Jewish-American organized crime emerged within the American Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been referred to variously in media and popular culture as the Jewish Mob, Jewish Mafia, Kosher Mafia, Kosher Nostra, or Undzer Shtik (Yiddish: אונדזער שטיק).[a] The last two of these terms are direct references to the Italian Cosa Nostra; the former is a play on the word kosher, referring to Jewish dietary laws; while the latter is a direct translation of the Italian phrase Cosa Nostra (Italian for "our thing") into Yiddish, which was at the time the predominant language of the Jewish diaspora in the United States.
In the late 19th century in New York City, Monk Eastman operated a powerful Jewish gang that competed with Italian and Irish gangs, notably Paul Kelly's Five Points Gang, for control of New York City's underworld. Another notorious gang, known as the Lenox Avenue Gang, led by Harry "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, consisted of mostly Jewish members and some Italian members (such as Francesco Cirofisi). It was one of the most violent gangs of the early 20th century and became famous for the murder of gambler and gangster Herman Rosenthal.
In the early 1920s, stimulated by the economic opportunities of the roaring twenties, and later prohibition, Jewish organized crime figures such as Arnold Rothstein were controlling a wide range of criminal enterprises, including bootlegging, loansharking, gambling, and bookmaking. According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top."[page needed] Rothstein was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.[page needed] At the same time, the Jewish bootlegging mob known as The Purple Gang dominated the Detroit underworld during prohibition, while the Jewish Bugs and Meyer Mob operated in the Lower East Side of New York City before being absorbed into Murder, Inc. and becoming affiliates of the Italian-American Mafia.
The largely Jewish-American and Italian-American gang known as Murder, Inc. and Jewish mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen, Harold "Hooky" Rothman, Dutch Schultz, and Bugsy Siegel developed close ties with and gained significant influence within the Italian-American Mafia, eventually forming a loosely organized, mostly Jewish and Italian criminal syndicate known in the press as the "National Crime Syndicate." Jewish and Italian crime groups became increasingly interconnected in the 1920s and 1930s, as they often occupied the same neighborhoods and social statuses of the time. The two ethnic crime groups became especially close in New York City following the establishment of the close relationship between partners Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and their subsequent elimination of many of the so-called "Mustache Pete", or the Sicilian-born gangsters that often refused to work with non-Italians and even non-Sicilians. The Cohen crime family of Los Angeles and Las Vegas was notably part of both the Jewish Mafia and Italian-American Mafia, and lines between the two ethnic criminal organizations often blurred throughout the 20th century. For decades after, Jewish-American mobsters would continue to work closely and at times compete with Italian-American organized crime.
Jewish-American gangsters were involved in many different criminal activities, including murder, racketeering, bootlegging, prostitution[page needed] and narcotics. Their role was also significant in New York's burgeoning labor movement, especially the garment and trucking unions, as well as the poultry industry. Jewish organized crime fueled antisemitism and deeply concerned the Jewish community. Jewish organized crime was used by antisemites and anti-immigration supporters as arguments to bolster their agenda. Jewish gangs controlled portions of the Lower East Side and Brownsville in New York City, and were also present in other major American cities. American Jewish mafia boss Kid Cann held sway over Minneapolis for over four decades and remains the most notorious mobster in the history of Minnesota.
Jewish-American organized crime was a reflection of the ethnic succession among gangsters, which has tended to follow the immigrant waves in the United States: English, German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Asian and Latino. Ethnic involvement in organized crime gave rise to alien conspiracy theories in the US law enforcement community, in which the conception of organized crime as an alien and united entity was vital. The involvement of a small percentage of recent immigrants in organized crime created a lasting stereotype of devious immigrants corrupting the morality of native-born Americans. Organized crime was a complex set of relations between the recently arrived Jewish and Italian criminals and groups like the Irish-American organized crime networks, which had been established before the 1920s and which the newer groups were sometimes subordinate to.
Although never receiving close to the level of cultural attention of the Italian-American Mafia, from the late 1960s, Jewish-American gangsters would figure as characters in Jewish American literature. For some writers, Jewish gangsters and boxers in the post-World War II era were seen as tougher, more aggressive literary role models, freeing the community from the stigma of defenselessness and powerlessness, compared with the physical aggressiveness and lawlessness more associated with the Irish and Italian immigrants. According to Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams: "If Jewish gangsters still thrived today, if they hadn't gone legit, if Jews of my generation didn't regard them as figments, creatures to be classed with Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster, I think the Jewish community would be better off". However, Cohen's description of Jewish gangsters ignores their criminality and immorality. These tough characters were still gangsters who extorted, exploited and murdered other members of the Jewish-American community for profit. They forced Jewish women into prostitution,[page needed] and were generally considered a scourge within their own community. The Yiddish press and literature of the 1920s and 1930s was resolute in its condemnation of Jewish mobsters.
