views updated May 08 2018


SELF-DEFENSE (in modern Jewish history). Jewish efforts against attacking mobs in Russia and in Austria-Hungary from the end of the 19th century until shortly after World War i. The nature of the pogroms in this period (especially in the years 1881–82, 1903–05, and 1917–20) taught Jews that they occurred with the compliance of the governing authorities and at times even at their instigation. The government, therefore, could be no guarantee of protection. A segment of the Jewish community gradually became aware of the necessity for Jews to come to their own defense and to concern themselves with the safety of their brethren and the protection of their property. They should not depend for their security on the forces of law and order of a hostile government, and on occasion they must even oppose those forces directly. This point of view gained strength in the wake of the revolutionary movement throughout Russia and the rise of modern Jewish nationalism (both its Zionist and its socialist-Diaspora manifestations) which reawakened the sense of national honor among Jews. In the *Pale of Settlement in Russia there was an overcrowded Jewish population, and in many of the cities and towns in this area Jews constituted the majority of the local population, or at least a very substantial minority. There was a steady increase in the number of Jewish artisans and workers who were physically fit and knew how to wield a knife or ax. Conscription into the Russian army created, especially among the lower strata of Jewish society, a pool of young men accustomed to military discipline and trained in defense tactics.

During the pogroms of 1881–82, self-defense was organized spontaneously in different places. Equipped mainly with light arms, the defenders relied on the numerical strength of the Jewish masses to try to prevent the rioting mobs from penetrating their streets (especially in *Berdichev and *Kirovograd (Yelizavetgrad), and *Warsaw). In *Balta, the teacher Eliezer Mashbir organized a self-defense unit largely made up of porters, coachmen, and apprentices, and even set up a form of communication through signaling with blasts of the shofar. The founders of the self-defense movement in Odessa were M. *Ben-Ammi and W.M. *Haffkine. They had to overcome the opposition of those Jewish revolutionaries who believed that pogroms merely expressed the anger of the awakening Russian proletariat and therefore Jews should not act with the police against the people, even when the people were in the wrong. The first such group of defenders, composed mostly of students and Hebrew teachers, turned to the synagogues and made a special effort "to attract the butchers and coachmen." The wealthy did not take part, nor did their synagogues participate. The equipment of these fighters consisted of "sticks, axes, and iron poles – pistols were rare." During actual pogroms their defense activity had very limited success in itself; it was effective mainly in the poorest quarters, even when the Jews had to stand up to the combined strength of the army and the police. More than 100 of the defenders were arrested, among them Haffkine, who had a revolver in his hand when he was seized. Although those who were captured were mainly simple men, they never revealed at their trial that students were the initiators of the movement. In the succeeding years the youth and workers continued in their efforts to form defense organizations. In the proceedings instituted against 14 Jews in 1897, it became clear that in Minsk that year a group of defenders which had been hastily assembled had been able to strike back with combat weapons against soldiers rioting in the marketplace.

The pogroms of 1903, especially that in *Kishinev, created renewed interest in self-defense. Although even in Kishinev there had been individual examples of courageous defenders, the slaughter there symbolized in the mind of the Jewish community the weakness and shame of their general defenselessness in the face of their attackers. The Russian government had announced its official opposition to organized defense. However, all active nationalist Jewish circles, the youth in particular, whether Zionists or socialists, concluded that their collective defense was a spiritual as well as a physical necessity. In April 1903, two weeks after the Kishinev pogroms, the Aguddat Soferim Ivrim ("Hebrew Writers League"), including *Aḥad Ha-Am, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, M. Ben-Ammi, S. *Dubnow, and Y.Ḥ. *Rawnitzki, issued an announcement, composed by Aḥad Ha-Am, stating that "it is degrading for five million people … to stretch out their necks to be slaughtered and to call for help without attempting to protect their property, dignity, and lives with their own hands." They demanded the establishment of a permanent organization to defend against and repel attackers "in all places where we live," and they urged that "a general gathering of the representatives of all major Jewish communities within our land" should be convened for this purpose. This same outlook also gradually became evident within leftist Jewish circles, although for them the decision to act against the masses of the Russian people was a bitter one. In its policy statement of 1903, the *Bund declared "violence must be answered with violence, wherever it comes from." A group of left-wing Zionist students called for "the same healthy, free response made by a man when a wild animal leaps upon him … acquire as many weapons as you possibly can!" This mood found its strongest poetic expression in Bialik's poem "The City of Slaughter," which sharply condemns the shame of the meek acquiescence of the "calves for the slaughter."

