syrian Jewish rabbis, three mayors, a state assemblyman, and an array of other political officials and people from the Syrian and ultra-Orthodox communities on an array of charges ranging from extortion and bribery of public officials to money laundering and, in one grisly instance, conspiracy to traffic in human organs—specifically, a kidney.

The arrests, which the FBI characterized as part of a decade-long investigation into political corruption in New Jersey, grew out of what appears to be intense cooperation between investigators and one man: Solomon Dwek, a real-estate developer and scion of a prominent Syrian Jewish family in Monmouth County who was arrested in May 2006 on suspicion of trying to swindle $50 million from PNC Bank in a check-kiting scheme.

Dwek—referred to in court documents as a “cooperating witness”—first led investigators to members of his own community, including Saul Kassin, the 87-year-old head of the tight-knit Syrian community and chief rabbi of Shaare Zion, the largest Syrian congregation, and Eliahu Ben Haim, the principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob, in Deal, New Jersey, before moving on to political figures. (A message left with an Ohel Yaacob administrator was not returned; a woman who answered at the Deal Yeshiva, which was also raided, told this reporter “never to call again.”)

According to a criminal complaint, Dwek, working with undercover agents, laundered $3 million through various synagogue-affiliated charities with help from the rabbis, who would accept checks and then would arrange for “clean checks” or cash to be made available, sometimes via wire transfers from Israel, sometimes via a Swiss bank, for cuts of five or 10 percent. At the same time, Dwek led investigators to a source in Brooklyn who allegedly agreed to broker a deal for a kidney from an Israeli, for $160,000.

At that point, with Dwek having proven so useful to investigators targeting the Syrian Jewish community, the FBI and IRS apparently decided to go for broke: rather than stopping with the money laundering claims, they co-opted Dwek into a decade-long probe against New Jersey’s legendarily corrupt political swamp. An official, speaking at today’s press conference, praised Dwek’s efficiency: “One person was able to deal with these people throughout New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York.”

Rabbis Charged with Illegally Laundering $3M [Asbury Park Press]

9 Complaints Alleging Money Laundering Released
[Asbury Park Press]
Mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, Several Rabbis Arrested [Bloomberg]
Previously: Rabbis Arrested in N.J. Corruption Probe

Romanian Compares Israeli MDs to Nazis

Doctors bought human eggs from minors

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First, the mayor of Constanta, Romania’s largest port city, dressed up in a Nazi uniform and goose-stepped in a fashion show (he apologized yesterday). Later this week, a more complicated train of events also gave rise to concerns of anti-Semitism in this Eastern European country. On Monday, Romanian police raided a Bucharest fertility clinic and arrested 30 Israeli-born employees, including the father-and-son owners; allegedly, the clinic paid women, including some minors, to donate eggs. (The owners deny the charges.) On Tuesday, the head of Romania’s Medical Council likened the doctors, who, he said, “bought body parts from poor, vulnerable people,” to the infamous medical experimenters of Auschwitz. This in turn prompted a rebuke from the World Medical Association’s president—who happens to be Israeli—for the inapt and impolitic comparison. While the reductio ad Hitlerum is no doubt a bit much, Haaretz reports that anti-Semitism is likely not at work—actually, there remain several Israeli-run fertility clinics that harvest ova in Bucharest. The president of Romania’s Jewish community explained that the father-and-son owners were conspicuous consumers: “This and other signs of richness create envy and people react negatively.” Not that Dr. Mengele is notorious for his great wealth. Still—call us crazy—we are finding it difficult to get all that agitated in defense of people who allegedly harvested eggs from underage girls.

Fertility Clinic Suspects’ Homes Raided [JPost]
Is Romania Human Egg Scandal A Case of Anti-Semitism? [Haaretz]

Writer’s Heirs Duke It Out

Ferenc Molnar was a Hungarian Jewish novelist

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Ferenc Molnar, a Hungarian Jew, was one of his country’s “great literary figures through the first half of the 20th century,” according to today’s New York Times, and in the 1920s he and his actress-wife partied with the Gershwins and Vanderbilts on a trip. Yet the fog that descended over Eastern European Jews in the 1930s—when Molnar and his wife fled Hungary for the United States—did a number on his legacy here, where his work survives in large part only through the musical Carousel, which was adapted from one of his novels. That fog has blurred his familial legacy, too, leading to a battle between two of his alleged heirs over almost a quarter of a million dollars in Holocaust restitution money.

