The Israeli Gangster’s Reading List

In a Tel Aviv courtroom last December, the most sophisticated and ruthless underworld boss in Israel’s history set out to tell his life story, meandering between his years as a teenage drug trafficker and murderer to how books inspired a prison “rehabilitation” that never quite happened. 

The gangster at the center of the biggest organized crime trial in the history of Israel is talking about Nietzsche. It’s the prosecutor who forced Yitzhak Abergil to talk about the author of The Antichrist; but the country’s most famous criminal, who earned his first life sentence at the age of 17, is ready to play ball.

On the morning of December 18, 2018, Yitzhak Abergil took the stand at Tel Aviv District Court, to testify in Case 512 (the name was picked at random by a computer)—the biggest organized crime investigation and trial in Israel’s history. 

Of the 18 suspects indicted in the case—which begun in early 2017, and most likely won’t be concluded until sometime in 2020—Abergil is listed as Defendant #1.

At the heart of the case are two attempts on the life of rival gangster Ze’ev Rosenstein; a June 2003 bombing, next to the Tel Aviv Port in the north of the city, which seriously injured a security guard and wounded 10 others; and a December 2003 bombing at a currency exchange store  on Yehuda HaLevi street in central Tel Aviv. The latter left three bystanders dead and dozens injured, sending shockwaves across a city already reeling from the Second Intifada. 

The case against Abergil and associates rests mainly upon the testimony of seven state witnesses—killers, drug traffickers, low-lifes, patsies, and hangers-on—together with hundreds of hours of wiretaps. The attempts on Rosenstein’s life aside, Case 512 also covers two murders in Israel and Germany, two attempted murders in Japan and the Czech Republic, and the manifold crimes associated with running a global drug-trafficking, money-laundering, and tax-evasion network (principally between 2002-2006). As the investigation weaved its way around the globe over the course of 15 years, it took on a life of its own, eventually ensnaring more than a half a dozen Israeli mob bosses from several different—and rival—crime gangs. Indicted with Abergil were, amongst others, his brother Meir; Moti Hassin, his former right-hand man; Avi Ruhan, a major crime boss operating out of Ra’anana; and Netanya mob bosses Asi Abutbul and Rico Shirazi, rivals of each other and—in Abutbul’s case—of Abergil as well.

There’s also the matter of nearly a quarter of a billion shekels of dirty money, from the years when Abergil’s organization trafficked ecstasy, cocaine, hashish and other drugs around the world, from the United States to Belgium to Japan.

On December 16, 2018, more than three years after he and dozens of other suspects were first scooped up by Israeli police, it was time for Abergil to take the stand. In front of a packed courthouse, the 50-year-old Abergil spent several hours telling his life’s story, which began as the youngest of 10 children growing up in a public housing complex in Lod’s Benit neighborhood. 

“I can tell you who Yitzhak is, but Abergil? That’s something you’ll all understand as you learn who Yitzhak is,” Abergil told his rapt courthouse audience. He spoke the streetwise Hebrew of a man who spent 13 of his most formative years in prison, and who grew up dirt poor and illiterate in one of Israel’s toughest neighborhoods in the seventies—when Lod was even more desperate a place than it is today. Abergil’s Hebrew isn’t the Hebrew taught to new immigrants in in ulpanim, or the language codified in the Even Shoshan dictionary. It’s the dialect of a certain Israel, jammed somewhere beneath the bottom rung of the country’s social ladder and frozen in a time capsule forged by decades of prison and criminal life, in Israel and abroad. 

His Moroccan-Jewish Horatio-Alger-with-a-murder-rap story begins as a ben zkunim, a child born to parents of an advanced age. “Home” for Abergil was a two-room apartment in a binyan rakevet, the unsightly boxcar buildings that dot countless neighborhoods like Benit across the country. According to his testimony, his father was an alcoholic, his mother worked multiple jobs, one older brother was already in prison, and another was a drug addict. From his peer group at least, Abergil had zero, literally zero, role models who weren’t criminals.     

“I can remember that we were always lacking,” Abergil told the court. By the age of three he was already stealing food—Turkish Delight, especially—from the grocery store in his neighborhood. By six, he had graduated to running guns, drugs, and even grenades for the dealers and gangsters in his neighborhood. He would bury the guns in the bomb shelter underneath their building, Abergil told the court, making an X or an O to mark the spot—depending on who the contraband belonged to. 

