Jewish Boxing, Fencing, and Self-Defense

A recent post on David Hardy's fine weblog, Of Arms & the Law, discusses the great English Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza. So I thought I would add what I know about Jewish boxing, along with a bonus paragraph on Jewish fencing.

Beginning in 1760, British Jews began to participate in the sport of boxing. The English champion from 1791-95 was Daniel Mendoza, whose innovative technique relied on speed and skill rather than pure force.

As the political reformer Francis Place explained, before Mendoza:

Dogs could not be used in the streets in the manner many Jews were treated. One circumstance among others put an end to the ill-usage of Jews....[Mendoza became famous and set up a boxing school for young Jews.] The consequence was in a very few years seen and felt too. It was no longer safe to insult a Jew unless he was an old man and alone....But even if the Jews were unable to defend themselves, the few who would now be disposed to insult them merely because they are Jews, would be in danger of chastisement from passers-by and of punishment from the police.
Thus, when Jews began to defend themselves, they demonstrated that they were worthy of being defended-—and so good-hearted gentiles also began to defend Jews.

In the 1920s in the United States, Jews were the major ethnic group engaged in professional boxing—-mainly for the same economic reasons that many low-income groups gravitate towards boxing. Jews remained prominent in the 1930s, after which Jewish participation waned as Jews climbed the socio-economic ladder, and found easier ways to make a living.

In the Jewish boxers, one could see what historian Irving Howe called the "New Jewish Character," which was "active, not passive, subject, not object, erect, not bowed, combative, not acquiescent."

The first American boxer to play a prominent role in public affairs was Barney Ross, who won the lightweight, junior welterweight, and welterweight championships. He retired from boxing in 1938, enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor, and was wounded at Guadalcanal, earning a Silver Star for rescuing soldiers from a Japanese ambush. After returning to the United States, Ross played a very public role in Zionist groups pressuring the American government to help Jewish refugees, and recruiting Americans to assist the Irgun (Menachem Begin's fighting group in British Palestine).

In 1915, Louis Brandeis explained how Zionism was reforming the Jewish character, so that Jews would fight for their rights, rather than submitting to anti-Semitism:
[Zionism's] effect upon the Jewish students of Austrian universities was immediate and striking. Until then they had been despised and ill-treated. They had wormed their way into appointments and into free professions by dint of pliancy, mock humility, mental acuteness, and clandestine protection. If struck or spat upon by "Aryan" students, they rarely ventured to return the blow or insult. But Zionism gave them courage. They formed associations, and learned athletic drill and fencing…..[P]resently the best fencers of the German fighting corps found that Zionist students could gash cheeks quite as effectually as any Teuton, and that Jews were in a fair way to become the best swordsmen of the university. Today the purple cap of the Zionist is as respected as any academic association.
Sources: Allen Bodner, When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997).

Irving Howe, Introduction to The Legacy of Jewish Migration, ed., David Berger (N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983), p. 28.

Louis D. Brandeis, Brandeis on Zionism: A Collection of Addresses and Statements by Louis D. Brandeis (Union, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange, 1999)(1st pub. 1942), p. 32 (June 1915 speech, "The Jewish Problem and How to Solve It").

ThirdCircuitLawyer (mail):
Is there a 2nd Amendment right to box? It's the right to bare arms, after all. (Rimshot....)
9.5.2006 1:26am
This sheds some light on why the Zionist movement is so despised by the enemies of Israel. Apparently the Islamists pine for the good old days of Jews just accepting whatever abuse happens to come by.

To put it succintly, the Jews got "uppity", and the bullies don't like it.

9.5.2006 2:20am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Speaking of Jewish self-defense. In the late 1930s European Jews faced violent encounters from fascist militias. To help protect the community in Bratislava Imi Lichtenfeld developed the techniques of self- defense called Krav Maga, which literally translates to "contact combat." Don't think of Krav Maga as some sort of martial art or sport-- it's down and dirty street fighting where you inflict the maximum amount of pain on your opponent to survive. By 1940 things got so bad for Jews he left Bratislava for the British Mandate where he taught his techniques to the Haganah. Later Lichtenfeld became the chief instructor in physical fitness and Krav Maga for the Israeli Defense Forces. Today Krav Maga is taught to police, military forces and civilians throughout the world. You can get this training in most large cities in the US and the national headquarters is located in Los Angeles.