In Odessa, collective defense was set up at this time, with Vladimir *Jabotinsky as one of the active participants. They collected money, bought guns by the dozens, and prepared small arms. In proclamations in Yiddish and in Russian they urged the youth to arm itself. However, the various leftist organizations, which had been fairly active in the area of self-defense, did not join forces with Jabotinsky's group, and still less were they prepared to act jointly with bourgeois circles; the Bund in particular was strongly opposed to such cooperation. Between 1903 and 1905 collective defense units were set up in the cities and towns of Belorussia and the Ukraine. In Yekaterinoslav (*Dnepropetrovsk), for instance, the *Po'alei Zion were the organizers: they raised money, acquired guns, and "in the smithies special iron poles were fashioned, with iron spikes on them." To improve their marksmanship, they went out to deserted islands on the River Dnieper for target practice. Two hundred students in *Kiev formed a defensive unit, "each armed with a large stick, a Finnish knife, and pistol." The artisans in the group fashioned hand-combat weapons. The defenders were divided into groups of ten, and whenever the outbreak of a pogrom appeared imminent they took up their arms and mobilized for action in private homes with telephones. They also had spies among the potential attackers, and a number of non-Jewish teachers at the university aided the defenders. Similar organizations were established in *Shklov, *Vilna – where Michael *Helpern was one of the leaders – Warsaw, and *Rostov on the Don. The Minsk experience in setting up defensive units was used as a model for the entire area. The self-defense organization in *Gomel (Homel) developed from the nucleus known as Gibborei Ẓiyyon ("The Heroes of Zion"), the military unit of the Po'alei Zion, and "during the summer of 1903 the entire city was organized, blacksmiths … butchers, and wagon drivers, each separately," and the rest of the citizens along occupational lines. (There was also a separate defense unit of the Bund.) When the army mounted an attack against them in 1903, many fell and numerous others were captured and brought to trial. Seeing that the army was on the point of attacking them, the defenders had tried to arouse the Jewish masses against the pogromists. Even the government-appointed rabbi of *Kremenchug, A.Y. Friedenberg, issued a proclamation in Russian in 1903 calling for collective defense and convening a conference of all the neighboring communities for the purpose of "consulting on the establishment of secret defensive units in various places." Ḥayyim Berlin, the rabbi of Moscow, took part in this convention.

In 1904 the self-defense movement was widespread throughout many cities and towns, but the splintering-off into factions and the growing revolutionary tide among the workers prevented real cooperation and unity. In many cities there were a number of parallel defense groups – affiliated with the Bund, Po'alei Zion, etc. Yet in the face of a pogrom they usually united, and even secured the help of the ordinary "unpolitically minded" Jews. The Bund defense group in Dvinsk (*Daugavpils) successfully repelled its attackers in 1904, and, when its leader, Mendel Daitch, was sentenced to death for an attack on a police officer during what was actually a general revolutionary action, *Meir Simḥah ha-Kohen, the rabbi of Dvinsk, proclaimed a fast and called for the recitation of psalms to mark his righteous act of defending his fellow Jews. Revolutionary circles began to take pride in this central and unifying activity for Jewish self-defense. V. Fabrikant, the left-wing Zionist, described how in 1904 "a defensive unit … was set up. At its center was organized labor, and the rest of the elements both organized and unorganized were on the periphery." He also stated that "every Jew, even one of the higher echelons of the bourgeoisie, is entitled to be defended by us if he is in danger of injury solely because he is a Jew." Defining the goals of self-defense, he said it was a war "for our present … for the possessions of the poor; for the lives of our brethren of Israel who are in distress; for the honor of our sisters; for our national honor … for our future as a nation." He also recommended taking retaliatory action against individuals who stirred up pogroms and against those officials who were lax in their duty to protect Jewish citizens. Even Bundist circles recognized as desirable the continued existence of defense units and of their branching-out into other cities and towns. The Bund claimed the honor of setting up the committees for self-defense. At the initiative of Po'alei Zion, an all-Russian conference on self-defense programs was convened in Odessa on Jan. 6, 1905; Aḥad Ha-Am and S. Dubnow promised to speak there. However, since some letters dealing with conference plans were intercepted and several of the delegates were arrested, the full-scale meeting envisaged did not take place.