“I think we were the only city in Israel that had a curfew for Jews, that was Lod,” Abergil reminisced. “There was no such thing as seeing a cop car and not running.” On at least one occasion as a young boy, he continued, on spotting a cop car in the neighborhood he ran to the roof of his building—to throw a grenade at the cruiser.

By the age of 12, Abergil had graduated to running his own drug house with his older brother Aybie, a drug addict. They sold hash and “Persian Coke” – heroin. By age 14, a large portion of Abergil’s profits were going towards smuggling $2,500 worth of drugs to his brother in prison every month. 

That was also the year when he shot a man for the first time. His victim was a 33-year-old youth group counselor named Hananiya Amar who Abergil shot and wounded because he had refused to let the 14-year-old into a youth group party wearing shorts. 

“It wasn’t part of the lexicon to say Yitzhak doesn’t get into the club, he’s too young. If you don’t let Yitzhak Abergil into your club then you won’t have a club. Better not to overthink this,” Abergil noted a couple of minutes later, describing his policy for dealing with club bouncers as a teenager.

By the time he was 16, Abergil claimed, he was running a network of drug houses in Haifa, Lod, and Eilat, and was importing drugs into Israel from Holland. The remarkable career of a child crime prodigy soared to even greater heights a year later, when he became a borer—an underworld arbiter.

That was also the year that he killed a man for the first time. 

35-year-old Yaakov Cohen, according to Abergil, was a pimp. Cohen had come to his house, a grenade in hand, and would have killed him if he’d been given the chance, Abergil said in his defense. Whatever his reasons for killing Cohen later that same night, Abergil pleaded guilty to the murder. Shimon Sheetrit, his oldest childhood friend—and engaged to marry Yitzhak’s sister—testified against him during the case. Abergil claimed that he never recovered from this betrayal, but also swore that he had never sought to avenge it either. For the murder, he received a 30-year-sentence (12 years suspended), thus beginning the long sojourn of Abergil-behind-bars.

After stabbing another juvenile inmate early into his sentence, Abergil was moved to Beersheba Prison—an adult facility. Once in the prison system proper, he swiftly became a force to be reckoned with, a jailhouse power broker who was part arbiter and part union boss. He was also, as he described it, a scapegoat for prison authorities looking to instill order, and was frequently placed in solitary confinement and moved from one institution to another. After a transfer to Ramle’s Ayalon Prison, he met Shmaya Angel, an Israeli underworld icon from an earlier time, who took him under his wing. 

Shmaya Angel also taught Abergil how to read. 

In court, Abergil described the first book he ever read, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, as “a nice book” but not one he could get much out of. 

It was the second book that Abergil read in his life that would change him forever: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Published in 1943, Rand’s novel tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect whose ideas are rejected by a society that valued conformity over individualism. Sticking to his ideals despite the pushbacks, Roark eventually blows up a building he helped design, after it was built contrary to his specifications. The book, and Rand’s works in general, have long been popular with right wingers. Both The Fountainhead and her later doorstop Atlas Shrugged (1957) are considered today as [extremely] long treatises on the virtues of capitalism: a celebration of the individual who had succeeded in freeing oneself from conformity, and a critique of altruism. 

While Rand and Abergil’s favorite philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche—who we shall meet shortly—do enjoy household-level name recognition, the ranks of those who have actually read their books is much smaller (and does not include this writer). 

“I was born into crime, grew up in crime, was breastfed crime, heard crime, did crimes, all of my life I was in one giant bubble of crime. There was nothing else, nothing, a pit and nothing that was connected to normal life. I knew the world of crime, the laws, rules, grammar, but the normal world?”  Abergil asked, trailing off as he described what The Fountainhead meant to him. 

“A prisoner is in a very extreme situation, he is isolated and stands against all of society. The books talk about the individual as the source of his own power. These books can give you strength to go out and stake your place in the world,” explained Boaz Arad—director of the Ayn Rand Center of Israel and co-founder of the Israeli Freedom Movement—when I asked him why a figure like Abergil would find inspiration in the works of Rand.

Arad, who around 2010 was involved with a short-lived initiative called The Israeli Tea Party,     told me that Rand “wrote about all types of people who succeeded because of their talent. She believed in a meritocratic country—to appreciate people based on their talent and not their connections.”

