Mar 8, 2017
How do you punch a Nazi in Yiddish?
Maybe deliver a khsime, or “signature,” as in putting a “signature on someone’s face.” Or give them a shmir, an open-handed smack to the face, like lathering schmear on a bagel. Or maybe it takes der gubernator, “the governor,” jabbing your thumb into a person’s ribcage.
Obscure? To be sure. But you might find yourself becoming more familiar with such terms, if a growing number of Jewish “antifa” activists have their way.
In response to an energized American white nationalism, some Jews are gravitating toward “anti-fascist” activism. They’re embracing the idea that the best way to combat your enemies — in this case, white supremacists — is through direct confrontation, even violence. Organizers say their members number in the thousands. Though on-the-ground organizing on that scale has yet to materialize, one recent protest attended by many Jewish anti-fascists drew hundreds, and organizers say they are planning more actions.
At the same time, they are celebrating their Jewish identity. Those Yiddish fighting words are a good example.
Activists who call themselves “antifa,” short for anti-fascists, are inspired by early 20th-century responses to European fascism. They say they are influenced by militant left-wing and anarchist politics.
A handful of loosely organized groups have cropped up to confront white nationalism online. There is the “Jewish Antifa” Facebook page, which promotes the Jewish history of confrontational protest (this is where the string of Yiddish punch descriptors appeared). Then there is the allied group “MuJew Antifa,” a collaboration between Muslim and Jewish activists. And there are dozens of other individuals who are active from their own social media accounts.
The Jewish Antifa page has fewer than 60 members, but the MuJu Antifa network boasts more than 2,000, one organizer said. Jews who identify as anti-facists could also be involved in groups like Black Lives Matter or other left-wing Jewish groups without belonging to one of these two antifa groups.
One “MuJu” event last month brought a couple hundred people into the street to protest President Trump’s immigration ban. Activists marched down the street in Manhattan, carrying signs against Trump and chanting in Yiddish.
“We’re seeing an increase in far-right activity — the activity of people identifying as white supremacists and even Nazis,” said activist Michael Gould-Wartofsky, who is also the author of the 2015 book “The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.”
Gould-Wartofsky said there are a range of opinions on tactics among Jews who might call themselves antifa: “With a massive rise in the climate of violence, some people [say] that it takes confrontation to combat far-right activity.”
There is a growing interest in learning physical self-defense among Jewish activists, Gould-Wartofsky said, adding, “People want to have the skills necessary to defend their community and other communities that are also under attack.”