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Bingo King Aids Israeli Right Wing

Dr. Irving Moskowitz has sent millions from Hawaiian Gardens club to groups trying to thwart Mideast peace by buying land in contested areas. His activities raise controversy at home and abroad.


The money trickles in, $1 at a time, at a smoky bingo hall in Los Angeles County's tiniest city, the inaptly named Hawaiian Gardens.

It winds up, by the millions, in one of the world's most sensitive hot spots--the disputed territories within Israel--supporting organizations dedicated to keeping the biblical lands under Jewish control.

In the middle is Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz. The soft-spoken 67-year-old physician made his fortune building hospitals around Southern California, then discovered the new source of riches--the strip mall bingo hall--that helped him become a major player in tinderbox politics halfway around the world.

His Irving I. Moskowitz Foundation has dispersed more than $18 million in bingo profits to various causes in the 1990s, $6 million last year alone.

Some of the money supports charities in Hawaiian Gardens that distribute everything from free groceries to smoke alarms. But records show that far more of the millions goes to groups backing the agenda of the Israeli right wing: by buying up property in contested areas such as Jerusalem and campaigning to defeat peace plans under which Israel would surrender land to its Arab neighbors.

The fate of Israel is an emotional subject for many American Jews. But activists on both sides of the fierce peace debate in Israel say no one pours as much money into the cause as Moskowitz.

An Orthodox Jew who lost 120 relatives in the Holocaust, he has condemned the peace accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors as a "slide toward concessions, surrender and Israeli suicide." So he shrugs and says he is merely doing the "natural thing for a Jew," trying to "save our nation."

His grandfatherly demeanor belies a tough, competitive nature that has enabled him to master one contentious world after another: hospital economics, small-town California politics and the secretive land deals of the Middle East.

He also has found himself embroiled in controversy both in the California city where he accumulates the bingo dollars and in the nation that is his passion.

Some in Hawaiian Gardens now question how the doctor who once delivered their babies--but moved to Florida 16 years ago--has continued to use his influence in the community.

For years, his foundation sent $30,000 a month to a food bank run by the husband of an influential city councilwoman. But in October, the food bank was searched by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which said the husband may have pocketed much of the money. And in February, city officials put Moskowitz in a position to earn millions more when gambling expands beyond bingo in the southeast Los Angeles County city: They approved a poker parlor for land he acquired with $2.7 million in help from the city.

In Israel, meanwhile, the role of the right wing has come under rising scrutiny since the Nov. 4 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a law student who came from its ranks.

Although no one accuses Moskowitz of condoning such violence ("a terrible thing," he calls it), backers of peace talks with the Palestinians complain that he and others engage in "deliberate provocations" by buying property in "the most holy place on Earth."

"He is a man who lives far away with a big box of matches, facing a huge keg of gunpowder which is Jerusalem," said Ornan Yekutieli, a left-wing member of that city's Municipal Council.

"He sits and he throws matches," Yekutieli said. "And one of the matches will succeed and make a gigantic explosion."

But many others agree with Moskowitz that it is a recipe for disaster to trade land for peace with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. To them, Moskowitz is "a great hero."

And even critics grudgingly admire how he backs up his beliefs.

"He has the money," said Yekutieli, "and he uses it."

Relatives Killed by Nazis

Like many in America, Moskowitz grew up knowing "the precariousness of Jewish existence," says a short biography handed out at a banquet where he was honored. Having lost so many relatives to the Nazis, he figured that "but for an accident which brought my parents [from Poland to the United States], my brothers, sisters and I would have also been victims."

He was born in Manhattan, the ninth son in a family of 12 children. With the Depression brewing, the clan took off for Milwaukee, where a grandfather was eking out a living peddling fish.

The heavily German city was a difficult place for a young Jew during World War II. An older brother, a mailman, found himself delivering anti-Semitic newsletters. And Moskowitz still has the tattered baseball glove he says he won betting a neighbor that appeasement would not keep the Nazis from overrunning Europe.

He is not one for self-analysis. Asked what made him so driven, he simply suggests he was always that way, recalling racing past a cute girl as a youth so "she would be proud of me and like me."

That speed later won him headlines as a baseball outfielder, but he decided that medicine was a more promising way to escape poverty.

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