A large wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early 20th centuries produced Jewish mobsters such as Max "Kid Twist" Zwerbach, "Big" Jack Zelig, and Vach "Cyclone Louie" Lewis who competed with and were acknowledged by Italian and Irish gangs.
Just as their Italian counterparts, gangs specializing in extortion began operating in the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York's Lower East Side most prominently the so-called Yiddish Black Hand headed by Jacob Levinsky, Charles "Charlie the Cripple" Litoffsky and Joseph Toplinsky during the early 20th century. A significant Jewish underworld already existed in New York at the start of the 20th century, with Jewish mobsters conversing in a jargon with Yiddish origins. A pimp was known as a "simcha," a detective as a "shamus" and a loafer as a "trombenik." Jewish-American organized crime arose among slum kids who in pre-puberty stole from pushcarts, who as adolescents extorted money from store owners, who as young adults practiced schlamming (wielding an iron pipe wrapped in newspaper against striking workers or against scabs) – until as adults they joined well-organized gangs involved in a wide variety of criminal enterprises boosted by prohibition.
The lure of quick money, power and the romance of the criminal lifestyle was attractive to both second-generation Jewish and Italian immigrants. There was a supposed Jewish "crime wave" in early-20th-century New York. In disturbing numbers young Jews had joined crime "rackets," it was said, along with children of Irish, Italian and other immigrants. However, the supposed Jewish-immigrant crime may have been exaggerated by the press and law enforcement. Crime and population figures show that Jews in New York committed crimes at a rate far below the average for the wider society. As described by sociologist Stephen Steinberg, less than a sixth of the city's felony arrests were Jews during the 1920s, when Jews constituted nearly a third of the city’s population.
As the 20th century progressed, Jewish-American mobsters such as "Dopey" Benny Fein and Joe "The Greaser" Rosenzweig entered labor racketeering, hiring out to both businesses and labor unions as strong arm men. Labor racketeering or "labor slugging" as it was known, would become a source of conflict as it came under the domination of several racketeers including former Five Points Gang members Nathan "Kid Dropper" Kaplan and Johnny Spanish during the Labor slugger wars until its eventual takeover by Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro in 1927. Other Jewish organized crime figures involved in controlling labor unions include Moses Annenberg and Arnold Rothstein, the latter reportedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series.[page needed]
According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top."[page needed] According to Rich Cohen, Rothstein was the person to see during prohibition (1920–1933) if one had an idea for a tremendous business opportunity, legal or not. Rothstein "understood the truths of early 20th century capitalism (hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them". According to Cohen, Rothstein was the 'Moses of Jewish gangsters', a rich man's son, who showed the young and uneducated hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style. Lucky Luciano, who would become a prominent boss within the Italian-American Mafia and organize New York's Five Families, once claimed that Arnold Rothstein "taught me how to dress". The stereotypical attire of the American mobster portrayed in movies can partially trace its roots directly to Rothstein.[page needed]
During prohibition, Jewish gangsters became major operatives in the American underworld and played prominent roles in the distribution of illegal alcohol and the spread of organized crime throughout the United States. At the time, Jewish gangs operated primarily in America's largest cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Newark, New York City, and Philadelphia. Numerous bootlegging gangs such as the Bug and Meyer Mob headed by Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel and Abe Bernstein's Purple Gang[page needed] would see the rise of Jewish-American organized crime to its height. Other Jewish mobsters, including Dutch Schultz of New York,[page needed] Moe Dalitz of Michigan, Kid Cann of Minneapolis, Charles "King" Solomon of Boston and Abner "Longy" Zwillman (the "Al Capone of New Jersey") became wealthy during prohibition.
During this time, Luciano successfully eliminated the Old World Sicilian Mafia bosses like Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano in the 1931 Castellammarese War and took control of the New York Italian Mafia. Luciano did not discriminate against Jews and valued longtime associates such as Meyer Lansky and Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel. Several Jewish gangsters such as Red Levine and Bo Weinberg were used in the war as unsuspected non-Italian hitmen. After Masseria and Maranzano were murdered, a conference was held at New York's Franconia Hotel on November 11, 1931 which included Jewish mobsters such as Jacob Shapiro, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Joseph "Doc" Stacher, Hyman "Curly" Holtz, Louis "Shadows" Kravitz, Harry Tietlebaum, Philip "Little Farvel" Kovolick and Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg. During this meeting, Luciano and Lansky convinced the Jewish-American mobsters of the benefits of cooperating with the Italian-American Mafia in a newly created consortium called the National Crime Syndicate by the press. At the meeting's conclusion, "Bugsy" Siegel supposedly declared "The yids and the dagos will no longer fight each other."[page needed]
Those Jewish gangsters hostile to the idea of cooperation with non-Jewish rivals gradually receded, most notably Philadelphia bootlegger Waxey Gordon, who was convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion. Following Gordon's imprisonment, his operations were assumed by Nig Rosen and Max "Boo Hoo" Hoff.
