by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Jewish boxers are back in the news.
An undefeated Israeli heavyweight boxer, Roman Greenberg, will fight in Hollywood, Florida, on December 1, in just his fourth bout in the United States. He is ranked 40th out of 888 boxers in the world by the World Boxing Council.
Last year, another Jewish prizefighter, Dimitry “The Star of David” Salita, captured the junior welterweight championship of the National Boxing Association.
The Jewish prizefighters of the pre-World War II era have also been garnering attention of late. The National Museum of American Jewish History has organized a traveling exhibit called “Sting Like a Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer.” And the first biography of Barney Ross, the best-known Jewish fighter of the 1930s, was recently published.
Douglas Century’s biography of Ross –born Dov-Ber Rasofsky– is especially significant because it sheds light on the fact that Ross not only symbolized Jewish toughness when he entered the boxing ring, but fought just as hard for the Jewish people outside the ring.
Born to a struggling Jewish immigrant family in Chicago, Ross was thrust into the role of family breadwinner at the age of 14, when his father was murdered in a holdup in 1923. He turned to boxing to earn money for his mother and five siblings. Ross won the lightweight, junior welterweight,and welterweight championships, in a career that saw him victorious in 77 of 81 bouts.
As Prof. Jeffrey Gurock explains in his new book, Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports, Jewish boxers like Ross became wildly popular in the American Jewish community. At a time when American Jews were frequent targets of antisemitism, they saw Ross’s fighting prowess 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. Marine Corps 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. And there was more to come.
Upon his return to the United States in 1944, Ross became one of the first professional athletes to become active in a political cause, by joining the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, also known as the Bergson group. The Committee used full-page newspaper ads, public rallies, and Capitol Hill lobbying to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler.
The most important result of the rescue campaign was the introduction of a Congressional resolution 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 helped persuade FDR to establish the War Refugee Board. The Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, played a key role in rescuing more than 200,000 Jews during the last months of the war.
Ross also became active in another of the Bergson committees, the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to rally American support for the creation of a Jewish State. He spoke at its rallies and chaired 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 1930s Spanish Civil War. One of the Bergson 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.”
Sy Dill, today a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, was a teenage volunteer in the Bergson Group’s New York City headquarters in 1947. I recently asked Sy about his memories of the afternoon that Ross walked into the office. “He was a real hero, and it was an incredible thrill to meet him in person,” Dill recalled. “When he shook my hand, he nearly broke it–I guess that’s what you should expect from a boxer! It was a moment that I will remember forever.”
Ross’s niece, Audrey Cantor of Chicago, hopes that today’s new generation of Jewish prizefighters will look to Barney Ross as their role model. “Not only as a boxer,” she emphasizes, “but more importantly, as someone who fought for the Jewish people.”