The 1930s saw a proliferation of anti-Semitic groups in the U.S., many of which openly sympathized with Nazism and held mass rallies where they displayed swastikas and related symbols. While the Jewish establishment sought legal means to combat them, some Jews favored a more direct approach. Based on his interviews with Meyer Lansky and others, Robert Rockaway explains what that approach entailed:
Nathan Perlman, a judge and former Republican congressman, was one Jewish leader who believed that the Jews should demonstrate more militancy. In 1935, he surreptitiously contacted Meyer Lansky, a leading organized-crime figure born on the fourth of July, and asked him to help. . . . Perlman assured Lansky that money and legal assistance would be put at his disposal. The only stipulation was that no Nazis be killed. . . . Lansky reluctantly agreed. . . . Always very sensitive about anti-Semitism, Lansky was acutely aware of what the Nazis were doing to Jews [in Europe]. . . .
Lansky rounded up some of his tough associates and went around New York disrupting Nazi meetings. Young Jews not connected to him or to the rackets also volunteered to help, and Lansky and others taught them how to use their fists and handle themselves in a fight. Lansky’s crews worked very professionally. Nazi arms, legs, and ribs were broken and skulls cracked, but no one died. The attacks continued for more than a year. And Lansky earned quite a reputation for doing this work. . . .
Similar efforts were organized in Minneapolis, Newark, and elsewhere. Rockaway concludes:
What did Jewish communal leaders think about this? Publicly they evinced shame and horror at the criminal activities and notoriety of the gangsters because they epitomized the “bad Jew,” the evildoer who would bring hatred on the whole community. Privately they appreciated the mobsters who boldly took action against the Nazis and anti-Semites. Although the gangsters may have distressed the Jewish establishment, they did earn the admiration of the Jewish man-on-the-street, especially among Jewish youngsters.
The talk-show host Larry King admitted that when he was growing up in Brooklyn, “Jewish gangsters were our heroes. Even the bad ones were heroes to us.” The 1930s were a time fraught with danger for Jews. For some Jewish mobsters, it proved to be a time when they could do something positive to protect their community from Nazis and anti-Semites.
Read more on Tablet: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/265401/gangsters-vs-nazis/