Arad also mentioned two other figures, both from the margins of Israeli society and known for their appreciation of Ayn Rand: Mordechai Kedar and Tel Aviv University professor Moshe Kroy. Kedar was a disgraced former member of the intelligence services. Convicted of robbing and murdering a local Jewish intelligence source in Buenos Aires in 1957, he was secretly jailed in Israel. During his incarceration,      Kedar, Israel’s original “Prisoner X,” began to study the writings of Kroy, and became a friend and confidant of the Rand enthusiast, renowned for his jam-packed lectures at Tel Aviv University’s Gilman Hall and ZOA House in central Tel Aviv. It was the 1970s and after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, “when cracks suddenly began to appear in the public’s faith in the Israeli establishment. The feeling that the government knows everything and we have to do whatever they say,” Arad explained. 

The climax of The Fountainhead actually made a bizarre cameo during Abergil’s cross-examination, by State Prosecutor Nissim Mirom, on December 27 2018: 

Mirom: The hero of the book, Howard, what does he do to a building that is built not in accordance with his design?

Abergil: He blows it up.

Mirom: Is that the lesson you learned from Ayn Rand? The hero of the book, around whom all of the philosophy of the book is built—when someone doesn’t do what he wants…just like you, he sends someone to blow up the building, exactly like you did on Yehuda HaLevy [in Tel Aviv].

Abergil: What a disgusting comparison! Maybe you should go ask for forgiveness from the people who were hurt. Maybe ask for forgiveness from the innocent people who died, instead of comparing them to some movie script.

Mirom then asked: “And what is the philosophy of Ayn Rand? Egoism, that’s you.” 

The State Prosecutor then moved on to Abergil’s next great literary hero, Friedrich Nietzsche. Mirom offered an assessment of the works of the German philosopher, whose Thus Spoke Zarathustra Abergil credited for playing a major role in his “rehabilitation” behind bars. Mirom, however, characterized Nietzsche’s work as “the moral basis of the Nazis.” “This is who you built your rehabilitation on?” he demanded of Abergil.  “On The Ubermensch: that man can do whatever he wants, that God is dead?”

Defending Nietzsche, Abergil retorted that Mirom’s comparison was ludicrous, and didn’t merit a response. 

“It’s a poor reflection on Israeli society when this alleged criminal knows more about Nietzsche than a prosecutor who has gone through Israeli universities,” Zev Golan, historian and author of God, Man, and Nietzsche, observed. “This is a superficial, facile understanding of Nietzsche, based on the fact that the Nazis misquoted him.” 

When I asked Golan why a man like Abergil would be drawn to Nietzsche’s works, Golan answered by describing the philosopher’s “deep commitment to the individual.” This could appeal to everyone, he proposed: from political leaders to tzaddikim to “somebody who’s, let’s say, an outcast from society and involved in things that are not legal, but is also focused on not listening to what other people are saying about him, or is finding his own way in the world.” 

A true Nietzschiean, Golan added, wouldn’t hurt or exploit other people, or condone the crimes of Abergil. Nonetheless, Golan said the gangster from Lod, “had a much better understanding of Nietzsche than the prosecutor.”

State Prosecutor Nissim Mirom declined to confirm for the record whether he had read the works of Nietzsche or Ayn Rand, or if he himself is a Nietzschean.

While not all of them are enthralled by the works of nineteenth-century German philosophers, there are countless Israeli inmates who turn to books to help them endure the claustrophobia and monotony of incarceration.

Chief Superintendent Limor Dagami Sabag, of the Education, Treatment, and Rehabilitation branch of the Israel Prisons Service, told the TARB there are 17 permanent libraries and 20 additional learning centers in Israel’s 22 criminal detention centers. These facilities are available to all of the country’s approximately 9,300 prisoners and detainees—but not to “security” prisoners.

Dagami Sabag explained that the books are meant to help the prisoners expand their knowledge, to provide vocational training that may prove useful in post-incarceration life, and to help pass the endless hours on the cellblock. First, however, the titles must be cleared by the IPS, to ensure that they do not include politics, sex, extreme ideology, or gratuitous violence. 

The IPS has about 45,000 available titles, Dagami Sabag told me. About 80 percent are intended for recreational reading, and are in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and Amharic. The Prison Service libraries are a mixture of permanent facilities and mobile establishments—for prisoners unable to visit prison libraries in person, due to health or security reasons. 

