Bintel Blog

Gangs of Tel Aviv

By Nathaniel Popper

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In its most impressive feat since its recent launch, Tablet magazine has just closed out a long series on the Israeli mob after a five-day run.

The piece was smartly adapted to Tablet’s online-only format by appearing in short installments over the course of a week — like the old newspaper serials — and accompanied by some evocative black-and-white images. “Holy Land Gangland,” as the piece is titled, does what so much of journalism strives for, by taking you inside an unknown world and decoding it; in this case, the first installment literally goes inside the gritty offices of a Tel Aviv loan shark, where the scene is set:

Glaring in the background were the monitors of a closed-circuit surveillance system, showing four different camera angles on the approach to the office. We sipped espresso, and every few minutes a new face would be buzzed inside, his hand full of shekel notes.

The series’ subject and writer are well matched — given Douglas Century’s past writing on American gangs and Jewish pugilists. It turns out that among the young Israeli mobsters, “kickboxing gyms are the hang-out — and stress reliever — of choice.”

But kickboxing is old school. Century finds out that Israeli’s mafia is entering a new era of indiscriminate violence:

While rarely reported about outside of Israel, the new generation of criminals, young and ruthless, are emerging as the country’s biggest homegrown menace.

Century doesn’t just give the curious and chilling facts, such as the frequent use of ultra-Orthodox garb to camouflage drug running and assassinations, or the creation of Israel’s first witness protection program. He also digs for the societal causes of the violence and pins the blame on the rapid privatization and rise of inequality in Israel over the last two decades. It all comes out sounding depressingly like post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s. But in Israel, the story is not nearing an end.


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