'The war against organized crime is not hopeless'

'All modesty aside, I'm considered the biggest expert on organized crime in the country," Menahem Amir says matter-of-factly. Nearly 60 years of study will do that. Almost every wall in Amir's home in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood props up a bookshelf, and each shelf strains to support the burden of an impossibly stacked pile of books. Those that don't fit on the shelves lie strewn on chairs and ottomans. Thousands upon thousands of pages of research on every imaginable element of crime, from robbery to rape and beyond, vie for the gruff Hebrew University criminology professor's attention. Deviant behavior, prostitution, money laundering, the sociology of crime, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency - all beckon from volumes worn with use and stuffed with notes. There is even, of course, Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Amir's expertise comes from more than just other people's observations, however. He has taught at the police academy, headed research projects for the government on crime carried out against - and by - practically every sector of society, advised the government on numerous aspects of crime, authored more than half a dozen books and studied and lectured around the world. There was organized crime in this country at the dawn of the state, when Amir was fighting with the Palmah. It was less organized, less violent and less prominent in those days, but he has watched it grow to startling proportions since then. In that sense, Israel's experience with organized crime has followed the usual path. In the early stages of its development, a mafia may actually prove a boon to law enforcement, as it helps regulate and minimize local petty crime. But the honeymoon, according to Amir, is always short-lived. "The community may call on organized crime to control the uncontrolled criminality in their midst, but [the mobs] force themselves on the community, deciding against whom and how to act." In New York's Chinatown, for example, "in the guise of helping the community, the Chinese youth gangs controlled by the... triad and tong organized crime syndicates use domestic terrorism for deterrence, profit and power for themselves. Some crimes are thus inhibited, while others flourish." There are other "unintended consequences" of tolerating mob activity, he continues. "While driving out criminality may be of a short duration, the grip of organized crime over the community is enhanced and prolonged. The whole purpose of organized crime in its vigilante crime control is to strengthen their control over the economic and political life of the community." What starts out as a loosely organized "predatory" street gang develops into a "parasitic" criminal enterprise with a hierarchy and significant economic and political power. In the final stage of a mob's development, it reaches what Amir calls a "symbiotic" relationship with the state. The term, however, is not meant to convey a sense of tranquility. At this stage, criminal organizations "are able to use their resources - mainly corruption of businesses, the political system, labor unions and the criminal justice system - and the reputation for violence in order to secure their activities." THE PROCESS is not inevitable, though. "A central and imperative condition for the development of organized crime... is the weakness of the law enforcement system," Amir says. That runs the gamut from a lack of robust statutes or a lack of their consistent application to non-cooperation with other countries' law enforcement agencies and the presence of corruption in the law enforcement agencies themselves. Unfortunately, Israel has been plagued by all these things, starting with the failure of the authorities to confront the fact that mafias were blossoming in the fledgling Jewish state. A series of newspaper articles in the 1960s on a string of burglaries, smuggling operations and protection rackets put the issue on the public agenda, but the official Shamgar Commission denied the existence of a mafia here. Additional press coverage in the 1970s brought further attention to the prevalence of drugs, violence and corruption. "Already in the '70s, it was obvious that there were attempts by Jewish mobsters in France to set up branches in Israel, and that those efforts were fended off by local mobsters," some of whom had been part of gangs that existed at the birth of the state, says Amir. "As the drug culture flourished here in the '70s, it was also clear that there were ties between international crime organizations and local gangs that were financing and importing drugs into the country." In 1978, Amir testified before the Shimron Commission, which marked a partial breakthrough in that it recognized the existence of a limited amount of organized criminal activity. As the Lebanon war pushed crime from the headlines in the '80s, Amir conducted a groundbreaking study of organized criminal groups run by new immigrants from the Soviet republic of Georgia. Shortly thereafter, scores of Russian criminals (some of questionable Jewish heritage) took advantage of the massive Soviet aliya. This created a minor hysteria that, he believes, was propelled at least in part by the notion of a strategic threat to Israel posed by the infiltration of swarms of so-called "fake Jews." Since then, organized criminal activity has been evident in the smuggling of commodities such as cigarettes, electrical appliances, clothing and jewelry, and in human trafficking as well, in the "import" of women as sex slaves and of illegal foreign workers for cheap labor. Despite the reality, Amir notes, "as late as the mid-1990s, the discussion on organized crime in Israel revolved around the question of whether it even existed here at all. Even the police unit that was established to fight the problem was given the roundabout name the 'Unit for Investigating Serious Crimes,' even though the crimes it was to investigate were clearly of the mob variety. "It was only at the end of the '90s that [the authorities] were able to call a spade a spade and admit not only that there was organized crime in Israel, but that it was a serious problem." While the authorities were trying to play down the impact of organized crime in this country, Israel was becoming a major international player in some of the world's most sordid "markets" - money laundering, trafficking in organs and even smuggling babies for adoption. Meanwhile, various "godfathers" were cleaning up their public images through generous donations to hospitals and other public causes, and lining the pockets of politicians. With numerous signs pointing to the approach, if not the realization, of the symbiotic stage of organized crime here, one has to ask: What can be done - or what must be done - to fight the mob at this point? Considering his background steeped in sociology, it comes as no surprise that Amir recommends taking socio-economic factors such as inequality, steep unemployment and other pressures into consideration. But he also stresses the importance of vigilance in law enforcement, from extensive wiretaps to aggressive prosecution. "Harass them with arrests, interrogations and trials of their members - especially their leaders," he suggests. Furthermore, dismantling a mafia's legitimate businesses, through which it often launders illicit funds, and ferreting out the officials it has corrupted, are surefire means of significantly impeding criminal organizations' progress. "The war against organized crime is difficult, but it is not hopeless," Amir believes. "The crippling of the Italian-American Mafia in the United States and the weakening of the Mafia in Sicily, among other examples... offer proof that success is possible - as long as you are properly prepared to use intelligence, coordination among the various arms of law enforcement and legal means to take down corrupt officials."