BY PROTECTING JEWS, AMERICA’S DEMOCRACY THRIVED
Waking Just in Time
There was a time in America when Jews hit back at anti-Semites. Jews hit them with bats and boards, shovels, and fists. The media today shows Jews taking it, a rabbi on a New York street or subway is a punching bag for a tough. Synagogue members cower under their seats. College students whimper about anti-Semitism on campus; the boys wear baseball caps to avoid identification. We pride ourselves on being civilized, not taking revenge. The most we do is cooperate with the police and sue somebody.
Where has all this gotten us? Anti-Jewish hate speech is on the rise, as are physical attacks and murders. Across the political spectrum, American democracy feels threatened. Academics and pundits forewarn of another civil war. Official pleas to Diaspora Jews employ visuals and headlines of attacks on Jews in America, France, Belgium, and Britain to encourage their aliya.
Similar but more vociferous conditions predominated politics in the 1930s. It is a little-known side-story of the Holocaust. A camarilla of German-Americans, supported by White Christian cohorts, wanted to kill off democracy, oust Roosevelt, keep America from joining the Allies and install a fascist regime in Washington, D.C. A few Jewish leaders recognized the duo-threat to the Jewish People and to America’s principles. The Jews tried everything to raise public awareness and concerns in the capital and media with minimal success.
Several Jewish leaders took matters into their own hands setting aside political correctness. They didn’t hesitate to stifle the free speech of Hitler’s American acolytes and propagandists while Europe’s Jews were being readied for slaughter. They turned to Jewish American tough guys.
It does not happen today because Jewish guilt for everything that happens to us is the presiding emotion. If only we were better, harrumph. But in the 30s, there were Jewish gangsters the community could rely on. Now, mobsters are vicious and scary. Gangsters are swashbuckling and cool. Jewish gangsters, like the infamous Meyer Lansky, nourish a quizzical smile to the corners of one’s lips, even today. In truth, Jewish gangsters were no less vicious and scary than mobsters of any ethnic group. They all resort to violence and prey on the weak. Everybody around them is a victim.
Wellsprings of Identity
But there was one time, hidden in a pocket of Holocaust history when Jewish gangsters contributed outstandingly to ensuring the safety of the Jewish People and American democracy. Author Michael Benson tells the rest of the story in his rollicking, new, and highly recommended book, Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America (Citadel Press, 2022). Here is the rest of the story.
Hitler stirred the American stewpot looking for admirers. The German-American immigrants constituted the most significant White ethnic minority. In concert with Christian anti-Semites, Hitler’s secret agents knit the America First Committee, the German American Bund, and the Silver Legion into Hitler’s American army.
By 1939, the America First Committee sported 800,000 members in 450 chapters. Charles Lindbergh and other spokespeople tagged the British, the President, and the Jews as anti-American warmongers. Many German Americans reveled in awe of Germany’s rise from the ashes of the First World War and the West’s devastating sanctions against the German people.
German influence on American culture and politics has been enormous. Today, they are the largest ethnic group in the U. S. German immigrants settled in American colonies. More than 1.2 million were born in Germany, 5 million had two native-German parents, and 6 million had one native-German parent by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. 12 million lived in a “German belt” across the U.S. The Dank House served as the gathering place for Chicago’s German Christians, not German Jews when I was young.
Bund members declared it the duty of every German American to rid the country of Jews, scupper American democracy, and replace the government to at least keep America out of the war. Novelist Philip Roth called the chilling mission, A Plot Against America (Vintage, 2005). The only way to stop American Nazis in wartime was to launch a war against them.
Tales from the Street
The hero in these times is former congressperson, Judge Nathan D. Perlman. Perlman approaches the notorious gangster Meyer Lansky. He tells about the rising threats to Jews and the nation. “Powerful men are openly making anti-Semitic remarks. Some of the newspapers and magazines are backing them up. Nazism is flourishing in the United States… You got some boys who might want to punch a Nazi?”
Lansky confirms offering to do more than throw a punch. “No killing” warns Perlman. The dead become martyrs. “But broken bones, I would think, are to be encouraged. They should know that being a Nazi is dangerous,” Perlman tells Lansky.
Tales of Jews in organized crime intrigue me like enigmatic mirages. Some of the best swirl around the notorious Lansky, who another author, Robert Lacey, calls, “The Thinking Man’s Gangster.” Lansky and “Lucky” Luciano built the Five Family crime syndicate that lasted some say through today.
