- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israeli bettors will soon experience the exhilaration of cheering their horse to the winning post after a religious ban on gambling was overturned recently.

For the first time, the Jewish state has approved organized betting on horses. The gambling ban dates back 2,000 years to a rabbinical ruling, or prohibition, in the oral Torah. It rules against pigeon racers, which has come to be interpreted as a religious denunciation of gambling in general.

A Cabinet committee headed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 26 gave its approval to proposals from a group of Israeli and foreign business entrepreneurs to build a $37 million racecourse, called the Hippodrome, in the north of Israel.

The action, however, has angered religious hard-liners who believe that gambling is immoral and breeds licentiousness. Some religious authorities also interpret Jewish civil law as implying that gambling profits are “tantamount to theft,” although nothing explicit condemns gambling per se.

Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev said the racetrack would expose poor people to the false hope of easy money.

“The new betting activities will have all their usual negative side-effects: crime, violence, money-laundering, blackmail, drugs and prostitution,” he said.

For years, ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel have demanded an absolute ban on gambling at casinos and on horses. Bettors have circumvented the ban on gambling “on the land” by using floating casinos on ships moored off the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Police impounded five such vessels in Eilat this year, and arrested 19 persons suspected of running an underground operation worth more than $27 million.

Supporters of the racetrack proposal argue that legalized betting would generate millions of dollars in gambling taxes for the national economy. They took advantage of the absence of Orthodox parties within the secular, Likud-led government coalition to push the move through.

The betting could be run by a national body to prevent it from coming under the control of Israeli Mafia and underworld figures.

Such is the appetite for gambling among Israelis that a lucrative trade has grown in flying clients to newly established casinos in Central and Eastern Europe. A grenade attack on an Israeli-owned casino in Prague last week, in which a British tourist was injured, has been linked to rivalries between Israeli Mafia groups.

Israel’s horse racing scene is at present centered on a makeshift track in Pardes Hannah, where between 12 and 14 race meetings are held each year. No prize money is offered.

Under the new plans, at least 2,000 horses will race at the Hippodrome in a season, over distances ranging from three quarters of a mile to two miles.

The Hippodrome project is the brainchild of Danny Atar, head of the civic council in Gilboa, where the course will be built. His plans also include a veterinary hospital, hotels, entertainment facilities, horse-breeding farms and training facilities that would create 7,000 jobs.

“This project will change the atmosphere in Israel,” said Mr. Atar, whose deputy on the council is an Arab, and whose investors include both Jews and Israeli Arabs.

“It will change the culture and provide entertainment for Israelis, as well as playing an important role in the Israeli economy by moving activities from the center of Israel to the north,” he said.

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