The Jewish Gangster Who Founded a Gambling Desert Paradise

Benny “Bugsy” Siegel hoped to transform the little-known town of Las Vegas into the gambling capital of the world

The city of Las Vegas was founded in May, 1905. It was not a typical American city; for the first forty years of its existence, Las Vegas was a sparsely populated town located in the dusty, desert state of Nevada, some eighty miles from Death Valley. The first generation of residents never imagined the tourist paradise their city would eventually become.

If the Second World War had wreaked total destruction upon large swaths of Europe and Asia, in the United States, the war had actually given the Depression Era economy a much needed boost. In its wake came a period of unprecedented prosperity. The American century began with an enormous economic boom and the middle class was at last able enjoy the good life that until then had been the preserve of America’s wealthiest citizens. Among other things, this included some of the more suspect activities like gambling, prostitution, and the consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Most of the illegal gambling institutions were in the hands of the National Crime Syndicate — a loosely-connected umbrella organization which covered much of the American underworld. It was controlled by “Lucky” Luciano, an Italian immigrant, and Meyer Lansky, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Gambling joints and casinos were situated in two main locations: Miami and Cuba. The new technology of air flight had made America smaller and the fact that Nevada was the only state in the union where gambling was legal made it a bright spot on the investment map of the criminal world.

One of the most notorious personalities of this underworld was Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, who had paid his first visit to Nevada in 1941, in the hope of finding an ideal location that he could turn into the legal gambling capital of America. Bugsy came up empty-handed after his first scouting mission. While he recognized Las Vegas’ potential, the owners of the city’s first casino refused the Jewish gangster’s offer to buy out their shares. Eventually Bugsy found the right seller and managed to purchase a small gambling hotel downtown using a combination of cold hard cash and a few well-placed threats. Meyer Lansky did not share his long-time partner’s optimism regarding the future of the desert town, but he decided to support his friend and invest, while bringing along several other figures from the crime world.

From the start of his work on the project, Bugsy’s ostentatiousness knew no bounds: he hired the best interior designers money could buy and equipped the hotel with the most expensive furnishings available. He himself undertook the design of the deluxe suites. Above all, Bugsy invested in the casino and the bar, which he believed would provide the primary income of the new Flamingo Hotel.

 Police mug shots of the gangster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel

Within the first month of opening, Lansky’s misgivings proved correct. Las Vegas did indeed grow over the years and moved away from its image as a sleepy desert town, but it did not have the power to draw continuous streams of tourists beyond the Christmas holiday season – the date set for the grand opening. The Flamingo Hotel closed within a month. The hotel and Siegel’s angry investors incurred heavy losses. The gangster refused to give up and in order to get back in the game he borrowed additional funds from banks and outside investors, doubling the usual investment for a Las Vegas hotel at the time, which stood at around one million dollars. The main funding once gain came from members of the Jewish underworld. This time, along with the money, came a warning: The “Flamingo” had better make good on the investment and turn a handsome profit for the investors, or else…

Bugsy brushed off the threats and invested the cash in additional renovations, but still, the casino business in Las Vegas would not take off. At first, Bugsy thought it was just a slow period that would eventually pass, but as the losses continued to pile up he could not ignore the hard truth – his business was simply not working.

His partners (who also suspected Bugsy of having sabotaged a drug deal) were convinced: either their friend was swindling them, or he had lost his business touch. Whatever the reason, Las Vegas was becoming more and more of a burden.

On June 20th, 1947, the violence that had accompanied Bugsy Siegel’s whole life finally caught up with him. During a vacation in Las Vegas, Siegel was shot in the head at point blank range, dying instantly. Photographs of his body were published across the United States and afterward around the world. In the weeks and months following his assassination, news stories appeared about the Jewish gangster who had made the little-known city of Las Vegas the capital of his crime empire.  While he may have failed in his mission, in his death he contributed to the city’s reputation for decadence and corruption, a reputation which would transform Las Vegas into Sin City within a few years.

During the Cuban revolution of 1959, the casinos owned by Lansky and his fellow gangsters were nationalized by the new regime. Their other businesses in Miami were also damaged as a result. Only at this point did the Jewish mafia boss turn his attention to Las Vegas, the city that had been so dear to his late friend.


Meyer Lansky, worried by the Cuban takeover of his businesses and the continued harassment of the police, turned his sights on Las Vegas

This story has an Israeli angle. It is known that Lansky contributed money to the Jewish yishuv during the War of Independence. But besides that, in the 1970s he even asked to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return in an attempt to escape a federal investigation against him back in the United States. He visited Israel on a number of occasions and during his stays identified Eilat as a potential gambling paradise – another desert town located far away from the country’s bustling central region.