First reported a few weeks ago by the Forward, the battle pits a woman claiming to be the great-granddaughter of Molnar’s half-brother (got all that?), who has actually received the money, some $225,000, against Molnar’s great-grandson, an official heir who receives royalty checks from Molnar’s estate each year. He had never heard of her; she claims, pricelessly, that her side of the family cut ties with Molnar’s after her grandparents were received by Molnar’s wife in her dressing-room in the nude. (Quelle horreur!)

But forget the he said/she said. The real service Molnar’s heirs will have done for their ancestor, and for the rest of us, will be if the publicity their squabbling attracts prompts a rediscovery of this great, lost artist.

A Posthumous Dispute Over a Writer’s Legacy [NYT]
Franz Molnar’s Heirs Fight Over His Bank Account, And Their Identity [Forward]

Specter Tied in Senate Poll

For this he changed parties?

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Specter questioning Sonia Sotomayor last week.(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Senator Arlen Specter stopped being the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, and instead become the umpteenth Jewish Democrat in the U.S. Senate, in a somewhat desperate bid to hold on to his Pennsylvania seat. (He was pretty sure to lose a Republican primary challenge from the right.) Well, it doesn’t look like the gambit is working. In early may, the 79-year-old incumbent held as 53-33 lead over that conservative challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey. According to a Quinnipiac poll yesterday, that lead is down to 45-44.

Today on Tablet

Boris Pasternak, funky sweaters, Jewish-Cuban fusion

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On Tablet Magazine today, literature-in-translation columnist Joshua Cohen discusses Russian author Boris Pasternak and his recently republished autobiography, Safe Conduct. Hadara Graubart spotlights Lisa Anne Auerbach, a California-based artist who knits sweaters that display provocative messages. (There’s even a slideshow.) “Havana Negila”, this week’s offering from music columnist Alex Gelfand, celebrates Jewish-Cuban fusion, including the albums Timba Talmud and Oy Vey! Ole!. From Latvia to Brooklyn to riches: Jeannie Rosenfeld relates the life of Joseph Hirshhorn, the art mogul who gave his name to the Smithsonian Institute’s contemporary art museum. Finally, don’t forget to check The Scroll all day.

Rabbis Arrested in N.J. Corruption Probe

UPDATED: Jersey Shore synagogue, yeshiva searched

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FBI agents seize documents at a Deal yeshiva.(NJ.com)

FBI agents arrested several rabbis this morning in New Jersey and New York as part of an investigation into what the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark, N.J., described as a “high-volume, international” money-laundering conspiracy. The mayors of Hoboken and Secaucus, N.J., a state assemblyman, and the deputy mayor of Jersey City were also arrested as a result of a public-corruption probe. The Newark Star-Ledger is reporting the rabbis came from Syrian Jewish communities in Deal, N.J., a shore town popular with wealthy Syrian Jews, and Brooklyn. At least one synagogue and one yeshiva, both in Deal, were searched this morning by FBI agents. An FBI spokesman tells Tablet the 30 people arrested, including the rabbis, are expected to appear in a Newark federal court this afternoon.

The New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office was headed until last winter by Christopher Christie, a Republican known for aggressive investigations of public corruption who is currently running for governor against the incumbent Democrat, Jon Corzine. A poll released yesterday puts Christie ahead by 15 percentage points.

UPDATE, 12:45 p.m.: The Newark Star-Ledger is reporting that this morning’s sweep began with an investigation into money transfers by members of the Syrian Jewish community in New York and New Jersey to public officials in connection with real-estate transactions.

According to a criminal complaint filed this morning, a cooperating witness helped FBI investigators capture Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano offering to help ease zoning restrictions in exchange for campaign cash. The Asbury Park Press identifies the witness as Solomon Dwek, a once-prominent member of the Syrian community in Deal, New Jersey, who was arrested in 2006 after bouncing a $25 million check. A message left seeking comment from Dwek’s attorney, Christopher Porrino, was not immediately returned.

