Friedman, Robert I. 1950-2002

views updated

FRIEDMAN, Robert I. 1950-2002

PERSONAL: Born 1950; died of heart failure caused by a rare blood disease July 2, 2002, in New York, NY; married Christine Dugas (a business journalist). Education: University of Colorado, B.A. (African and Middle Eastern studies); attended American University, Beirut; University of Wisconsin, M.A. (journalism).

CAREER: Investigative journalist. Worked on a defense plant assembly line, late 1960s. Village Voice, New York, NY, contributing editor.

AWARDS, HONORS: Alicia Patterson fellowship, 1987. An award in Friedman's name was established by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Washington, DC.


The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, Lawrence Hill Books (Brooklyn, NY), 1990.

Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994.

Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.

Contributor to publications, including Village Voice, Nation, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Details, New York Times, and New York.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert I. Friedman was an investigative journalist who is perhaps best known for delving into the workings of the Russian mob in the United States, which resulted in threats to his life. His own contacts spanned the globe, and he worked in relative anonymity until 1999, when he was credited with uncovering the information that led to national headlines alleging that the Russian mob had set up a $10 billion money-laundering scheme through the Bank of New York.

Friedman grew up in Denver, Colorado, and worked on an assembly line while taking classes at the University of Colorado. He took time off to travel and audited courses at American University in Beirut, Lebanon and stayed in a red-light district where he was the only Jew living among members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In October 1973, he volunteered to work on a kibbutz in Israel while the men fought the Yom Kippur War.

Upton Sinclair's 1906 The Jungle was Friedman's inspiration. Freedman once said, "I wanted to be a writer and bring down the bastions of power that caused common people so much suffering. That's what I thought in eleventh grade. I guess I never grew up. I still feel that way."

Friedman was known for his attention to detail and attribution in his controversial and volatile reporting. The New York Times allowed him to break news on the op-ed page, and in 1987, a grant allowed him to report on the radical Jewish right, whose hope it was to establish a Greater Israel on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Friedman, who was of Russian-Jewish heritage, sometimes alienated other Jews for his criticism of figures like Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Nation reviewer Michael Rosenthal called his biography, The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, "a devastating, thoroughly convincing account of the career . . . of a world-class fraud, megalomaniac, and vicious bigot who rose to prominence—and a seat in the Knesset in 1984—by exploiting the basest fears of Jews both here and in Israel. A genius in the marketing of racial and religious hatred, Kahane demonstrates what implacable ambition unsullied by any trace of decency or morality can do for you if only you are serious."

Friedman notes that Kahane was fired from his first and only job as a rabbi and then became an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He used a pseudonym, Michael King, and spent the 1960s infiltrating left-wing peace groups, lobbying for the Vietnam War, and reporting on various organizations, including the Black Panthers and other Black Nationalist groups in which the FBI was interested. He achieved greater public recognition when he founded the militant Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968.

"Capitalizing on the racial tensions of the late 1960s, the JDL purported to be ready to defend innocent Jews from the alleged anti-Semitism stemming from the increasingly militant black civil rights movement," wrote Rosenthal. "In fact, it never defended anybody from anything, except perhaps Kahane from his creditors. In providing Kahane a platform from which to spout his politics of hate and fear, it enabled him to galvanize the anxieties of thousands of Jews into pouring millions of dollars into an organization whose real mission was not their protection but the selling of Meir Kahane." Friedman notes that many of the contributors would never admit to their support.

Kahane became a hero to the Jewish right of New York and was in league with mob boss Joseph Columbo, who showed up in court and paid Kahane's bail of $25,000. In 1971, Kahane left for Israel after being indicted for manufacturing weapons, where he coined his slogan, "Every Jew a .22," as he called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Rosenthal concluded by saying that Friedman "negotiates the miasma of Kahane's life with both admirable restraint and a compelling urgency, exposing his cynicism, his dishonesty, his untroubled racism. He examines as well the human wreckage spawned by Kahane's fanaticism—altogether, a grim and unforgiving portrait of a man who has always feasted on confrontation."

Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement followed. Tikkun reviewer Rita E. Hauser wrote that "the details and color that Friedman provides about the agenda of the messianic Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza will surely deepen the foreboding that often grips supporters of a truly democratic Israel. Above all else, Friedman documents the extent to which Israeli political figures have used the settler movement for their own purposes."

