An Israeli doctor working in a Manhattan hospital asked his colleague last week, “Who’s the prime minister of Israel?”
“This week, of course, it’s Dr. Irving Moskowitz,” Joseph Frager told his questioner.
While they laughed, the real Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, locked horns with Moskowitz, the Miami millionaire who at least for the moment is setting Israel’s political agenda.
Moskowitz threw Netanyahu’s government into turmoil last week when he opened the doors of a house he had purchased in Ras al-Amud to three Jewish families.
After heated negotiations, Netanyahu convinced Moskowitz to kick the families out of the Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. Instead 10 yeshiva students will guard and maintain the property.
For years Netanyahu supported Moskowitz’s Jerusalem land purchases. They have been close ever since Moskowitz was instrumental in opening a research institute named after Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan, who died during the famous Entebbe rescue effort.
Now, Netanyahu’s longtime political supporter and friend has put the prime minister on the defensive and thrown yet another wrench into Israeli efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
To Frager, the president of the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, which supports a yeshiva and land purchases in eastern Jerusalem, this makes Moskowitz “a champion, a hero in my eyes.”
But to many Israelis, the soft-spoken Orthodox American Jew is no hero.
The Israeli press has vilified Moskowitz for using his money to pressure the government on Jerusalem.
Editorial cartoons last week depicted Moskowitz as a “Daddy Warbucks” figure, tossing matches from afar into the tinder box of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israeli peace groups hoisted banners asking, “How many wars have you fought in, Moskowitz?”
It was Moskowitz, after all, who is credited with pressing Netanyahu into opening the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City last year. The move led to days of Palestinian rioting and the deaths of more than 70 people, including 15 Israelis.
A plaque with his name hangs in the tunnel.
As Israelis examine how one man can so dramatically set their agenda, last week’s incident has many wondering aloud, “Who is Irving Moskowitz?”
In short, he’s a 69-year-old retired doctor of internal medicine who has lived in Miami Beach since 1980.
But as Netanyahu and others can testify, there is nothing short or simple about Moskowitz.
For years, he toiled in the background, supporting Jewish organizations seeking to strengthen Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem.
He has given at least $2.5 million to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a group dedicated to rebuilding the destroyed temple, where the Dome of the Rock stands today.
But few Americans or Israelis had ever heard of him until recently.
Moskowitz, who has shunned publicity, refused numerous requests to be interviewed for this article. But as he continues to work on his political agenda, Moskowitz cannot escape the spotlight.
Born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Moskowitz is the ninth of 12 children.
In a handful of interviews and speeches over the years, Moskowitz has said that his experiences in Milwaukee had a profound impact on his life.
A city with a large German population, Milwaukee was not a very comfortable place for a Jewish teen-ager during World War II, he has said. Moskowitz’s older brother, a mailman, regularly delivered anti-Semitic newspapers to homes along his route.
Like many teen-agers, Moskowitz used sports as an escape. After excelling as a star center fielder with a powerful bat — he hit clean-up — a local minor league team tried in vain to sign him.
But by then, Moskowitz had decided that medicine was his ticket to escape poverty.
He graduated the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1952. Then 23, Moskowitz moved to California to begin his career as a doctor.
A few years later, Moskowitz bought his first hospital in California, the first in a series of shrewd business decisions.
Soon after, he visited Israel with his wife, Cherna. It would be the first of dozens of trips. Of his eight children, two live in Israel. Cherna owns a Judaica shop in a Miami mall.
As early as 1969, Moskowitz began to sell his hospitals to buy property for yeshivas in Jerusalem.
Moskowitz took great pride in his 1985 purchase of the Shepherd Hotel, just outside the Old City, for more than $1 million.
The Mufti of Jerusalem once lived there, and Israeli police leased the building from Moskowitz during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising.
Just as he began running out of hospitals to sell to increase his holdings in Israel, he was offered a cash cow beyond his wildest dreams, earning him the label “bingo king.”
Through the connections he built in the hospital business, Moskowitz came to Hawaiian Gardens, a tiny city near Los Angeles that sits on less than one square mile of land and has about 14,000 residents.