Meir Lansky visits the Western Wall, in an attempt to persuade the immigration authorities that he was simply a Jew yearning from his homeland (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

The Israeli government rejected his request, fearing that his presence would attract the attention of other American criminals. Did Eilat miss out on an opportunity to become the Las Vegas of the Middle East? We will likely never know. Lansky, of course, had another spin on this story. In an interview with the journalist Dan Raviv, the old gangster said that all he wanted in his retirement years was to live in Israel “just like any other Jew.”

 Meyer Lansky during an interview with the Israeli journalist Dan Raviv (from the book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob)

The Letter of Apostasy: Maimonides as a Refugee

A glimpse of the Letter of Apostasy ("Iggeret HaShmad") sent by Maimonides as a message to Jews who were forced to convert to Islam and now wished to return to Judaism

The letter reveals the greatness of Maimonides as a rabbinic decisor (posek) who relied on his life experience as a war refugee to benefit his rejected people

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s (Maimonides) life experience taught him from a young age that he and his contemporaries were living in an era of destruction in Jewish history. When the great Jewish philosopher was in his early twenties, the Almohad (“the unifiers”) movement came to power in Muslim Spain. The radical Islamic movement’s main goal was to forcibly spread their extreme version of Islam. To this end, they worked to shatter the communal life that had developed in the areas they conquered. “The Golden Age” of Jewish life in Spain had come to an end.
The Almohads conquered North Africa and Andalusia, attempted to eliminate any “foreign influence” on what they saw as “True Islam”, and forced non-Muslims to choose between Islam and death. In many cases, non-Muslims were not given the choice to convert and were executed immediately.

דיוקנו המפורסם של הרמב"ם, אשר צויר לראשונה שנים רבות לאחר מותו. לפריט בקטלוג לחצו
The renowned portrait of Maimonides was originally painted years after his death. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here

As the conquerors progressed, Maimonides’ family fled to Morocco and the Maghreb, presumably in 1159. It is unclear why they chose to immigrate precisely to the stronghold of the Almohads, especially at a time when the Jewish communities were being annihilated under the orders of the movement’s leader, Abd al-Mu’min. One theory is that the family’s anonymity in Morocco made it easier to hide their Jewish background.

The flag of the Almohad dynasty

By this period, Maimonides was already engaged in the heated halachic debate on the question of forced conversion among Jews of the Maghreb and Andalusia. Jews who managed to escape the Almohad terror after being forced to convert to Islam, turned to different decisors with the question: What were they to do now?

A famous, widespread halachic decision stated that Jews who were persecuted were to refuse to convert to Islam even if it cost them their lives; this was because the practice of Islam was considered idolatry. The rabbi who published the decision (his identity is unclear) added that Jews who were forced to convert to Islam were not only unable to return to Judaism in freedom, they were condemned to death. When Maimonides heard of this decision, he felt it was his duty to reply. He wrote the Letter of Apostasy and sent it to the persecuted Jews of the Maghreb.

Maimonides’ Letter of Apostasy

From the very beginning of the letter, it is apparent that Maimonides could not contain the rage he felt towards the hasty rabbi who had declared that forced converts to Islam were to be expelled from the Jewish people. He stated that anyone who publishes such a severe decision is like an empty vessel that “should not speak at length”. After reading the rabbi’s decision in full, Maimonides stated that this man was not “clear-headed”.

A manuscript of the Letter of Apostasy held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. To view this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

After completely annulling the rabbi’s authority, Maimonides utilized his profound knowledge of Jewish wisdom and gathered several sources from the Midrash and Aggadah. He wished to show that throughout history, the people of Israel sinned time after time and committed idolatry, yet the Lord forgave them each time they professed repentance. Maimonides further wrote that there were numerous incidents in which even great sages of Israel were forced to pretend and commit sins, while they secretly continued to practice the laws of the Torah.

“If these well-known Heretics were generously rewarded for the little good that they did, is it conceivable that God will not reward the Jews, who despite the exigencies of the forced conversion performed commandments secretly? Can it be that He does not discriminate between one who performs a commandment and one who does not, between one who serves God and one who does not?”. In this, Maimonides concluded that not only were the Jews of the Maghreb who converted to Islam not to be expelled from the Jewish people, but they had become a link in the chain of persecuted Jews throughout the generations.

