It’s time for American Jews to toughen up

We must teach our children to defend themselves by themselves.

A mugshot of Jewish American gangster Bugsy Siegel taken in 1928. Source: New York Police Department/Wikimedia
A mugshot of Jewish American gangster Bugsy Siegel taken in 1928. Source: New York Police Department/Wikimedia
Simon Deng, an escaped jihad slave from South Sudan, is accompanied in Israel by Dr. Charles Jacobs (pictured), President of the American Anti-Slavery group.
Charles Jacobs
Charles Jacobs is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Project.
Rabbi Cary Kozberg
Rabbi Cary Kozberg is the rabbi of Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio, and the Jewish chaplain at Kensington Place in Columbus. He has been an advocate of Jews learning self-defense for more than three decades.

Since the  Oct. 7 massacre, American Jews have experienced attacks that are now burned into our souls: On dozens of campuses and nearby streets, Jews have been screamed at, attacked, hectored, threatened and bullied—and did not fight back.

These images are humiliating, and all the more so because our historical experience has taught us that not responding with force has consequences: The easier Jews are to bully, the more we are attacked. The bleating of the sheep excites the tiger. Our exclusively non-violent reaction to the current wave of antisemitism invites a continuing open season on Jews.

We are now generations away from the Jewish toughs in Irvington, N.J., who famously broke up a Nazi meeting with stink bombs, baseball bats and iron bars. Octogenarian Myron Sugarman described in his book The Last Jewish Gangster how notorious Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky, Longie Zwillman and Puddy Hinkes recruited Jews who worked with their hands: Jewish plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other workers who, in the 1930s, were called upon to protect Jewish street peddlers and storekeepers from antisemitic thugs. These folks made sure Jew-haters and supporters of Hitler had a fight on their hands when they threatened Jews.

We no longer have a Jewish working class today. Almost every Jewish male works at a desk tapping keys, making phone calls and studying books and reports. We live in middle-class and upper-middle-class bubbles. We teach our children that differences need to be settled with words, not violence. It’s a good bet that most American Jewish children have never even witnessed, much less been involved in, an actual fistfight.

But cowering in fear damages us psychologically. We know that Jews, especially Jewish men and boys, fantasize about different, more valiant responses to threats, danger and attacks. We know that, since the creation of Israel, American Jews have gotten nachas (vicarious thrills) from the actions of tough Israelis—both male and female—who fight back.

If 18-year-old Israeli Jews can fight Hamas in Gaza, then surely 18-year-old American Jews can fight antisemitism in the United States. Yes, antisemitism on college campuses and elsewhere is intimidating, but cowering in fear will not make it less so.

Parents and the Jewish community must shift from raising Oct. 6 children to raising Oct. 8 children. We must cultivate self-sufficiency and resilience. We must instill the value of working for a cause greater than oneself: the security of the Jewish people.

Given what we are now experiencing in the Diaspora, we have no choice but to toughen up. For this reason, we propose a national effort that will take specific measures to accomplish this.

First, religious schooling should include—and rabbis should insist upon—some level of personal self-defense training as a requirement for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. Just as synagogues and religious schools require students to demonstrate mastery of a specific section of the weekly Torah and/or Haftarah portions, so rabbis should require that students preparing to take on the responsibilities of an adult Jew should be capable of defending themselves.

This can include learning situational awareness; how to properly use pepper spray; how to use hands, arms, legs and feet to defend oneself; and how to use common items like keys, umbrellas and jackets for protection. This is specific and limited training using gross motor skills and does not assume that the student will become an expert in any martial art.

Though it should not be a requirement for a bar/bat mitzvah, students who learn the above basics should also be encouraged to learn judo, boxing and even krav maga.

This bar/bat mitzvah requirement conforms with the theological basis of the Jewish moral responsibility to engage in haganah atzmit—self-defense. Among the religious responsibilities of becoming an adult Jew are the mitzvot that command us to defend ourselves. Judaism teaches that our lives and bodies ultimately belong to the Almighty and we are merely their stewards. Thus, we are responsible for their safekeeping. We are commanded to stay healthy and out of danger to the best of our ability. When danger finds us, we have the responsibility to defend ourselves against it.

American Jewish parents must also prioritize their children’s physical fitness and have them play team sports. Synagogues can and should sponsor a Boy Scout troop, which will teach children outdoor skills, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Furthermore, Jewish teens should be taught how to fire a weapon.

In addition, military service should be valued and encouraged by American Jews, just as it is in Israel. During World War II, approximately 11% of Jews served in the military. Today only 1% of Jews serve. This is problematic for two reasons: First, it denies American Jews the training necessary to defend themselves and their families. Second, serving in the military and defending the United States is one of the most important causes for which we Jews can fight.

We have been told that American Jewish teenagers who counter-protest their school’s “pro-Palestinian” walkouts despite being massively outnumbered are usually led by a child of active or retired military veterans who participates in either sports and/or the Boy Scouts. This is not a coincidence.

For decades, Jews have been saying: “Never again.” Although once upon a time this was a virtual battle cry for Jews to do anything necessary to protect themselves—including resorting to force of arms—in recent years it has become merely a bromide, a final slogan to conclude a “letter to the editor.” We must reinvigorate “never again” to inspire us to stand up and fight those who would defame and intimidate us.

The American Jewish community has begun to shore up defenses of its synagogues and institutions. However, these efforts usually involve the use of professionals, such as law enforcement and security companies. We assert that, from a Jewish point of view, it is immoral to rely solely on others to risk their lives to protect us. From a practical point of view, having trained laity as a backup would ensure an extra layer of protection should the professionals be neutralized.

The word “Jew” comes from the name Judah. In Hebrew, the word for Jew and the word for a member of the tribe of Judah is the same: yehudi. The symbol of the tribe of Judah is the lion. Living in the Diaspora for so long, our lion’s roar of yesteryear has devolved into the bleating of sheep. We need to turn our bleating into roaring. It’s time for American Jews to toughen up.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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