How an Injustice Committed Over 100 Years Ago Inspires Our Commitment to Justice Today

This week, we mark a somber anniversary of the 101st anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman sent to Georgia to manage his family’s pencil factory. This lynching took place at a time of rampant anti-Semitism in the South and more broadly in American society. So it was no surprise that when a young Christian girl was found murdered on the property, fingers were pointed at the outsider Frank. Despite a lack of evidence, and in part due to an environment of incitement, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death.

When the governor of Georgia subsequently commuted Frank’s sentence from capital punishment to life imprisonment, a mob was enraged by this act of mercy for a Jew.  At midnight just over 100 years ago, they tore Frank from his prison cell at the Milledgeville State Penitentiary and hung him on a tree in Marietta. Photographers captured the grotesquerie for posterity.

The sham trial and brutal lynching were an injustice and a wound whose pain still sears the Jewish community.  It was an isolated incident for the Jewish community, but just one of thousands of lynchings carried out against black Americans during that time, murders that still scar our national psyche.  And it was a moment in time that made clear the need for ADL, which had been founded in 1913.          

In this moment, our founders huddled in Chicago and laid out a charter for a new organization they called the Anti-Defamation League.  They wrote that it would be energized by a simple mission: “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure fair treatment and justice to all.”

These activists set out to address a mission which eventually led ADL to address the systemic discrimination and pervasive prejudice that kept Jews from achieving full equality in the United States. Decades later, this led to the break down of quotas that kept Jews out of higher education and the tearing down of cultural barriers that prevented our community from participating fully in American life. Their passion prompted our work to unmask hate groups and expose bigots. It motivated our commitment to use education to tear out hatred at its roots. It drives our work today to understand anti-Semitism around the world and to use innovation to identify and call out hate in all its forms.

Basically, the ADL could not saved Leo Frank, but we since have endeavored to build a world where this kind of lynching never again would take place.

In 2016, the Jewish community certainly has overcome many of the obstacles that once held us back.  We now possess a degree of political power and social capital that was unimaginable in the early twentieth century. To a large extent, the open anti-Semitism that was woven into the culture of a prior generation has been pushed out of the realm of polite conversation. But it has not gone away.

Anti-Semitism remains a potent force and a persistent problem in our society, even if it now assumes different forms and forums. In the internet age, new self-selecting community’s traffic in anti-Semitism and reinforce each other’s bigotry and conspiracies. We encounter this hatred in radically different ways on social media, on our college campuses or on the mat in the Olympics. Indeed, though open anti-Semitism remains largely taboo in the mainstream, we see haters often hiding behind a veneer of ‘political correct' hostility, directing their animus toward the Jewish state rather than Jews as a religious group. But when you see double standards, overt demonization and the denial of the very right of the Jewish state to exist—what we refer to as delegitimization—it seems that what we are facing in a rising tide of anti-Israelism a modern version of the Oldest Hatred.

That is why ADL remains dedicated to our founding purpose. We never will relent in the fight against anti-Semitism. And that is why we also speak out against all forms of bigotry.

Some seek to portray ADL’s one hundred year commitment to fight hatred in all its forms—racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and religious bigotry—as a dilution of our focus. They say that ADL has lost its way. But these armchair critics who mischaracterize our work from the sidelines failed to read our mission. But we are far from daunted by such distractions. We know that our case is strengthened when we dare greatly. We know we are stronger when we stand in coalitions and find common cause with others who also face hate.

The pursuit of partners does not mean that we will shy away fighting anti-Semitism whenever it comes from. ADL will continue to call out anyone who peddles in prejudice regardless of their party or station, whether it’s a bigoted individual vying for office who resorts to cartoonish slander or those who traffic in a modern version of the blood libel in pursuit of a political agenda.

And we will continue to stand by communities who suffer from hatred and terror. That is ADL stood with the Sikh community after the murder of four worshippers at a Gurdwara in the summer of 2012.  That is why in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year, ADL launched 50 States Against Hate, to ensure that there are adequate hate crimes laws in all 50 states to protect all marginalized communities from hate. And that is why we supported the LGBT community after the heinous terror attack perpetrated against the community in Orlando earlier this summer. And that is why ADL will call out anti-Muslim bigotry and the worrying increase in violence targeting Muslim communities and places of worship.

Our tradition implores us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” On this anniversary, Leo Frank’s memory impels us to continue our good work—to ignore the small critics and fight ferociously against anti-Semitism and bigotry in all its forms. The work is not yet done.

Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League 

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