A nineteenth century copy of the Letter of Apostasy, Frankfurt University. To find this item in the National Library catalog, click here.

Maimonides did not stop there; he tried to lessen the sense of guilt and rejection caused by saying the Islamic Shahada – the proclamation declaring “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. He clarified to the Anusim (forced converts) that in saying this they were not betraying the God of Israel, as these words were meaningless to those Jews who were forced to utter them. At the end of the letter, Maimonides advised the forced converts to immigrate to regions in which they could return to the embrace of their people and live as Jews leading lives of Torah and mitzvot.

Maimonides’s grave in Tiberias. The Photohouse Collection, 1952. Photograph: Rudi Weissenstein

Though Maimonides’ years of wandering came to an end upon his arrival to Egypt in the year 1166, the immigrant and Almohad war refugee never forgot the years of wandering and religious persecution that were the fate of his family and people. To the end of his days he would address himself in his writings as the “Sephardic one” or the “Andalusi one”.

הדפסה משנת 1850 ב"ברעסלויא". תוכלו להוריד את הספר בחינם באתר Hebrew Books
An 1850 Breslau print of the Letter of Apostasy


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When Ingrid Bergman Ate a Soviet Labor Camp Dinner

The legendary movie star was enlisted to join a campaign raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry during the Cold War era

Ingrid Bergman. The iconic actress was a star of American and European films, with a career spanning over forty years

“Do I really have to eat it?” asks this female icon, this woman who represents all women who have loved. She stuck to her own principles against all odds, which caused her to be shunned in her country of birth, yet she never let this defeat her courage and spirit.

I looked into that wonderful face with the artfully enticing eyes which graced the silver screen and melted hearts in the time-warped, yet timeless movie Casablanca, and replied, “Yes you do”.

Ingrid Bergman takes a bite of the unappealing food served to Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience

And so, Ingrid Bergman took a spoon to the watery cabbage soup, accompanied by dried rough black bread, a small potato, a slither of dried cod, a ¼ oz of sugar and margarine. This meal represented the daily intake of Sylva Zalmanson, a Prisoner of Zion in a Soviet labour camp. Ingrid had flown to London on her behalf. “It’s terrible,” she had said earlier about Sylva, but was currently referring to the food.


Footage of Ingrid Bergman eating the Soviet labour camp meal (0:18). Video: Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center

Ingrid had come to London in March 1973. She was invited by the “The 35’s”, also known as “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry“, to raise the profile of Sylva Zalmanson’s plight. Sylva was one of the few Jewish women to ever be incarcerated in the Soviet Union. In Hanukkah 1970, the news reached London that twelve Jews in Leningrad who had been refused visas to leave the Soviet Union for Israel, were arrested and charged with attempting to “hijack” an airplane. Consequently, Sylva’s husband, the pilot Eduard Kuznetzov and his co-pilot were sentenced to death. There was not a chink in the Iron Curtain at the time.

When Ingrid heard Sylva’s story, she rose to the challenge. Georges Weill, an internationally acclaimed jeweler, had designed a medallion engraved with the name, Sylva Zalmanson, within a Star of David. Hundreds of these medallions were reproduced in solid silver and, with several special orders in gold. A gold version was to be presented to Ingrid Bergman that day.

Sylva Zalmanson finally arrives in Israel, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, 1974. Photo by Akiva Nof, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Everyone was busy. I was one of the women in black demonstrating outside the Imperial Hotel in the heart of London, where she was staying. Suddenly Big D, our leader, called me over and said, “She has to be interviewed by the BBC. They’ll be here any minute! Would you take her up to her room and stay with her for the interview?”

Who would say no?

As soon as we entered the ornate period style suite, she collapsed into a pink brocade antique wingchair. Her nobility of effort, paired with the adoration and esteem in which the public held her, did little to offset the harrowing and emotional experience.

I poured her a small brandy and handed her a large glass of water. She smiled and seemingly relaxed. At that moment, there was a tap on the door. The female journalist entered, microphone in hand.

At the end of the interview, Ingrid was asked, “Was it due to your own personal suffering that you identified with Sylva?” (In the 1950s, as a result of her torrid and turbulent love affair with the Italian director, Roberto Rossellini and the subsequent birth of their son, she was scandalized and denounced in the United States and Sweden, an indication of the puritanical times).

Those beautiful eyes widened, “Not at all,” she said. “My suffering, as you call it, was of my own doing. Sylva has been denied every person’s human right, by a cruel and tyrannical regime”. I found that to be deeply profound.

