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").