Why Israel declined to give Meyer Lansky sanctuary

At Mrs. Arbel’s behest, we watched the new movie “Lansky” in which Harvey Keitel portrays the eponymous “Mob’s Accountant” in his twilight years.

Meyer Lansky [born Meyer Suchowlanski] was the real-life original for the character of Hyman Roth in the classic “The Godfather II”.

The new movie was directed by Eytan Rockaway, whose father Robert, an emeritus professor of history, wrote the book “But He Was Good To His Mother” about Jewish figures in organized crime.

The frame story is about a somewhat washed-up journalist, separated from his wife, who travels to Miami and meets the elderly mobster in a coffee shop, hoping to get an interview — then is hired to write a book to tell Lansky’s life story. The latter is told to us in flashback scenes, interspersed with dialogue between Lansky/Keitel and the writer. I cannot fault Harvey Keitel’s acting performance, but otherwise the movie felt a bit forced in places. The soundtrack was basically Audiomachine meets retro analog electronica: here is an excerpt to give you a taste.

Most of what I saw jibed with what I’d read in various sources, including his assocation with “Lucky” Luciano; his role in the US gambling industry (both legal and illegal) and in the birth of Las Vegas; his attempts to shield his childhood friend and associate, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel from execution by irate mob investors; and his activities in Havana during the days of Batista. One scene sent me down a rabbit hole though: the one in which Lansky, on the run from the FBI and the IRS for old tax violations [echoes of Al Capone there] flies to Israel and seeks sanctuary here under the Law of Return.

Now the Law of Return is not unconditional: an exception is made for anyone who “has a criminal past and is likely to endanger the public peace” [my literal translation].

The movie claims that, despite Lansky’s past services to Jewish rescue organizations during WW II and later to the nascent State of Israel, then-PM Golda Meir gave the order to turn the request down, afraid that otherwise Richard Nixon would nix [ahem] the F-4 Phantom jet fighter for Israel.

Hebrew sources (as quoted in the Hebrew Wikipedia page) tell a different story: that Lansky (by then in his late sixties) has taken up residence in swanky Herzliya Pituach [today the heart of Israel’s “Silicon Wadi”] and that the police had observed a string of mobsters coming to visit him. This raised concern that he was not merely looking to live out his last years in the Holy Land, but was seeking to use it as a basis for operations — something which Israel obviously needed like a thorn in the rear end [as one says in Hebrew, “kmo kotz ba-tachat”].

Turns out his Israeli former mistress, Tzali de Toledo, told the story of their affair in the weekend supplement of English Haaretz [caveat lector]. She wrote a memoir, “Always Remember”, based on her memories and the 350 love letters he wrote her, all of which he ended with “always remember that I love you”.

The article is a fascinating read, even if one has to be cautious about believing everything said in it. She attributes the decision to deny Lansky citizenship to then-interior minister Yosef Burg (a veteran politician from the National Religious Party[*]). He had sent the Prosecutor-General, Dr. Gavriel Bach [**] on a fact-finding trip to Washington, DC to go look at Lansky’s FBI file. That ran to thousands of pages, but the wily Lansky was too careful not to leave “fingerprints” or “smoking guns”, so there was lots of hearsay and nothing much actionable in the file. Bach told Burg he was skeptical a denial would be upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court, but Burg went ahead anyway. Lansky appealed to the Supreme Court, which however sided with the minister.

Lansky eventually got a visa for El Salvador and left, then was arrested during transit at Miami airport.

Ironically, he was acquitted of all charges in 1974 and lived out his life a free man. Also ironically, Ehud Olmert, then a young upstart politico, had made a lot of hay about “getting rid of that criminal” — then later ended up serving prison time himself for accepting bribes.

The affair with de Toledo, however, apparently continued until the year before Lansky’s death, with her visiting him twice a year in Miami until he got too sick to leave his wife’s presence.

Sometimes, the real story is more bizarre and fantastic than fiction — which, after all, has to make sense to the reader.

[*] There is an old Israeli joke about a mummy of an Egyptian Pharaoh being revived. He asks the people around him where they’re from, but has never heard of England, nor of the US. Then one of them says he’s from Israel, and the Pharaoh answers: “Oh yes, I’ve heard of Israel. Is Yosef Burg still a minister there?”

[**] No relation to the composer (Bach means “Brook” in German). He had been a prosecutor at the Eichmann [y”sh] Trial.

One thought on “Why Israel declined to give Meyer Lansky sanctuary

  1. Note:

    The rest of the post was interesting, I just had nothing to say.

    There is an old Israeli joke about a mummy of an Egyptian Pharaoh being revived. He asks the people around him where they’re from, but has never heard of England, nor of the US. Then one of them says he’s from Israel, and the Pharaoh answers: “Oh yes, I’ve heard of Israel. Is Yosef Burg still a minister there?”

    That one would be hard to hijack, probably have to find a city in the US that an Egyptian Pharaoh would know the name of from the original (Cairo Illinois for an example, though a bad one) but someone needs to steal this for US politicians, that’s a good joke. 😀

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