Friedman had moved in mob circles for years, including for his reportage on the Cosa Nostra, and his connections helped him infiltrate the Russian mob early in the 1990s, after the cold war had ended. Russians with criminal records had taken refuge in the United States during the 1970s when Russia, under pressure from the U.S. government, allowed Jews to emigrate. Russia took advantage of this opportunity to rid itself of thousands of jailed criminals on an unsuspecting United States.

Friedman never gave away his informants, who continually fed him information because they trusted him. In a 1993 Vanity Fair article, he wrote about Marat Balagula and others in the Russian Jewish mob that were based in Brighton Beach on the Brooklyn shore and who were loosely connected to the Italian mob. Balagula was eventually convicted of evading taxes owed the federal government from the sale millions of gallons of gasoline.

Through the 1990s, Friedman broke other stories on various operations and figures, including Semion Mogilevich—whose network is the "Red Mafiya" of the title. A Ukranian Jew who was linked to prostitution, drugs, nuclear arms trafficking, and the New York money laundering scheme, Mogilevich employed a sophisticated staff that used modern technology to extend his operations around the world. Friedman drew on interviews and data contained in classified documents to expose the various schemes, and the FBI contacted Friedman and suggested that he and his wife go into hiding when death threats were made. They did, for just a week, then returned to New York City.

Friedman's reporting on the Russian mob culminated with his book, Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, in which he documents the corruption that has flourished since the end of the cold war, resulting in a "criminal colossus that has surpassed the Colombian cartels, the Japanese Yakuzas, the Chinese triads, and the Italian Mafia in wealth and weaponry." Friedman lists the schemes of dozens of Russian crime syndicates operating in the United States, including Medicare fraud, theft, stock scams, money laundering, and their activities in business and real estate. He writes of deals in which helicopters and a submarine were sold to Colombian drug lords and how the Russian mob is expanding into Africa and Australia.

In reviewing Red Mafiya for the New York Review of Books, Raymond Bonner wrote that Friedman's prose "sometimes makes it sound like a sequel to Pulp Fiction." Washington Post Book World's Peter H. Stone said Friedman "does a first-rate job of showing why FBI director Louis Freeh has said that the Russian mob poses an 'immense' threat."

In 1996 Friedman was on assignment in Bombay to investigate how political corruption and sexual slavery were contributing to the AIDS epidemic. Upon returning to the States, he experienced flu-like symptoms that were the first signs of a rare, incurable blood disease that eventually damaged his heart to such an extent that it not support him past the age of fifty-one. Nation contributor and friend Julian Epstein wrote: "Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and greedy, in all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries, and mobsters, were preying on the weak."



American Journalism Review, January, 2000, Sherry Ricchiardi, "The Best Investigative Reporter You've Never Heard Of," p. 44.

Journal of Church and State, autumn, 1993, Louis Gordon, review of The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, p. 916.

Middle East Journal, spring, 1991, Dennis King, review of The False Prophet, p. 354.

Nation, October 29, 1990, Michael Rosenthal, review of The False Prophet, p. 494.

New Leader, December 14, 1992, Yehudah Mirsky, review of Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement, p. 13.

New York Review of Books, October 25, 1990, Arthur Hertzberg, review of The False Prophet, pp. 41-47; November 16, 2000, Raymond Bonner, review of Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, pp. 52-55.

New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, Robert Leiter, review of The False Prophet, p. 18; January 10, 1993, Peter Grose, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 21.

Oral History Review, winter, 1995, Sherna Berger Gluck, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 115.

Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The False Prophet, p. 54; October 12, 1992, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 58; May 8, 2000, review of Red Mafiya, p. 216.

Tikkun, September-October, 1990, Milton Viorst, review of The False Prophet, p. 86; March-April, 1993, Rita E. Hauser, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 65.

Times Literary Supplement, August 24, 1990, Patrick Seale, review of The False Prophet, p. 890.

Washington Post Book World, July 16, 2000, Peter H. Stone, review of Red Mafiya, p. 9.


Flak, (January 3, 2003), Ben Welch, review of Red Mafiya., (May 18, 2000), Mark Schone, review of Red Mafiya.



American Journalism Review, September, 2002, p. 10.

Nation, August 5, 2002, p. 4.

Washington Post, July 9, 2002, p. B7.


Freedom Forum Web site, (July 16, 2002).*