Jews seem to have mixed attitudes towards self-defense. Unfortunately many I know really oppose the whole idea of preparing yourself for an unexpected violent encounter—a combination of pacifism and denial. The training also provides a good way to become physically fit, so you benefit tremendously even if you never need to defend yourself.

[DK; Very interesting about Krav Maga. The Denver Police Department uses it. I had known that KM was Israeli, but did not know about its origins in Bratislava.]
9.5.2006 6:41am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
I've recently been reading up on the development of Krav Maga myself. Tying it, and other forms of self defense, to Zionism, as a matter of will, rather than need, sheds new light on the matter. Thanks Dave.

But one observation:

...the Irgun (Menachem Begin's fighting group in British Palestine)

Aren't we engaging in the same sort of euphemization here which we condemn Reuters and the BBC for? ;)
9.5.2006 2:01pm
A. Zarkov (mail):

Go here for a history of KM. My daughter has been taking KM training and liking it a lot. One of her instructors also trains the US military. He made an interesting remark at a recent special workshop to the effect that the rules of engagement for the US military are changing towards a more civilian-based model. I find this somewhat upsetting. The Marines are not the police, or even police SWAT teams. Another upsetting remark: many in the LA police have poor marksmanship.
9.5.2006 2:26pm
This is an interesting perspective as non specialists (of either boxing history or jewish history) like myself often see the Jewish communities to have socially, economically and politically risen by different means. Most of these means being of a "non-violent" nature (through liberal careers, community organizations, by valorizing academic and professional success as much as a sense of community). This point of view adds an interpretation to the rise of the community from its basis rather than from its elites (should we not consider a boxing champion as coming from the elite so to speak).

This aspect may have been underlooked by historiographs although I'd like to know if it's importance is measurable compared to other given aspects.

Although I am not Jewish, I would definitely like to know more about the interactions between the Jewish social elites and those who emerged from the streets by using more "violent" means. Was it one of cooperation or conflictional (let alone paternalistic, condescending, etc.)?

Thanks for the input.
9.5.2006 4:35pm
Roscoe (mail) (www):
Barney Ross was never in the Army, he was (as I am sure he would be quick to point out, if he were still with us) a Marine.
9.5.2006 5:10pm
I train in Krav Maga. There are two very good schools in Maryland, another in DC, and another in Northern VA (Arlington maybe? I'm not sure). It is a superb workout and a highly practical fighting system. The test I had to pass to get to Level 2 was more physically (if not technically) challenging than the one I took to earn my black belt in another system.
9.5.2006 6:27pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
The Wikipedia article on Barney Ross illustrates my point about Jewish attitudes towards self-defense. Here are a few choice quotes:

"… young Beryl Rasofsky [Barney Ross] grew up on Chicago's mean streets, ignoring his beloved father's admonition that Jews do not fight back."

"Let the atheists be the fighters,'" Ross later recalled being told by his father. "'The trumbeniks, the murderers - we are the scholars."

"… his father was shot dead resisting a robbery at his small grocery. Prostrate from grief, his mother Sarah suffered a nervous breakdown and his younger siblings -- Ida, Sam and George -- were placed in an orphanage or farmed out to other members of the extended family. Barney and his brothers Maurice and Benjamin were left to their own devices."

You can be a fighter (when you have to) and a scholar—there's really nothing inconsistent about the combination. You need to survive to be a scholar.
9.6.2006 4:22am
Michael Newman:
There were several champion Jewish fencers coming out of Hungary in the early part of the 20th century, including Olympic medalists. The character in the movie "Sunshine" who was a fencer was based on an actual person -- and he too was murdered by the Nazis.
9.6.2006 9:16pm