The Jewish gangsters more prominent in the anti-Nazi fights were Eddie, “Monk” Osterman with fists of lightening, Hymie “The Weasel” Kugel, “Ice Pick Willie” Alderman, Mendy Weiss, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Marty “Buggsy” Goldstein, Harry Strauss, Al “Tic Toc” Tannenbaum, Charlie “Bug” Workman, Jake Drucker, and Lansky’s more exotic and lethal childhood buddy, Lepke “Little Louis” Buchalter. Not one Jewish leader in the 21st century has a nickname.
All About Principles
The gangsters were fearless. They disrupted Nazi gatherings and punished the Jew-haters, sometimes with 2x4s. They never took a penny or killed an American Nazi. It was all about principles “beating up krautheads for a cause.” The cause took on personal importance, as Jewish escapees and travelers reported about Hitler’s destruction of Europe’s Jews, accounts that were usually suppressed by the media.
Benson describes a birthday party for Hitler in a ballroom. The stage “was decorated with pictures of Hitler (and) large swastikas hung…” The gall enraged Lansky. His minions burst through all the doors. They blocked fire escape exits. Jewish gangsters worked over the Nazis real good. Buggsy hit one Nazi so hard in the jaw he sagged and fell. Buggsy kicked him in the ear. Benson quotes Mickey Cohen proudly proclaiming in 1938, “Nobody could pay me for this work. It was my patriotic duty.”
No Shame in Jew-Hating
The Nazis found brotherly love among White Christian anti-Semites. Pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic Radio Priest, Father Charles Coughlin, of the Church of the Little Flower, spewed anti-Jewish vitriol across America’s radio waves for over a decade on a station licensed by the Federal government. The station never lost its license nor was Coughlin censured by the Church.
Countering Coughlin and never holding back was broadcaster Walter Winchell. Winchell was the most recognized and feared influencer at the time. He used the radio and his syndicated newspaper column to ruthlessly excoriate Hitler, American Nazis, and anti-Semites. Winchell excoriated Charles Lindbergh and other celebrity sympathizers. He had the power to ruin careers and Winchell hammered it home.
Other pro-fascist Jew-hating influencers of the time included O Henry Award-winning writer, William D. Pelley, and Ellis Jones. Jones went on to edit Life Magazine and Ladies Home Journal. Robert Noble was so vociferous against America fighting Hitler, that the federal government indicted and jailed Noble for his plot to “incite mutiny in the armed forces, unseat the government, and set up a Nazi regime.”
Politics, Race, Bravery, and Self-Defense
I got four takeaways from Benson’s exciting book and the subsequent research it inspired.
First, the German American Bund, pro-fascist and anti-Semitic collaborators were building a fifth column in America. Hitler’s stated plan was, “We will undermine the morale of the people of America. This will be the German-American group, and we will help them assume power.”
Second, though millions of Americans embraced the nefarious scum, we can relish how the vast majority of Americans rejected them. There is hope for our future. They chose patriotism over nationalism, commitment to principles, ideals, and values over love and devotion to national existence. Maybe it is in the nation’s DNA?
Third, language communicates the message, and the constant din of social media exacerbates political divisiveness. Studies claim there is a neural basis to partisan biases. Gangsters are dashing and mobsters scary. National socialists are patriots but really fascists. Warmongers are capitalists while isolationists are human rights activists. Today, woke progressives are privileged pansies facing-off conservatives who are big business protectionists. Anti-Zionists are all anti-Semites.
Fourth, and the most unsettling lesson, is the extent of my own admiration for the gangsters who took matters into their own hands. By protecting Jews, America’s democracy thrived. It is not politically correct. They didn’t wait on the police, FBI, and other authorities like they would be cautioned today. They launched what Benson calls a “gangster campaign of pain.” Per linguistics, targeted assassinations are a perfectly acceptable means of revenge for national governments.
I heard Jackie Mason tell a joke in the Catskills. No one fears a briefcase-carrying, Jewish, accountant walking down a dark street in a suit and tie at eleven o’clock at night. Put him in an IDF uniform and Jew haters run for cover. Today, we all are accountants. But Jews need a hero. That’s why Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is ridiculously popular and Friends of the IDF are wildly popular.
On a final note, we need to remember the remarkable and brave Judge Perlman. Perlman launched a mission to stop the raging anti-Semites and anti-democracy villains as they grew bolder. They might have prevailed, especially if America had not entered the war. Perlman gets short shrift in American Jewish history and Holocaust studies. His story is notable for splashing light on the effect of the power of one.