A separate complaint filed in the case of Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, a Republican, alleges the lawmaker offered a cooperating witness assistance securing coastal development permits in exchange for money, and mentioned a prospective congressional run. It is not clear whether that witness is the same person mentioned in the Cammarano complaint.

The Asbury Park Press and the Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources, are also reporting that the case also involves allegations of trafficking in human body parts and that one of those arrested is an organ dealer.

This morning’s sweep included arrests in the Williamsburg, Flatbush, and Borough Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The Yeshiva World News is reporting that there will be a public gathering in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood to recite prayers on behalf of all those arrested; Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, told Tablet that anyone picked up in New York will be taken to New Jersey, where the case is being prosecuted.

N.J. corruption arrests ensnare Assemblyman, mayors, rabbis [Star-Ledger]
FBI: Van Pelt Took $10,000 Bribe for Waretown Development [Asbury Park Press]
Dozens Arrested in New Jersey Corruption Probe [WSJ]

Daybreak: Israel’s Obama Housing Bubble

Settlements, U.S. Gen. Schwartz, and more in the news

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• Some are crediting President Obama’s call for a settlement freeze for the recent boom in housing prices in the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim. [Arutz Sheva]
• Did you know that the commander of the U.S. Air Force is Jewish? And guess in which Middle East ally Gen. Norton A. Schwartz is holding talks this week. [JPost]
• The mayor of Constanta, Romania—the guy who dressed up like a Nazi and goose-stepped in a fashion show—apologized. “I do not share the Nazi ideology,” he said. “On the contrary I appreciate those who wanted to assassinate the mad dictator.” He added he’s been to Israel three times (no word on whether he has many Jewish friends). [ynet]
• And: we’re No. 1! In an overtime thriller, the U.S. basketball squad defeated Israel to snatch first place in the Maccabiah Games. [Haaretz]

Sundown: Soros on Settlers

Lobbying for lobbying, hot dogs, and more

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• George Soros’s International Crisis Group published a report on Israel’s religious right, acknowledging its “deep roots” but calling for the settlements it backs to be “reined in”. (The report notes that the 10 percent of Israelis, but 20 percent of Israeli first graders, are ultra-Orthodox.) [Arutz Sheva]
• Israeli rabbis, including the Chief Sephardic Rabbi, asked prominent American rabbis and Jewish leaders to “make use of your political power to lobby the American authorities” to support settlements. [Haaretz]
• Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, talks Zionism and the Diaspora with Jeffrey Goldberg. [The Atlantic]
• Quentin Tarantino will visit Israel in September to promote the release of his Inglorious Basterds. The movie is about Jewish-American soldiers who kill lots and lots and lots and lots of Nazis, and don’t even clean up afterward. [Haaretz]
• A vegan advocacy group called Cancer Project is suing Nathan’s Famous and Hebrew National, among other hot-dog makers, to get them to slap a cancer warning on their product. Given what we already do know about hot dogs, would that even dent sales? [AP]

Military Org. Loves Rep. Klein!

Boca congressman gets event rescheduled

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Klein campaign for his Congressional seat with Bill Clinton.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It looks like the White House Commission on Remembrance, when planning 2009’s National Weekend of Remembrance, forgot to remember the High Holy Days. The annual weekend for military families to commemorate lost loved ones was scheduled for September 18-20 … and September 19th is Rosh Hashanah. Ooops. Fortunately, a statement we got from Families United For Our Troops and Their Mission, which represents military families (of all religions!), says a schedule change is forthcoming, for which, it adds, we can thank Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fl.), who represents the good people of Boca Raton and who calmly and nicely made his displeasure over the scheduling snafu known. Certainly Families United is thankful! The group is now “making every effort to accommodate every Gold Star family, from every faith”—see, not just Jews!—including “working with airlines and travel partners to ensure that families are not forced to pay a penalty for this oversight.” And all this, “in spite of” the fact that the event date “was in place long before Families United ever became involved.” Yes sirree, Ron Klein just made himself a new best friend in Families United!

Congressman Ron Klein: War remembrance conflicts with Rosh Hashanah [South Florida Sun Sentinel]
Lawmakers seek date change for remembrance weekend [JTA]

Israel TV Ad Fight Continues, with Tear Gas!

