South Florida Millionaire Irving Moskowitz's Millions Thwart Middle East Peace

South Florida Millionaire Irving Moskowitz's Millions Thwart Middle East Peace
Illustration by Brian Stauffer

The bulldozers arrive at dawn on a Sunday. In the inky twilight of this crisp January morning, several bearded men creak open a barbed-wire gate to grant entry to the three Caterpillar machines. For a short while, the men contemplate the darkened and crumbling building among the olive trees. East Jerusalem, in this moment, is quiet.

Then an SMS message in Arabic beams to hundreds of telephones throughout the city: Bulldozers gathered outside the Shepherd Hotel.

Soon car after car of protesters climbs the Mount of Olives, where the Bible says Jesus once wept for the fate of Jerusalem, to find the bulldozers clawing at the abandoned structure. As a nearby mosque's morning call for prayer begins its roll across the arid hills of red and brown, the Palestinians watch the destruction, sleep stuck in their eyes.

Irving Moskowitz, 85, hasn't been seen publicly in years, but his influence reverberates across Israel.
Wikimedia Commons / Mazel123
Irving Moskowitz, 85, hasn't been seen publicly in years, but his influence reverberates across Israel.
The Shepherd Hotel in Jerusalem once housed a Muslim spiritual leader in Jerusalem. Moskowitz bought it in 1985 and tore it down earlier this year.
Wikimedia Commons
The Shepherd Hotel in Jerusalem once housed a Muslim spiritual leader in Jerusalem. Moskowitz bought it in 1985 and tore it down earlier this year.

A silver-haired city councilman named Elisha Peleg materializes, cocooned in a blue blazer. The Israeli politician, stout and distinguished, squints into the dust and looks pleased. Six months before, the Jerusalem City Council had signed off on razing the building, which once housed an anti-Semitic Palestinian leader named Haj Amin al-Husseini.

"Everyone in Israel wants a united city of Jerusalem!" Peleg booms, fists clenched at both sides, to a throng of protesters and journalists encircling him.

"No!" erupts Dimitri Diliani, a bespectacled Palestinian with a round face patched in scruff. "You are committing crimes. You're nothing more than a modern-looking crook — a fascist criminal — trying to get us out of our homes!"

"This one city is the capital of Israel," the politician replies. "It will never be the capital of another country."

The crowd pulses around Peleg, but it's much too late for protest. The bulldozers hammer the 80-year-old building until little remains of this symbol of Palestinian nationalism except broken slabs of stone and concrete.

The United Nations, the European Union, and President Barack Obama all condemned the hotel's demolition as a lit match arcing into the Mideast's most combustible powder basin.

But neither Israeli citizens, government institutions, nor corporations were behind the Shepherd Hotel melee. Rather, it traced to a profoundly secretive and ruthlessly intelligent Miami Beach resident whom some analysts consider one of the world's greatest threats to Middle East peace and stability. Irving Moskowitz, an 85-year-old recluse and casino titan, purchased, destroyed, and will soon replace the Palestinian heritage and biblical site with 20 apartments intended for religious Jews.

At several pivotal moments over the past three decades, when peace between Israel and Palestine has seemed possible, Moskowitz has appeared with fistfuls of cash siphoned from his California gambling empire. From their white, seven-bedroom Miami mansion on North Bay Road, Moskowitz and his wife, Cherna, have donated at least $85 million to organizations that have spawned some of the most controversial settlements in Israel, a New Times examination of tax records reveals.

With the cooperation of the Israeli government, the Moskowitzes and their allies — including many in South Florida — have helped boost the Jewish population in the West Bank from 10,000 to a half-million.

Now, as Obama returns from a visit to Israel in which he offered fresh criticism of settlements, Israel continues its descent into an uncertain era of possible diplomatic isolation and Palestinian apartheid. And the day may soon arrive — if it hasn't already — when a two-state solution becomes impossible.

If that happens, historians may well look back and say Irving Moskowitz was the reason.


There comes a time of year in urban Milwaukee when the temperature sinks below zero for weeks, the sun sets at 3 p.m., and the iced streets are coated with salt so fine it floats. Six thousand miles from Jerusalem, two boys — one tall, the other short — walk down Ninth Street on such a day. Their destination, North Division High School, isn't for miles. So they begin a game.

"Icicle, do another," one says as they plod through the Jewish ghetto of 1,000 Eastern European inhabitants. Both boys carry baseball gloves.

Irving Moskowitz, then a 14-year-old with sand-colored hair and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, lowers his mitt and begins. He uses the letters from a nearby sign marking Ninth Street to create word after word. "Hint, tree, nine, thin," he says. Then he rattles off several more combinations before his taller friend, Marty Slater, can pronounce even one.

"He used to be able to read all the street signs backward quicker than I could read them forward," recalls Slater, Moskowitz's closest childhood friend. "We think he had a photographic memory. He was taking algebra and trig when we were in the first steps of math. He was just... I hate to call him a genius, because I'm not qualified, but he was that bright."

But there was also a deep, quiet anger inside Moskowitz, who declined to comment for this article. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family of Polish fish peddlers who carted their catch to local markets during World War II. In ethnically German Milwaukee, "Hitler's speeches were on the radio all the time," says Moskowitz's brother-in-law, Aaron Shovers. "You couldn't get a job unless you spoke German. People in Milwaukee wanted to fight on Hitler's side. Hitler was worshiped in Wisconsin."

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5 comments
mrwheat
mrwheat

Anyone who thinks that but for settlements the Palestinians would be in love and peace with Israel must also still believe in the Easter Bunny, that Santa Clause still exists, and that Google is closing Youtube today.

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

Is there any wonder why the Arab world hates the West so much?  If you want peace in the Middle East, people like this need to stop funding the hatred.  He is no better than the Nazis.

david1749
david1749

The Nazis learned genocide methods from the Arabs. See the Armenian genocide for details. The cause of this conflict is far deeper and more twisted than any simple answer.

These on going battles do not resemble most current 19th and 20th century conflicts where a victory in war decides things. Here there is war after war, and low level conflicts in between the wars. This more resembles the Carthaginian wars to me where neither side would accept peace, or even defeat. Finally the Romans, with overwhelming might got the Carthaginians to accept a peace treaty under condition of disarmament. Once Carthaginian arms and armor was safely loaded into Roman ships, the Roman army arrived and destroyed Carthage and it's people. I think that is the Arab plan. The backup plan is just to have lots of kids and become the majority population in Israel, and the Jews once more become wanderers of the world. No easy solutions for this war weary world.

smdrpepper
smdrpepper topcommenter

@david1749 Actually you are completely wrong.  The Nazis did their thing all on their own.  However, the Palestinians learned terrorism from the Israelis.

david1749
david1749

@smdrpepper @david1749 Actually I am not wrong. If you will look into the methods the "New Turks" used against the Armenians, you will find many of the tricks the Nazi's later used on the European Jews. These methods were not new. Please drop the know-it-all attitude and look into it. I am waiting for the Palestinians to convict one of their own for a war crime. The Jews have done this, but to the Palestinians, anything goes. Do you know the ancient Greek meaning of the term Bar-Bar?

 
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