When the government turned "the wrath of the masses" against the Jews in 1905, an extensive self-defense movement existed in many Russian cities and towns. The nucleus of the movement came from the Jewish labor parties and their military units, and it had a widespread following among the rest of the people. Although anxious to form countrywide links among its units, the movement was weakened by party and class divisions and suspicion. Organized defense groups are known to have existed in 42 cities; 30 of these went into action, particularly in October of 1905. The most important were in Odessa, Akkerman (*Belgorod-Dnestrovski), *Zhitomir, *Starodub, Yelizavetgrad, Yekaterinoslav, *Chernigov, and Rostov on the Don. Some enlightened Russian non-Jews aided the cause of Jewish self-defense and in Odessa the university assisted the defenders. In the battles of 1905, 132 fighters fell, including four women and a number of Russians. Both the strength and the weakness of the self-defense endeavor were clearly embodied in its activity in Zhitomir, in which three organizations were involved: the Bund, Po'alei Zion, and the "non-labor Zionists." In clashes with rioters and security forces (May 6–7, 1905) all three groups worked together under the command of a young Bundist. The battle lasted for four hours and 13 of the defenders fell. From Berdichev and *Chudnov Jewish defense groups came to the aid of the Jews of Zhitomir. However, this example of cooperation between cities ended in tragedy; when the Berdichev unit came up against a crowd of rioters at a railway station, the local Jews – fearful of the mob – refused to give them refuge. Ten of the Berdichev group were killed. The dangers inherent in the movement of the Jewish defense units throughout Russia were also revealed in many other incidents, as in October 1905, when 23 fighters belonging to the defenders' group from *Rechitsa perished in Odessa. Other cities also witnessed a wide range of defensive activities, including Poltava, where the head was Izhak *Ben-Zvi. In Yekaterinoslav the fighters succeeded in killing 47 of their attackers.

After 1905 the strength of the self-defense movement waned along with the lessening of revolutionary tensions within Russia. In 1909 the central ammunition storage dump of the Bund was liquidated. However, the circumstances of the civil war in 1917–20 brought new and stronger calls for self-defense and initiated new methods of setting it in motion. In those years pogroms were perpetrated not only by the rioting masses but also by bands of soldiers and even by regular units of the forces of the warring sides. In such conditions of social upheaval and the disintegration of the czarist army, the defense movement was obviously likely to gain greater support than previously through the aid of Jewish soldiers and because of the revolutionary excitement prevailing among the leftist factions. Nevertheless, it was also liable to rapid collapse, for it could not stand alone against attackers who were trained troops of regular or semi-regular armies. Those soldiers of the disintegrating army who had some nationalist consciousness made a great effort to set up a Jewish defense force which would concentrate on guarding the honor, lives, and property of their brethren. Drawing attention to the force of 400,000 Jewish soldiers in the Russian army, they pointed out that various other peoples were attempting to establish units of their own from the fragments of the czarist army. Especially active in the Ukraine in 1917 was the Iggud ha-Ẓeva'i ha-Yehudi ("Jewish Military League"), whose president was Isaac Gogol. In the beginning the leftist factions opposed the separatist goal of the defensive groups, but by the time they had come to the conclusion, in 1918, that Gogol was right, they had missed their opportunity. The Ukrainian army attacked the Iggud and murdered its president.