Latest response to cell-phone ad mocks IDF

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First came the controversial Cellcom ad featuring happy IDF soldiers gamely kicking around a soccer ball with unseen Palestinians on the far side of the West Bank wall. Then some Israeli filmmakers popped up, pointing out that they’d made a very similar short film a few years earlier, except with volleyball instead of soccer (and, well, designed to criticize the wall, not make light of it to sell mobile minutes). Now there’s a third video, posted to YouTube. Titled “A response to Israeli Cellcom advert,” it shows multiple real-life instances of Palestinians kicking a soccer ball over the fence—to which Israeli soldiers respond not with a return punt, as in the Cellcom ad, but with tear-gas canisters. The new video’s authenticity is unconfirmed, and it doesn’t entirely present the soldiers as the bad guys: it is understandable that these young people on the front lines would not mess around when the other side is launching objects at them, even apparent soccer balls. But as for Cellcom, it’s probably time to admit a mistake.

Soccer game or tear gas? Palestinians put controversial ad to test [Haaretz]
Previously: Bridge the Security Fence
Controversial Israeli TV Ad Now More Controversial

The ‘Nakba’ Catastrophe

Israel bans an Arab word, unwisely

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Israel’s Education Ministry decided today to ban the word “nakba” from school textbooks. Arabic for “catastrophe,” this controversial term, used by most Arabs to describe the eviction or flight of Palestinians in 1948, has been judged “propaganda” by the Netanyahu government and, as such, a threat to national security. “It is inconceivable that in Israel we would talk about the establishment of the state as a catastrophe,” explained Yisrael Twito, an Education Ministry spokesman, according to Reuters. Well, sure. But couldn’t it also make sense, even from a conservative-patriotic point of view, to instruct children on how others view the establishment of the state? Banning speech is always illiberal, but in this case, it’s also self-defeating for Israel’s right-wing. It’ll make it that much harder for Western defenders to contrast the virtues of a Middle Eastern democracy against so many despotic Arab regimes.

Israel Bans ‘Catastrophe’ Term From Arab Schools [Reuters]

Haim Saban Sued for Millions

By imprisoned, impassioned tax lawyer

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Haim Saban in 2005.(Jan Pitman/Getty Images)

If you’re going to sue one of the richest, most politically connected men in Hollywood, it’s probably a pretty good idea to do it as flamboyantly as possible, so that you get as much attention as you can before the mogul’s machine is inevitably mobilized to crush you and your wild claims. So far, the plan is working for beleaguered tax attorney Matthew Krane, who is currently sitting in a jail cell in Los Angeles awaiting trial on identity-theft and passport-fraud charges. He filed a complaint yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court against entertainment mogul Haim Saban, and his wife, Cheryl, asserting his right to $36 million sitting in an Austrian bank account that the couple either paid him as a fee or a kickback, depending on who you’re asking. (Krane, who was indicted last month in a Seattle tax evasion case based on his work devising offshore shelters for the $1.5 billion Saban made from the 2001 sale of Fox Family Worldwide, asserts the $36 million was just compensation; the Sabans have sued in Austria to get the money back, since the shelter was ultimately declared illegal.) This new suit accuses Saban—an Egyptian-born Israeli who is friendly with Shimon Peres and is the Democratic Party’s biggest individual donor, and who was recently caught up in a small scandale over Rep. Jane Harman’s alleged offer to lobby on behalf of AIPAC in exchange for Saban’s help getting her a committee chairmanship—of, basically, being a sharp-witted, politically connected, tax-avoiding billionaire who uses his power to his advantage. And it does so in lovely prose. It opens with:

Most Americans pay their income taxes as fair consideration for the privileges citizenship confers. Defendant Haim Saban is not one of them. Despite being one of the richest men in the world, Haim Saban, believing he is above the law, has spent decades trying to avoid paying taxes on the many billions of dollars in income he has received.

The moves on to:

Just as Saban hates paying taxes (while using his political donations to demand special treatment and personal favors), Saban likes to steal even more…. Defendants’ attorneys also bragged about special influence over and collusion with prosecuting attorneys for the Western District of Washington in facilitating the prosecutorial charging, arrest and bail decisions of the federal prosecutors concerning criminal charges brought against Krane, all in the hope of depriving Plaintiffs of the fee deservedly earned for Krane’s instrumental role in putting together the Plan.

