The morning after organized crime figure Charlie Abutbul was found dead from a (self-inflicted?) gunshot wound to the head in his Netanya home, a conspiracy began forming on a WhatsApp group for Israeli crime reporters.
The first salvo was sent out by a reporter from an Israeli TV channel, who said the family doesn’t want the press to cover the funeral, and maybe we could all agree not to go. He was answered by a well-known radio reporter who agreed, as well as a website reporter who said that members of the family almost attacked a reporter outside Charlie’s home on Thursday and that he’s not going.
A veteran reporter who now writes for a popular news portal upped the stakes, saying “I’m not going and its a disgrace if any of us go”, later writing “whoever goes anyway that’s their call, but the public will decide for themselves which of us are turning the underworld into celebs and people to admire.”
The claim that the Israeli media makes local criminals into celebrities is a common one, albeit one usually made by police. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of truth to it. These days even small-time or mid-level associates are often referred to as “organized crime figures” by the media, and almost every member of a two-bit crew of loan sharks and extortionists can hear himself called “part of a criminal organization in the underworld”, after he’s hauled in on a weapons charge. Their friends and enemies back in their neighborhood see it, the girls who follow them to the courthouse perk up when they hear it, and once they’re released, (they’re almost always released without indictment) their reputation grows. The situation becomes more absurd in cases like one a couple months ago when a young man was arrested for stealing a scooter in Tel Aviv and the story made headlines because he’s a member of the Abutbul family, unlike the other scores of people who’ve stolen scooters in the city in recent months.
Still, is the criticism totally fair? Are Israeli reporters responsible for making mobsters and “members of the underworld” famous when just the past six months there’s been over two dozen criminal murders and more than a dozen car bombs? Does the coverage of mob funerals and weddings bear more responsibility for the spotlight on the underworld than the cars blowing up in the center of Israeli cities? Obviously not, but an attitude persists among police and many members of the press that murders within the underworld are not stories of great importance to the Israeli public, that they’re little more than a sort of insider baseball for lowlifes gunning each other down over turf wars most everyday Israelis don’t know are even happening.
Nonetheless, the reporter who said of Charlie “let’s not go, he’s not a celebrity”, was wrong. In today’s Israel big name underworld figures are genuine celebrities, especially a man like Charlie, who was a senior member of one of the few criminal organizations everyone in the country knows, civilians included.
There’s little that’s newsworthy about the funeral itself, though it’s a good way to get color and photos or video for the TV report. The death of Charlie on the other hand, is quite newsworthy. His death (still being investigated as a suicide) and similar ones in the underworld help shape the criminal landscape in Israel, a world that even when it’s beyond the eyes of most Israelis still has a serious effect on the communities they live in. Furthermore, the story of Charlie’s life and death is part of the wider tale of an Israeli family from North Africa that helped define the criminal world of the country for decades, a family whose life story and that of family’s like it are part of the fabric of this country’s history.
On Friday, mere hours after the WhatsApp argument began, the funeral ended in Netanya. Around 200 or so people attended, a much more muted affair than when Charlie’s brother Felix, the Godfather who made the family famous, was laid to rest in the city after he was murdered in Prague in 2002. That time, the funeral resembled that of a head of state, as the city heaved with well-wishers from across the country, and store owners in the city center shut down for the day.
Among those present on Friday were a handful of crime reporters, and by the evening footage of the funeral was posted on a handful of Israeli websites, WhatsApp argument be damned.