From then on self-defense became a local matter, at most the concern of a very limited area. Even then there were some Jewish soldiers among the defenders, but their success depended solely on local conditions and the qualities of the local defenders. In spite of these circumstances, there were defense units which enjoyed limited success. In *Golovanevsk, for instance, a township of 1,200 Jewish families, many of whom were artisans, a company of defenders which had repelled pogromists in 1905 was reformed in 1917 under the command of an ex-soldier. They set up a permanent guard of 25 men, who appeared as if they were "in charge of the place" and confiscated or bought arms from deserting soldiers and sailors. They also purchased a cannon and prepared bombs. Several times men of the defense force went to the outskirts of the town and fought in the fields – at times alongside the Red Army and at times on their own – to repel bands of approaching attackers. The defense organization was active there until its leader fell at the end of 1919. In *Bershad too the defenders rallied around a nucleus of soldiers who had just returned from the front. At their head was a capable leader, Moshe Dubrovensky. This defense unit waged bitter battles with roving armed bands and held its position of strength until 1919. On the eve of Purim 5679 (1919), some of the finest of their company, their leader among them, fell in action during a battle with a troop of Cossacks that stormed the city. Similar information has been preserved about defense fighters in other towns.

The value of Jewish self-defense in Russia was not limited to its own time and place alone. The goal which became clearly articulated in the movement – to protect the Jewish community independently of the state authorities – pointed the way for the Jews in Ereẓ Israel under Turkish rule and later in their struggle with the British Mandate authorities. From the ranks of these defenders came many of the methods and leaders of the *Haganah in Ereẓ Israel.

[Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson]

In Austria-Hungary

Jewish soldiers' committees were founded in some major garrisons of Austria-Hungary at the time of the dissolution of the empire (1918). Officers who were members of Zionist students' and youth organizations formed units of Jewish soldiers returning from the front, which were instrumental in protecting Jewish life and property. They wore cockades in the Zionist colors, utilized Hebrew text in their official seal, and were seen by some Jews as presaging the coming of the Messiah. They put themselves at the disposal of the Jewish national councils (see *Nationalrat) then established in Vienna and Prague. Besides Vienna and Prague (where the committee was under the command of Samuel Hugo *Bergman), soldiers' committees were set up in *Brno (Bruenn), *Olomouc (Olmuetz), Terezin (*Theresienstadt), and other towns. A Jewish company effectively protected the Jewish quarter of *Bratislava (Pressburg) while possession of the town was contested between Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

[Meir Lamed]

After World War i

After World War i and its aftermath, no self-defense units of a solidly organized and permanent character are known to have existed. In the 1930s in some universities of Central Europe, which by tradition were closed to the entrance of police, antisemitic and Nazi students sometimes attacked their Jewish colleagues, who then organized themselves for self-defense.

During World War ii, under the conditions of the *Holocaust, the struggle of ghetto fighters and the *partisans, as well as the rebellion of some Jews in the extermination *camps themselves, formed a unique chapter of heroism and desperation exceeding the usual definition of self-defense.

After World War ii, particularly in Latin American and Arab countries, members of Jewish sports organizations and Zionist youth groups organized self-defense units against antisemitic and neo-Nazi violence (as by the Tacuara in Argentina; see *Neo-Nazism) and aggressive Arab nationalists (in Iraq and in some North African countries).

Jewish Defense League

In 1968 a group under the name Jewish Defense League (jdl) was formed in several sections of Brooklyn, n.y. At first the group, consisting mostly of Orthodox young people, served as a semi-vigilant unit to protect local Jews from physical attacks, mainly by delinquent blacks and Puerto Ricans. Later the group grew into a quasi-political movement, using the slogan "Never again" (with reference to the Holocaust and citing Vladimir *Jabotinsky extensively). In the contemporary style of "confrontation" and "direct action" engulfing certain sections of U.S. youth, it adopted the "defense" of Soviet Jewry, Israel, and Jews in Arab countries by forceful means in New York and other U.S. cities. Its declared aim was to disrupt commercial and cultural exchanges and tourism between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The jdl achieved a high degree of publicity and also entered into sharp controversy with the organized Jewish community, to which it refused to adhere. Its leader, rabbi Meir *Kahane, became a focus of polemics in the U.S. and other countries, as well as in the Jewish and general press (see, e.g., Michael T. Kaufman, "The Complex Past of Meir Kahane," in the New York Times, Jan. 24, 1971).