“I can tell you about prisoners who come to prison with no background in reading. Over the years they learn how to read, they learn that reading books expands their cognitive power and they fall in love with books and the power of books,” Dagami Sabag noted, adding that “I can definitely connect with the story of Abergil and other inmates in his situation, who came from upbringings where they didn’t have exposure to books and then they embrace this world.” 

In the end though, it wasn’t the Israel Prison Service that instilled the love of reading in Yitzhak Abergil. It was his attorney. 

Reached by phone, Tzvika Avnon laughed when I asked him about Abergil’s reading list, confirming that he did indeed give Abergil Ayn Rand’s and Herman Hesse’s books, but that they “were just long, big books, I thought this would interest him, I didn’t think much about why.” 

Avnon described his work with Abergil, dealing mainly with the conditions of his confinement, as “half social work.” When he visited his client behind bars, Abergil “would recite long passages from the books, that he’d memorized word for word.” It was the first and only time he had ever taken books to an inmate, Avnon acknowledged. 

Without hesitation, Avnon described Abergil as a “brilliant, brilliant man. He’s a special type, what can I tell you? I don’t know anybody else who resembles him, in the criminal world or outside. He’s a very special man.” Avnon depicted his former client as an unusually charismatic leader, one who could just look at other inmates “and they’d do what they think he might want them to do without him saying a word.” His personality, Avnon opined, was not far removed from that of a charismatic politician, a born leader of men. 

“Put it this way—if he’d been fortunate enough to be born in [upmarket Tel Aviv suburb] Ramat Aviv, and study at the Alliance [local high school], it could be that he would have been Prime Minister.”

While Israeli history demonstrates emphatically that criminality is no bar to high office, Abergil’s life has nevertheless been remarkable without that particular sort of drama. In both the indictment filed against him and in his testimony, the persona that emerges is of a man born into abject poverty, surrounded by drugs, guns, and criminals; a man whose life should have been all but over after his murder conviction at 17. But to the contrary: the completely uneducated man and his associates built a criminal empire, a true Israeli start-up befitting the “Start-Up Nation.” Abergil’s organization (allegedly) trafficked drugs from Europe to the United States to East Asia and back, carried out mob hits on at least three continents, and made hundreds of millions of shekels in cash. And all this they did without—according to Abergil—enough English to order room service from their hotel rooms in Europe.          

In his testimony he also described his return to a life of crime after his parole from prison, and how the status and reputation he’d built in Israel’s close-knit underworld presented opportunities that civilian life couldn’t match. He described going into the underground casino business and when asked what he brought to the table as a business partner, he answered: “I bring with me 13 years in prison, I bring with me Yitzhak Abergil. In other places, if you lose money and you don’t pay, OK, but when I’m a partner in the business there was no such thing as not paying.”    

For one of the legal officials involved in Case 512, Abergil’s underworld career and the case against him can only be described in superlatives. “It is the biggest ‘blue collar’ crime case in the history of Israel. The biggest case dealing with hardcore criminals, the violent, most serious crimes.” The official noted that even though the trial probably won’t be completed before July 2020 at the earliest, “de facto, the criminal world in Israel has changed since before Case 512. While it’s true there are still Israeli-Arab criminal organizations, after 512 the big Jewish ones are almost out of operation.” That particular claim is up for debate; but in the eyes of my source—who refused to be quoted by name in this article—there has never been a criminal in Israel like Yitzhak Abergil, and there might never be one like him again. 

“Until Yitzhak Abergil, we didn’t know about feuds between criminal organizations,” he continued. “We had local feuds, local fights between gangs, not organizations. Israel’s anti-organized crime law was put in place in June 2003 because of him. He was in charge in Israel—and also in Thailand, Spain, Belgium, and the USA. This is not something that we’d known before. And it’s not something that has come back since.”

Abergil is “the most bechir [superior, high-ranking] criminal that has ever existed in Israel—in his personal capabilities, his personality, his disturbed, psychopathic approach to life, and his intelligence and charisma. He is the most dangerous criminal that there has ever been here.”

For this legal official, the prospect of Abergil’s acquittal and his return to the streets next summer “would be a disaster. The man doesn’t know any other way. He’s a control freak, he’ll find a criminal organization that he’ll be in charge of and he’ll go to war with his rivals. There is no doubt about this. There is no other option.”

If he somehow escapes conviction, Abergil will have virtually zero chance of living a law-abiding life, or of escaping from his reputation and his name. 

Or, as Nietzsche put it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “It is the same with man as with the tree. The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep—into evil.”

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