On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.


The Housewives Who Took on the USSR to Help Soviet Jewry

How a women's protest group made a difference by raising the cause of Soviet Jewish political prisoners during the Cold War

A protest by The 35's calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35's Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

As the lights were dimmed in the main hall of Montreal’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier concert venue, the audience gradually came to a hush. This was not just another show. The ticket holders were there to witness a performance by the legendary 200 year-old Bolshoi Ballet in a major Western city during the Cold War era – a rare spectacle indeed. But as the anticipation reached its peak and the curtain was finally raised, something happened. The dancers onstage and the majority of the audience looked on in horror as dozens of people seated in the front rows suddenly rose from their seats and silently filed out of the chamber. When they were gone, only one man was left standing in the large, now nearly empty front section. He was dressed in the pinstripe uniform of a prisoner.

The date was June 17th, 1974.

A protest by the women of The 35’s and their partners at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier venue in Montreal, 1974. The protesters walked out in defiance with the raising of the curtain. Photo: The Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

This unusual demonstration was part of a historic protest movement. The group responsible was an organization known as “The 35’s”, or more formally – “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry”. Formed in London in May of 1971, the group was named in honor of Raiza Palatnik, a 35 year old Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in an isolated cell five months earlier in Odessa in the Soviet Union. Palatnik was accused of “keeping and distributing materials slanderous to the State” and had even dared to request to immigrate to Israel. She had not been allowed any contact with her parents or lawyer.

Upon hearing of the Palatnik case, a group of some thirty-five British women, most of whom were around the age of 35, gathered outside the Soviet Consulate in the United Kingdom, dressed in black, with signs calling for Raiza Palatnik’s release. “Towards the evening it was decided that we would sleep on the streets, and that had never been done since the suffragettes” says Zelda Harris, a founding member of the group.

A protest by The 35’s calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35’s Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, The 35’s Collection


Only around a dozen women spent the night on the street, but it was enough to get the attention of passersby who hooted and waved at them. “Taxi drivers were stopping and saying “Would you like a cigarette girls?'” Harris recalls. “At six o’ clock in the morning, we hadn’t hardly slept anyway, we got up and opposite us was a very swanky hotel, and we crept in, it was deadly quiet…we walked straight in to the ladies room. Imagine, thirteen women in black dresses, looking a bit scruffy…We had to wash up and use the toilet. The manager came in and said ‘Who are you? What are you doing?!'” The media loved the stunt.

Within hours, The 35’s received word from an Israeli diplomat that Palatnik, a quiet librarian turned political prisoner, had finally been moved to a regular jail cell. The tiny protest had made a real difference. The following week a thousand women in black from all over the UK marched along Whitehall to the Foreign Office. “That’s when we knew we had a movement” says Harris.

A protest by The 35’s calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35’s Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, The 35’s Collection

The group took up the cause of Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience and “refuseniks” – the term given to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate and then persecuted for having asked. Among the prisoners they advocated for were such figures as Eduard Kuznetzov, Sylva Zalmanson, Ida Nudel, Anatoly Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein. Within a few years, The 35’s had branches in nine different countries spanning both sides of the Atlantic.

They targeted symbols of Soviet power and prestige, and few symbols were as prestigious as the famous Bolshoi Ballet which toured the world’s great cities, with the goal of promoting Russian and Soviet art and culture. The dancers travelled under the watchful eye of their KGB guards, who were there to prevent any threat to the performers, as well as any defections to the West. The soon-to-be famous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, however, was able to successfully slip through the net in Toronto, only a few days after the disrupted Montreal performance, before officially requesting political asylum in Canada.

Less than two weeks later, in London, members of The 35’s again protested outside a Bolshoi performance. “People actually tore up their tickets and threw them out the car window” according to Zelda Harris. Inside the concert hall, white mice were let loose among the audience, and nails were thrown onstage. Harris attributes these actions to right-wing groups who also protested against the treatment of Russian Jews. She stresses that The 35’s steered clear of any form of violence.

The Soviet Embassy demanded that stronger action be taken after “only a few” of the protesters were arrested, threatening to cut short the visit if the safety of the dancers was not guaranteed, according to The Sentinel. The British Foreign office made clear: “…we regret the demonstrations because we want the Bolshoi to be a success”.

Indeed, the actions of The 35’s did not always receive widespread support in their own countries. Barbara Oberman, a leading member, attempted to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry in a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She told the Jerusalem Post in 2007: “They responded in a polite British way, whose subtext read that I was a Jewish housewife who knew nothing, was not positioned to take any kind of action and should go home and busy myself with more appropriate matters”.