Kahane moved to Israel in 1971 and in 1976 founded *Kach, the Israeli branch of the Jewish Defense League. He was assassinated in New York in 1990. In the meantime the U.S. branch continued to operate (for a chronology of its activities in the ensuing decades see, the Anti-Defamation League website). In 2001, jdl chairman Irv Kugel was charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. In 2002, while in detention, he fell 18 feet to his death at the Federal Detention Center in Los Angeles. After his death the jdl split into rival factions.


E. Heifez, Pogrom Geshikhte 19191920, 1 (1921), 200–12; N. Shtif, Pogromen in Ukraine in Tsayt fun der Frayviliker Armey (1923), 54–57; Reshummot, 3 (1923); E. Tcherikower, In der Tkufe fun Revolutsie (1924), 157–210 (= Yehudim be-Ittot Mahpekhah (1958), 341–557); A.D. Rosenthal, Megillat ha-Tevaḥ, 1–3 (1927–32); idem, Ha-Haganah ha-Ivrit be-Ir Boguslav (1944); S. Dubnow, in: Ha-Tekufah, 24 (1928), 416–20; Y. Midrashi, Bershad ve-ha-Haganah Shellah (1935); L. Motzkin, in: Sefer Motzkin (1939), 123–34; I. Halpern, Sefer ha-Gevurah, 3 (1950); Die Judenpogrome in Russland, 1–2 (1909); A.M. Rabinowicz, in: The Jews of Czechoslovakia, 1 (1968),247 n. 43; R. Weltsch, in: Der Jude (1918); S. Ha-Kohen Weingarten, Toledot Yehudei Bratislava (1960), 129–33.


views updated May 18 2018


The protection of one's person or property against some injury attempted by another.

Self-defense is a defense to certain criminal charges as well as to some civil claims. Under both criminal law and tort law, self-defense is commonly asserted in cases of homicide, assault and battery, and other crimes involving the attempted use of violence against an individual. Statutory and case law governing self-defense is generally the same in tort and criminal law.

A person claiming self-defense must prove at trial that the self-defense was justified. Generally a person may use reasonable force when it appears reasonably necessary to prevent an impending injury. A person using force in self-defense should use only so much force as is required to repel the attack. Nondeadly force can be used to repel either a nondeadly attack or a deadly attack. deadly force may be used to fend off an attacker who is using deadly force but may not be used to repel an attacker who is not using deadly force.

In some cases, before using force that is likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to the aggressor, a person who is under attack should attempt to retreat or escape, but only if an exit is reasonably possible. Courts have held, however, that a person is not required to flee from his own home, the fenced ground surrounding the home, his place of business, or his automobile.

A person who is the initial aggressor in a physical encounter may be able to claim self-defense if the tables turn in the course of the fight. Generally a person who was the aggressor may use nondeadly force if the victim resumes fighting after the original fight ended. If the original aggressor attacked with nondeadly force and was met with deadly force in return, the aggressor may respond with deadly force.

Courts and tribunals have historically accepted self-defense as a defense to a legal action. As a matter of public policy, the physical force or violence associated with self-defense is considered an acceptable response to aggression.

Self-Defense or Unjustified Shooting?

On December 22, 1984, at approximately 1:00 p.m., Troy Canty, Darryl Cabey, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen boarded an express subway train in the Bronx borough of New York City. The young black men sat in the rear section of their car. A short time later, Bernhard Goetz boarded the same car and took a seat near the youths. Goetz, a white computer technician, had been mugged some two years earlier.

