From the Archive: Punching out Hamas

Julie Wiener

A half-century before the establishment of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that has been in an escalating rocket — and now ground — battle with Israel, Jews were fighting a very different Hamas:  Steven Hamas.

The Passaic, N.J., professional boxer – who according to the Box Rec encyclopedia was said to speak Slav, Russian, Polish, English and “profane” — was frequently mentioned in the 1930s in JTA’s “Slants on Sports” column.

Steve Hamas was a prolific boxer in the 1930s.

Steve Hamas was a prolific boxer in the 1930s.

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Hamas’ rivals included Jewish boxers Art Lasky and Max Baer. In 1935, he fought world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, whose Jewish manager Joe Jacobs outraged the American Jewish community (and the Nazis) by raising his cigar in a Heil Hitler salute after the German-born Schmeling defeated Hamas in a Hamburg fight.

(The 1935 game was not the first time the cigar-chomping manager considered traveling to the Reich with his German-born client, who was not Jewish but helped protect Jews in the days after Kristallnacht.)

Given the violent nature of boxing, the rhetoric about pugilist Hamas in the “Slants on Sports” columns is not all that different from language used to describe operations against the current Hamas. Consider this 1934 commentary:

Art Lasky walloped the daylights out of Hamas. He left him a bleeding, groggy, and punch-drunk collegiate. But, as we all know, these symptoms mean nothing to judges and referees. Hamas won the fight.

In January 1935, “Slants on Sports” described in brutal detail another fight between Lasky and Hamas:

Hamas weakened under the terrific impacts, gave ground, inch by inch, and was ready to drop as the bell marked the end of the fight … From our point of vantage Lasky appeared to be playing for an opening in the first, second, third, fourth and fifth rounds. Of course, he was walloping Hamas aplenty…

A few months earlier,  Hamas had refused another go-round with Lasky, and the description might sound strange to those more accustomed to his modern-day highly militant  namesake: “Hamas doesn’t want to fight anybody,” Jimmy Johnston, a boxing promoter told JTA.

For those more interested in the Middle East than boxing, check out JTA’s first-ever mention of the extremist faction, in 1988 when efforts to combat the Intifada were complicated by  “the emergence of a new organization of Islamic fundamentalists in the territories, known as Hamas.”

Noting that the name means “zeal,” JTA described the organization’s attitude toward Israel as “uncompromising,” noting that it “holds that all of Palestine, including the State of Israel, is land entrusted by God to Muslims.” And just as its attitude toward Israel hasn’t changed, nor has its tensions with Fatah. Just like today, the group was “seen as a threat to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization …”

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Julie Wiener is JTA’s online editor. Follow her on Twitter @Julie_Wiener