In Gangsters vs. Nazis, crime historian Michael Benson invites us to cheer for Jewish mobsters who attacked Hitler supporters and sympathizers in cities such as New York, Chicago, Newark, and Los Angeles during the 1930s. Benson credits New York Judge Nathan D. Perlman, who conspired with the legendary Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky to disrupt meetings of the German American Bund, with "thinking outside of the box and teaching anti-Semites that Jews were tough and it could be dangerous to be a Nazi."
Perlman's outside-the-box thinking, which led to violent confrontations with Bund members and fascist Silver Shirts across the country, involved many acts of aggression, including bloody beatings that stopped just short of murder. While Benson occasionally acknowledges that the campaign was entirely illegal and deliberately punished antisemites for exercising their First Amendment rights, he has little patience with such objections.
According to "the company line," Benson writes, "hate speech was protected by the freedom of speech." But in reality, he avers, "hate speech was equivalent to inciting a riot." Unfortunately, he says, "there was no such thing as illegal 'hate speech' back then."
Nor is there such a thing in the United States today. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, a 1969 case involving a klansman whose bigoted fulminations led to criminal charges, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not punish such rhetoric unless it was both "directed" at inciting "imminent lawless action" and "likely" to do so.
As alarming as Bund and Silver Shirt speeches were against the background of what was happening in Germany, they plainly did not meet that test. And as emotionally satisfying as Benson's colorful tales of meeting offensive speech with violence might be, tolerating and praising such behavior are hallmarks not of admirable Americanism but of oppressive regimes like Hitler's.