Canty and Allen approached Goetz, and Canty said, "Give me five dollars." Goetz responded by standing up and firing at the youths with a handgun. Goetz fired four shots before pausing. He then walked up to Cabey and reportedly said, "You seem to be all right, here's another," whereupon he fired his fifth and final bullet into Cabey's spinal cord. Goetz had shot two of the youths in the back. Ramseur and Cabey each had a screwdriver, which they said they used to break into coin boxes and video machines.

Goetz fled the scene and traveled north to New Hampshire. On December 31, 1984, he turned himself in to police in Concord, New Hampshire. Goetz was returned to New York where he was indicted on a charge of criminal possession of a weapon. The state fought for a second grand jury, and Goetz was eventually indicted a second time on charges of attempted murder, assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and reckless endangerment. At trial Goetz argued that he had acted in self-defense, and a jury convicted him only of illegal gun possession. Ultimately Goetz was sentenced to one year in jail and fined $5,000.

Goetz's shooting of Darryl Cabey left Cabey with brain damage and paralyzed from the chest down. Cabey sued Goetz, and in April 1996, a Bronx jury found Goetz liable for Cabey's injuries and awarded Cabey $43 million.

further readings

Fletcher, George P. 1988. A Crime of Self-Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial. New York: Free Press.

Roehrenbeck, Carol A. 1989. People vs Goetz: The Summations and the Charges to the Jury. Buffalo, N.Y.: W.S. Hein.

The same values that underpin self-defense support the defense of property. Generally a person has greater latitude in using physical force in the defense of her dwelling than in the defense of other property. In most jurisdictions deadly force is justified if a person unlawfully enters onto property and the property owner reasonably believes that the trespasser is about to commit a felony or do harm to a person on the premises. Deadly force may also be justified to prevent a burglary if the property owner reasonably believes the burglar intends to kill or seriously injure a person on the premises. However, a person may not, for example, rig a door handle so that any person who enters the dwelling is automatically shot by a gun. (Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 [Iowa 1971]).

Use of deadly force is never justified to protect personal property other than a dwelling. For example, a person would not be justified in shooting a person who is taking an automobile, no matter how expensive. Reasonable nondeadly force may be used to protect such personal property.

A person may use force to defend a third person from attack. If the defender is mistaken, however, and the third party does not need assistance, most jurisdictions hold that the defender may be held liable in civil court for injuries inflicted on the supposed attacker. In criminal cases a defendant would be relieved of liability if she proved she had made a reasonable mistake.

A defendant who successfully invokes self-defense may be found not guilty or not liable. If the defendant's self-defense was imperfect, the self-defense may only reduce the defendant's liability. Imperfect self-defense is self-defense that was arguably necessary but somehow unreasonable. For example, if a person had a good faith belief that deadly force was necessary to repel an attack, but that belief was unreasonable, the defendant would have a claim of imperfect self-defense. In some jurisdictions, the successful invocation of such a defense reduces a murder charge to manslaughter. Most jurisdictions do not recognize imperfect self-defense.

further readings

Ayyildiz, Elisabeth. 1995. "When Battered Woman's Syndrome Does Not Go Far Enough: The Battered Woman as Vigilante." American University Journal of Gender and the Law 4 (fall).

"Criminal Law." 1994. SMH Bar Review.

Klansky, Nadine. 1988. "Bernhard Goetz, a 'Reasonable Man': A Look at New York's Justification Defense." Brooklyn Law Review 53 (winter).

Lee, Cynthia Kwei Yung. 1996. "Race and Self-Defense: Toward a Normative Conception of Reasonableness." Minnesota Law Review (December).

"Torts." 1994 SMH Bar Review.


views updated May 29 2018

self-de·fense • n. the defense of one's person or interests, esp. through the use of physical force, which is permitted in certain cases as an answer to a charge of violent crime: he claimed self-defense in the attempted murder charge | [as adj.] self-defense classes. DERIVATIVES: self-de·fen·sive adj.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Self-Defense ★½ 1983 (R)

When a city's police force goes on strike, the citizens band together into vigilante troops. 85m/C VHS . Tom Nardini, Brenda Bazinet; D: Paul Donovan; W: Paul Donovan; C: Les Krizsan; M: Peter Jermyn.