Snap Judgment: Betting against the odds

Gambling is sometimes referred to as 'the Jewish disease'

casino roulette 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
casino roulette 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In The Godfather II, aging Jewish gangster Hyman Roth - based on Meyer Lansky - waxes nostalgic about a former mob colleague: "There was this kid that I grew up with; he was a couple years younger than me, and sort of looked up to me, you know... I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea to make a city out of a desert stopover for GIs on the way to the West Coast. That kid's name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. "This was a great man; a man with vision and guts; and there isn't even a plaque or a signpost or a statue of him in that town. Someone put a bullet in his eye; no one knows who gave the order..." Moe Greene is, of course, Lansky partner Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who spearheaded the building of Las Vegas's first luxury casino-hotel, The Flamingo, before being gunned down in 1947. Although he didn't quite "invent" Nevada's gambling mecca, he certainly played a big role in its development - and it looks like he's finally going to get his plaque there, if not a statue. According to media reports this month, a "mob museum" that will pay due tribute to the organized crime figures that helped create the Vegas gambling industry - Lansky, Siegel, Moe Dalitz, Jules "Doc" Stacher, Moe Sedway, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal - is currently being planned as a local tourist attraction. Surprisingly, the project has the full support of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman - or perhaps not so surprisingly, since Goodman is himself a former top mob lawyer whose clients included Lansky, Dalitz and Rosenthal. "Let's be brutally honest, warts and all. This is more than legend. It's fact," Goodman told The Los Angeles Times. Let's be brutally honest about something else; any scan of those names - or even of more current and reputable Las Vegas moguls such as Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn - would draw one rightly to the conclusion that Jews have played, and continue to play, a key role in the US gaming industry, legal and otherwise. NO SHOCK there. Although since the days of the Talmud traditional religious sources have frowned upon playing games of chance for profit, in the modern era Jews often gravitated toward gambling as a profession and pastime in a number of Western societies, perhaps in reaction to anti-Semitic restrictions in more respectable business fields. Whatever the reason, the tendency among members of the tribe to take part in sporting wagers as both players and the house has been pronounced enough for gambling to sometimes be referred to as "the Jewish disease." Theodor Herzl was among those who viewed this specifically as a Diaspora ailment, and he noted down in his diaries a determination to keep "gambling houses" far away from his dreamed-for state in which the Jewish character would be reformed. And so it has indeed been, at least legally, for the first six decades of Israel's existence, where the only sanctioned wagering thus far has been the state-sponsored Lotto and Toto lotteries. But this hasn't deterred a continual parade of would-be Bugsy Siegels dreaming of gleaming casinos rising up here in the Holy Land, especially in the sands of our own desert resort town, Eilat. THE LATEST such figure is Israel Beiteinu Knesset member and former deputy police inspector-general Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who just stepped down from the job of tourism minister following his party's resignation from the coalition. Before he left, though, Aharonovitch set in motion a process wherein the ministry signed off on a deal with the Israel Lands Administration allocating a 12-acre plot on Eilat's northern shore for what would be the country's first legal casino. When Aharonovitch presented his proposal earlier this month to the Knesset Interior Committee, it predictably spurred strong opposition, especially from committee chairman Ophir Paz-Pines, who charged the then-minister with exceeding his authority in pushing the project forward. Aharonovitch was undeterred, declaring: "A casino in Eilat is one of our main objectives for 2008, and its success will lead to the establishment of additional casinos throughout the country. As a former law enforcement official, I can tell those who oppose the idea that a casino would downsize the extent of the illegal gambling operations in Israel, as well as the related criminal activities." Although Aharonovitch won't be getting any plaques or statues in Eilat, the idea of a casino there still has ardent and influential patrons, and the claim that legalized gambling would actually be a boon to law enforcement is an idea that deserves having the odds for and against weighed in a rational manner. THAT GAMBLING already exists here in a big way is indisputable, be it in the lotteries, sports wagering, illicit casinos or on-line betting sites. And it's not just the grown-ups; a new study released just this month by Tel Aviv University found that some 80 percent of teenagers (16-19) say they have gambled in some manner in the above-cited forums. Given these circumstances, wouldn't it be better to at least have legal casino gambling in a government-regulated setting, where some kind of controls can be maintained, and the proceeds at least in part benefit the public, rather than simply line the pockets of criminals? Isn't this why most Western societies, including the US, now allow some kind of casino gambling? Maybe - but Israel is no ordinary country, and Herzl was not unjustified in his concerns over the appeals of gambling in a Jewish state. Even when gambling is legal and regulated, it poses temptations of crime and corruption beyond those of ordinary commerce. Indeed, it's no surprise that even now several "legitimate" businessmen involved in legal gambling ventures abroad (mainly in Eastern Europe) have made headlines here in shady affairs that at the very least go right up to the edge of criminality - the most prominent being Ezra Gavrieli, who basically bought a Knesset seat for his daughter Inbal from the Likud central committee, and has been the target of at least one assassination attempt. The one "legal" gambling house to thus far take root here - the Jericho casino that served as Yasser Arafat's personal cash box until it was shut down during the intifada - demonstrated the negative influence the gaming industry can have on a society with a public culture prone to corruption. This, alas, applies to Israel too, where a gray-market economy already flourishes way beyond where it should in a modern Western economy. So, if Las Vegas has decided to finally honor its Jewish forefathers of Siegel, Lansky and Dalitz, fair enough. But in the Jewish state, casino gambling is still too risky a bet to take - so at least in this case, what happens in Vegas should really stay in Vegas. [email protected]