When you hear “Jewish self-defense,” you probably think of the IDF, since that’s pretty much the best example around. Max Nordau’s promotion of “Jewry of Muscle” was a key (or at least memorable) part of early political Zionism. But Jews defending themselves as Jews, using physical strength to defend their rights both to be and to be Jewish, all of this both existed before and exists outside of the Jewish State. My favorite example of this from fiction has to be the scene in Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, in which a successful and successfully assimilated Jewish character responds to being called a “goddamn Jew” not by running away or by complaining to others nearby, nor even by appealing to a Jewish organization, but by neatly punching the offender in the face. And it’s awesome.

It’s far more starting, and perhaps impressive, on an individual level, to see a WWI-era American Jew with a changed name and a precarious place in society punch an anti-Semite than to see an IDF soldier just doing his job. Of course, the many have certain advantages over the few, and Israel presumably remains the best response in terms of Jews defending themselves as Jews.

David Kopel of the Volokh Conspiracy has a great post up about “Jewish Boxing, Fencing, and Self-Defense.” The idea that, even in the Diaspora, some Zionist ideals of Jewish strength could be carried out is quite interesting, if dubious. What’s muscle without political power? And does muscle, physical or political, actually make Jews more respected in the world? Ideally, some combination of the two might do something along those lines, but who knows.

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  • Fitzgerald also cast Meyer Lansky (dubbed Meyer Wolfsheim) as the dark, criminal source of Jay Gatsby’s fortune, a rather conventional anti-Semitic trope.

    • I suppose it is anti-Italian to have Italian Mafiosi in a novel? Come on, Tom, Meyer Lansky was one of organized crime’s most powerful and notorious godfathers. It isn’t anti-Semitic to refer to him as the major source of some mediocre millionaires’ privileged lives of wealth and influence. It is simply an accurate reflection of a contemporary “fact on the ground.” Meyer Lansky, by the way, was a cold-blooded Zionist, and Zionism has been defined by international law as a form of racism. Go figure. Shouldn’t we be able to ethnically cleanse a people off their ancestral lands without being labeled racist, especially if we have a religious book we can claim gives us that right — unless of course we are NOT any more capable of knowing “God’s Will” than they are.

  • The above comment was not from Phoebe. Not sure how that happened but it was definitely my own.

  • If a BT may speak, Judaism is not pacifism and it is not ascetic. Neither is it hedonism. Judaism does not reject the world or the material, but engages the world in a way that makes the world, the material, holy, or holier, or elevates it.

    So, if Truth with a capital T indicates that someone needs punching, to punch him is a Jewish duty, and is not assimilation at all. He can be punched if Justice requires it. And he can always be punched in self-defense, because to not punch him then would amount to suicide, and that’s not allowed in Judaism.

    To be metaphoric, Jacob’s ladder ascended heavenward, but its bottom was anchored in the earth, the dirt, the mud, the material. The ladder connected the two, upper and lower.

    OK, Phoebe, or Ellen Hymowitz?

    But you should ask a rabbi.

  • Phoebe here, I’d just like to say that I am not my mother, even if we do sort of look alike!

  • And I’m not sure what makes punching back “assimilation,” unless it’s punching back while holding a gin and tonic in the other hand, wearing head-to-toe Lacoste. Is the only non-assimilated response a nebbishy, Woody Allen-esque sprint in the opposite direction?

  • Personally, I like the punch from “The Sun Also Rises”, though I wasn’t huge on the Jew’s entire role in the book.

    • I wonder, was Hemingway or Fitzgerald Jewish? I’m surprised nobody is quoting from Saul Bellow, Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud. But then, why pretend any longer that Jewish fellowship is incompatible with “assimilation”? After all, the real source of the nation-state’s wealth and security is not only Jewish wealth, but the tax dollars from all Americans, cleverly channeled into Israeli coffers by Jewish and Christian-Zionists with street smarts as to how to get over on both conservative and progressive gentiles, who, after all, SHOULD be paying reparations OPENLY to ALL survivors of their multiple holocausts against Jews, Blacks, the indigenous nations of North and South America, comprising tens of millions altogether.

      more about the source of “jewry of muscle’: Many sources refer to Nordau’s Muscular Judaism as a unique concept, independently born. It was not. Muscular Judaism was a repetition and adoption by Dr. Nordau of the much earlier movement that came from the Christian world, Muscular Christianity.

      The term Muscular Christianity first became well known through an article, February 21, 1857 by T.C. Sandars that appeared in the Saturday Review. Thomas Hughes, a popular English novelist, expressed the values and purpose of Muscular Christianity in his widely read novel, Tom Brown at Oxford, 1861.

      “The least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief, that a man’s body is given to him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men.”

      Nordau picked up on the concept. He adapted it to Jewish needs and changed the name to Muscular Judaism.

      Nordau’s speech to the Second Zionist Congress (1898) was a combination of Max Nordau the Zionist and Dr. Nordau the physician. Dr. Nordau prescribed a cure, a regeneration of the Jewish people.

      “We Jews possess an exceptional gift for physical activity. It may be that this will appear paradoxical since we have been accustomed for generations to view ourselves in the mirror which our enemies have held p to so, and to discover any number of physical blemishes. It is true that our muscles have been weakened and that our attitudes and postures are not always satisfactory. but when Jews do engage in sport their defects vanish, their postures improve, their muscles become strong and their general health gets better..

      The history of our people relates to the fact that we were once strong physically. but today that is not the case. Others succeeded in degenerating us physically. They had the ghetto Jews of the Middle Ages into sorrowful weaklings, haggard and unable to defend ourselves in the narrow alleyways of the ghetto.Nobody can deny us the necessary physical activity needed to make our bodies healthy again. We will renew our youth in our aging years. We will develop wide chests, strong arms and legs, a brave look. We will be warriors. What is lacking physically, we will develop through exercise. But our recovery to health is not only through the body, but also in the spirit, for as Hebrews attain more achievements in sport, so will our self-confidence improve. Long lives Sport! Hebrew sports clubs go forward and bloom.”

      Nordau wrote in an article in a Jewish gymnastics magazine, 1900:

      “Let’s go! Pull your courage together. Do Something! Work for yourself and make a place for your people under the sun! Don’t rest until you have convinced the indifferent and downright hostile world that your people have a right to live and enjoy life just like other peoples.”

      Muscular Christianity spurred the development and transformation of YMCA’s and Churches into centers of Christian athleticism and culture. Jews too imitated and learned from the positive effects of the Christian experience. Jewish Community Centers developed complete with gymnasiums and swimming pools. Jewish sport clubs grew and flourished. Jewish sport organizations adapted to the Zionist message. Names such as the Bar Kochba football club and the famous Maccabee Games brought much Jewish pride and resurgence in Jewish physicality. Muscular Judaism and Zionism were natural bonds in forging the new Jew.