The 35’s, however, were not to be deterred, quite the opposite. Their tactics were designed to generate shock value and thus grab the media spotlight and public attention. They didn’t have the numbers to organize massive rallies, but their unorthodox methods often landed them on the front page. The organization was heavily influenced by the women’s liberation movement which was at its height at the time. The 35’s made ironic use of various traditional stigmas which often defined the role of women, and particularly housewives, in Western society. Harris describes the prevailing approach of the protests as “Look like a woman, don’t look like a man. If you’re gonna come out, put some makeup on and smile.”

A 35’s protest calling for the release of Prisoners of Zion at Phillips Square in Montreal. Passersby were offered typical Soviet labor camp meals, 1976. the Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

At some demonstrations, passersby were asked to come and taste morsels from a typical meal provided to laborers in a Soviet prison camp:


14 oz. black bread

1 cup hot water

1 oz. herring


2/3 cup soup

Boiled cabbage

1/2 potato


3 oz. potato or 1 cup of raw cabbage


In April, 1972, Jewish Soviet scientist Sergei Gurevitz was sacked from his post and forced to take a job as a cleaner in a laboratory. Like Palatnik, he too had applied for an exit visa to Israel. In response, The 35’s quickly announced that Bayswater Road, the location of the Soviet embassy in London, would be “unusually clean” the following Tuesday. When the day arrived, a phalanx of broom-wielding housewives positioned themselves outside the embassy and proceeded to sweep the grounds, in solidarity with Gurevitz and others who had suffered similar persecution.

“Bayswater Road will be unusually clean next Tuesday” – The 35’s announce a unique protest against the persecution of a Jewish Soviet scientist, the Eli Valk Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People


On a different occasion, The 35’s rented a goat and paraded him down Bond Street while they themselves dressed as prisoners and wore nametags of actual refuseniks. The goat, which quickly escaped its bonds and ran off, was meant to symbolize the treatment of Soviet Jews, who many felt were being made the scapegoat of the Cold War struggle between the two great superpowers of the time.

A protest by The 35’s on behalf of Prisoners of Zion held in the USSR, Montreal, 1976. Photo by Bill Brennan, the Wendy Eisen Collection: The Canadian 35’s, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People


By this point, the British authorities were keeping close tabs on the group. Harris tells of a demonstration during which she donned a lion suit, to protest the fact that the British rugby team, nicknamed “The Lions”, was going to play the Soviet Union. “Suddenly the detective in charge sidled up to me and said to me: ‘I know you’re in there Zelda,’ and I said ‘How in heaven’s name do you know it’s me?!’ And he said ‘Because I know your height, I know the size of your feet, I know the sound of your voice.’ They knew everything! They had files on all of us.”

Another tactic was the enlistment of celebrities and leading public figures to the cause, such as actresses Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda and Haley Mills, as well as philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre in particular, was a major achievement for The 35’s, as the French intellectual had expressed pro-Soviet views in the past, and the support of such an influential figure had great significance in leftist circles.

The group took it upon itself to maintain constant contact with the prisoners and resfuseniks still held in the USSR through phone calls and tourist visits. They also kept in touch with families of prisoners, offering encouragement and information regarding the status of their imprisoned relatives, while also sending birthday and holiday greetings, as well as books, siddurs, matzos and other gifts.

“Adopt a Prisoner” campaigns were organized in which group members, as well as sympathetic families and politicians, would be assigned a prisoner to keep in touch with. Using these methods, The 35’s were especially effective in collecting up-to-date intelligence on the status of the prisoners and refuseniks, information which was then passed on to the “Nativ” organization.

Today, the actions of The 35’s are widely acknowledged as having played a key role in raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry. This public awareness was often translated into political pressure, which in many cases resulted in the release of prisoners and refuseniks.

Raiza Palatnik, the woman whose ordeal started it all, was finally released after two years in prison, in December, 1972. She was soon allowed to immigrate to Israel, where she found work at the National Library. According to Lizetta Amir, a veteran librarian, and Rini Goldsmith, the director of the Foreign Language Catalog at the Library, Palatnik was a strikingly impressive, strong-willed woman, who never shied away from voicing her opinion and was highly respected for her courage and her successful struggle to reach Israel.

Most of the remaining refuseniks in Soviet Russia were allowed to leave in 1987, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) policies. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, all restrictions on emigration were lifted.

On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.