In 1972, the city celebrated “Irving Moskowitz Day” when he opened its first hospital. Even today, he is one of the city’s major benefactors, donating more than $500,000 a year to social service agencies and a food bank.
So when the city faced the prospect of losing $200,000 in revenue from its bingo parlor, the commissioners turned to Moskowitz and asked him to take over.
Under the arrangement, the city would get 1 percent of the gross receipts and Moskowitz’s non-profit foundation, the Moskowitz Foundation, would reap any profits.
On Sept. 13, 1988 — exactly five years before Israel and the Palestinians signed their first peace accord — Moskowitz took over the bingo hall.
It was a move that changed his life — and ultimately, he hopes, the character of Jerusalem.
Through bingo profits, Moskowitz’s charitable giving has soared from the thousands to the millions and propelled his foundation to one of the top 1,000 private foundations in the United States.
Moskowitz’s foundation gave away $57,000 in 1987.
In 1991 he gave away $1.5 million, according to the foundation’s tax returns. By 1994, he had given $4.3 million, and about $6 million in 1995. More current figures are not available.
Although his relations with Hawaiian Gardens — he never actually lived there – – have suffered over the years, his bingo contract is not in danger. In fact, Moskowitz stands poised to win his current battle to open a card hall. If successful, the Moskowitz foundation’s income could once again soar.
An examination of the Moskowitz Foundation’s 1994 tax return shows his close financial ties to American groups sympathetic to Israel’s right wing.
In 1994, Moskowitz gave more than $1 million to American Friends of Everest, a group he formed to purchase land in Jerusalem.
Among the other largest recipients were: American Friends of Ateret Cohanim – – $576,000; National Council of Young Israel — $514,000; Zionist Organization of American — $200,000; PRO-Israel — $157,000; Center for Security Policy – – $85,000; and Americans for a Safe Israel — $73,000.
In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Moskowitz minced no words when he talked about Israeli politics.
The peace process is “a slide toward concessions, surrender and Israeli suicide,” he said.
I’m doing the “natural thing for a Jew,” he said, trying to “save our nation.”
The year before, he compared slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Neville Chamberlain, who sought to appease the Nazis.
“I was 10 years old at the time and still vividly remember the profound sadness that enveloped our home in the wake of the Munich signing. There was an atmosphere of mourning for the tragedy we knew would follow, since belligerent dictators can never be truly appeased,” he told the Jerusalem Post in October 1995.
“Under political pressure at home and abroad or in the hope of being remembered in the history books — or simply out of sheer desperation — prime ministers can take steps in the name of `peace’ that actually lead to war.”
More recently Moskowitz has defended his right to build in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem.
“If the peace process is incapable of digesting the presence of 50 Jewish families 860 yards from the Western Wall and barely a mile from the King David Hotel, then its fragility is indeed beyond repair,” Moskowitz wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post last week.
“To rule out the construction of a 50-unit Jewish apartment project on Mount of Olives because of its proximity to Arab residences is to enfranchise Yasser Arafat’s thesis that Palestinians are incapable of living on common ground with Israelis in Jerusalem. That would be defined as racism anywhere outside the Middle East.”
For now, Moskowitz has promised to continue his fight for the city.
When he visited the families in his Ras al-Amud home before they left, Moskowitz signed the guest book, “The people of Israel build their nation.”
Moskowitz is also sitting on several other properties in Arab neighborhoods.
Moskowitz has sought government approval to build in Abu Dis, which was considered by some peace activists as a possible site of a future Palestinian capital.
He also owns a now-closed hotel in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood that he reportedly wants to renovate and reopen.
Even if Moskowitz delays some of his projects, Netanyahu may soon be faced with another housing grab in Jerusalem.
Ronn Torrosian, a spokesman for the families who moved into Ras al-Amud last week, said in a telephone interview from Israel that there is another Jewish American businessman who will turn over land in an Arab Jerusalem neighborhood to Jews.
“There’s another Ras al-Amud to come in the next few weeks,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.