‘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.’

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