A Jewish Boxer Who Fought for His People

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Jewish boxers are making a comeback, according to a feature story in the December 27 edition of the New York Times. Several Israeli and Russian-born Jewish prizefighters are leading the resurgence of a phenomenon unknown since the 1930s, when the likes of Benny Leonard, Maxie Rosenbloom, and Barney Ross were prominent in the ring.

But what is not well known about Barney Ross is that he was one of the first professional athletes to use his stardom on behalf of a political cause. Ross was not only a boxing champion; he also publicly championed the cause of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and establishing a Jewish state.

When his father was murdered in a holdup on Chicago’s West Side in 1923, 14 year-old Barney turned to boxing to earn money for his mother and five siblings. He eventually won the lightweight, junior welterweight,and welterweight championships, in a career that saw him victorious in 77 of 81 bouts. Ross became wildly popular among American Jews, who saw him as an antidote to the stereotypical image of Jews as physically unfit.

Ross retired from the boxing ring in 1938, but was back in the public eye just three years later, when, at age 32, he enlisted in the U.S. army after Pearl Harbor. In the battle of Guadalcanal, Ross was seriously wounded while rescuing injured comrades from a Japanese ambush. His battlefield heroics earned him a Silver Star.

Upon his return to the United States, Ross championed a new cause, when he became a prominent supporter of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. This was not merely another worthy charity. For Ross to support the controversial Emergency Committee took real political courage–the committee’s public criticism of the Allies’ apathy toward the Holocaust had infuriated government officials in Washington and London. In fact, the State Department repeatedly tried to have the Emergency Committee’s chairman, Peter Bergson, drafted or deported. At the State Department’s urging, the FBI opened Bergson’s mail, rummaged through his trash, and planted informants in his organization.

Bergson, a maverick Zionist emissary from Jerusalem, used a variety of protest methods to press the Allies to rescue Jews from Hitler. His group placed full-page ads in hundreds of American newspapers, organized public rallies, and staged a dramatic march to the White House by 400 rabbis. A Bergson-inspired resolution was introduced in Congress, urging creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees. Together with behind-the-scenes lobbying by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, the resolution persuaded FDR to establish the War Refugee Board. The Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the last 15 months of the war.

Bergson’s Emergency Committee played an important supporting role during the crucial early months of the War Refugee Board’s work. The committee sponsored newspaper ads backing the rescue effort; provided the War Refugee Board with information about rescue opportunities; and dispatched two special emissaries to Turkey to assist rescue activity (one was Ira Hirschmann, the Bloomingdale’s executive). To raise funds for this work, the Bergson group organized an all-star “Show of Shows” at Madison Square Garden on March 13, 1944. Barney Ross helped attract publicity for the event by announcing that he was personally paying for the tickets of 150 U.S.servicemen to attend.

Ross also became active in another Bergson committee, the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to rally American support for the creation of a Jewish State. He spoke at its public rallies and served as leader of its George Washington Legion, which recruited American volunteers to aid the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Jewish underground militia (headed by Menachem Begin) that was fighting the British in Mandatory Palestine. The Legion was patterned on the famous Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which had recruited Americans to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. One of the group’s newspaper ads featured a photo of Ross with this message from the boxing champ: “There is no such thing as a former fighter. We must all continue the fight.”

In 1947, a group of St. Louis Jewish gangsters associated with reputed mob boss Mickey Cohen agreed to hold a fundraiser for the American League for a Free Palestine, on one condition–that the League provide Ross as the keynote speaker. In their eyes, the former boxer was the living symbol of Jewish toughness. League officials later estimated that thanks to Ross, the event brought in more than $100,000 for the cause of Jewish statehood.

In the 1960s, Mohammed Ali –then known as Cassius Clay– surprised many when he declared his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. But it was Barney Ross, two decades earlier, who was the first boxing champion to enter the ring of public political activism. Today’s new generation of Jewish prizefighters basks in a legacy that extends well beyond the boxing ring.

January 2004