Under Lansky, Jewish mobsters became involved in syndicate gambling interests in Cuba, Miami, and Las Vegas.[page needed] Buchalter would also lead the predominantly Jewish Murder, Inc. as the Luciano-Meyer syndicate's exclusive hitmen.[page needed]
For several decades after World War II, the dominant figures in organized crime were second-generation Jews and Italians, often working in concert. As late as the 1960s, Jewish presence in organized crime was still acknowledged as Los Angeles mobster Jack Dragna explained to hitman and later government informant Jimmy Fratianno:
|“||Meyer's got a Jewish family built along the same lines as our thing. But his family's all over the country. He's got guys like Lou Rhody and Dalitz, Doc Stacher, Gus Greenbaum, sharp fucking guys, good businessmen, and they know better than try to fuck us."[page needed]||”|
Jewish mobsters, such as Meyer Lansky and the Los Angeles-based Mickey Cohen, along with Harold "Hooky" Rothman, continued to hold significant power and control organized crime groups in New York City, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Las Vegas, while the Jewish-American presence remained strong in Italian-American criminal rackets.
Jewish-American organized crime derived from dislocation and poverty, where language and custom made the community vulnerable to undesirables, the sort of thing that fosters criminality among any other ethnicity in a similar situation. As American Jews improved their conditions, the Jewish thug and racketeer either disappeared or merged into a more assimilated American crime environment. American Jews quietly buried the public memory of the gangster past; unlike the Mafia, famous Jewish American gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel founded no crime families.
Much like Irish-Americans and other ethnicities (with the exception of Italian-American criminal organizations), Jewish-American presence in organized crime began to decline after World War II. Jewish-American individuals remain closely associated with organized crime, especially Italian-American and Israeli organized crime,[page needed] but the Jewish-American criminal organizations and gangs which once rivaled the Italian and Irish-American mobsters during the first half of the 20th century have largely faded.
From the 1990s till their 2013 arrest by the FBI in a sting operation, an Orthodox ring led by Mendel "The Prodfather" Epstein imposed a reign of terror on Jewish men in troubled marriages by kidnapping and torturing them into granting religious divorces to their wives, who paid Epstein up to $100,000 for his services. In 2016, another sting collared Shimen Liebowitz and Aharon Goldberg, two Satmar Hasidim who colluded with a third man to perform a contract killing on an estranged husband.
Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was sued by former Sands China CEO Steven Jacobs for wrongful termination. Jacobs, who was fired in 2010, alleged that instead of Adelson losing confidence in his ability to run the Macau-based casinos, the true reason was his attempts to distance the company from ties to the Triads, the Chinese mafia, involving activities such as in-casino loan sharking, prostitution, drug dealing, using the Triads to blackmail and/or bribe various corrupt Chinese lawmakers (in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) and utilizing accounts used by large-money gamblers (known as whales) transferring money from one casino to another as money laundering transactions. The suit, which was filed in late 2010, was set to go to trial in September 2016, though nine months earlier, Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review Journal in a controversial and ill-fated attempt to turn public opinion against the presiding judge. On May 31, 2016, the two sides reached a confidential settlement.
Several notable Jewish American mobsters provided financial support for Israel through donations to Jewish organizations since the country's creation in 1948. Jewish-American gangsters used Israel's Law of Return to flee criminal charges or face deportation. Notables include Joseph "Doc" Stacher, who built up Las Vegas by pairing the Jewish and Italian Mafia into a national organized crime syndicate. Prime Minister Golda Meir set out to reverse this trend in 1970 when she denied entrance to Meyer Lansky. He was the mob's accountant, thought to be among the most powerful people in the country, with a gambling empire stretching throughout the United States.
In 2010, it was reported by Wikileaks that the United States Embassy in Israel, in a cable titled "Israel: The Promised Land of Organized Crime?", had expressed grave concern about the activities of Israeli organized crime figures and was taking measures to prevent members of crime families from being issued visas to the United States. American diplomats expressed concern that Inbal Gavrieli, the niece of one of Israel's most powerful mafia bosses, had been elected to the Knesset as a MK for Likud.
The Soviet and Russian émigré community in New York's Brighton Beach contains a large Jewish presence. Some of these newer American-based Jewish gangsters, such as Ludwig Fainberg (who has lived in Ukraine, Israel and the United States, but never in Russia), share more in common culturally with Russia and the Soviet republics than their predecessors, such as Meyer Lansky.[page needed]
Russian Jewish mafia figures, such as Semion Mogilevich, have attempted to penetrate the United States, including participating in a US$10 billion money laundering scheme through the Bank of New York in 1998.
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