This theft of another person’s labor conforms to a lifelong pattern of Saban’s. Plaintiffs are informed and believe and based thereon allege that Saban has made hundreds of millions of dollars stealing from recording artists, illicitly claiming authorship of songs to which he likely can’t even read the music, and built his multi-billion dollar fortune through forgery, perjury and fraud. Now, to protect himself and hide his secrets, including secrets that implicate major foreign policy in this country and prominent foreign public officials, Saban seeks to scapegoat Krane.

Through a spokesperson, Saban—who claimed Krane duped him, and wound up paying $250 million in back taxes after a 2006 Senate investigation—dismissed the claims as “frivolous,” and “a transparent attempt to distract from Mr. Saban’s right to recover the money stolen from him by Mr. Krane.” Probably so. But still fun!

Haim Saban is Sued Over Tax Shelter [NYT]
Indicted Lawyer Slaps Haim Saban With Sensational Civil Suit [American Lawyer]
Related:
Morphed: Cheryl Saban’s journey from beach bunny to philanthropist [Tablet]
Krane v. Saban [PDF]

A Rabbi, a Priest, and an Imam

Protest usury in London

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A payday-loan business in Los Angeles.(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A British group called London Citizens has started a campaign to persuade Britain and the United States to outlaw usury—the group wants a law that prohibits interest rates over 8 percent. And to launch it, they have organized a priest, an imam, and, yes, a rabbi to deliver copies of the New Testament, the Koran, and the Torah to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chairman today. Why all three? “Any anti-usury campaign that does not involve Jews risks becoming an anti-Semitic campaign,” explains London Citizens activist Maurice Glasman. (Because levying interest was for centuries forbidden to Christians, money-lenders were invariably Jews, and condemning usury has long been a coded way of condemning Jews.) Guardian economics columnist Jonathan Freedland does a nice job of explaining how “extortionate, exploitative borrowing”—U.S. consumer debt has risen 733 percent since 1980, when outgoing President Jimmy Carter signed a repeal of an anti-usury law—is a social ill that financial institutions will not phase out without being forced to. But he also notes that “[i]t’s refreshing for Jews and Muslims, in particular, to be working together … and for these communities to be engaged in interfaith action rather than another round of earnest tea-sipping in the name of ‘dialogue.’” We find it cheering, too. It’s oddly reassuring that no matter what history, politics, and religion may say, money will always find a way to talk more loudly.

Heard The One About a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Priest, Who Walk Into a Bank? [Guardian]

Today on Tablet

Jews in porn, imams on Ellis Island, and more

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On Tablet Magazine today, Wayne Hoffman points out that Men of Israel, the first gay pornographic film to feature an all-Israeli cast, is also the first gay porn with openly Jewish men. Allison Hoffman braves the rain to chronicle a group of European rabbis and imams as it receives a private tour of Ellis Island. Columnist Seth Lipsky reflects on President Obama’s recent meeting with Jewish American community leaders and the conversation’s “unstated assumption … that the settlements were, in the main, not a good thing and were even part of the problem.” And Alexa Bryn profiles Ma’aleh, an Orthodox film school in Jerusalem whose student body is 70% female. Plus, The Scroll will be around all day.

Whither Wandered the Jews

Scientists at work major Jewish gene-mapping project

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A team of scientist is undertaking an ambitious project, tracing Jewish genes in order to map the travels of Jews around the world throughout history, the Jerusalem Post reports. They’re doing it in part by collecting DNA samples from volunteers whose parents and grandparents all share the same ethnic background. Eventually, it will yield profiles of what the standard genome looks like for one group of Jews (say, Yemenite) versus another (say, Georgian). That data can help scientists determine the similarities and difference between those different groups—and with the gentile popularions in their areas. “This is our last chance to do this project,” Dr. Eitan Friedman, who specializes in oncogenetics at the Sheba Medial Center in Israel, tells the paper, explaining that intermarriage of Jews from different regions is making it harder to discern distinct demographic shifts.

Sheba, NYU Researchers to Draw Genetic Map of Wandering Jew [JPost]

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