One hundred years ago, Southern Jew Leo Frank sat in jail, a year after his
conviction for murdering a 13-year-old girl and a year before his
To American Jews familiar with the case, over the past century
Frank’s slaying has exemplified America’s anti-Semitism. But the Frank affair
has received so much attention precisely because of its rarity. Jews have been
quite fortunate in America, facing less prejudice than other minorities, and
certainly less than they suffered elsewhere.
Frank, 29, who ran a pencil
factory in an Atlanta suburb, was accused of the 1913 strangling of factory
worker Mary Phagan. To Frank’s opponents, he was a rapacious Jew who destroyed
an innocent youth. Frank’s lawyers, too, exploited Southern prejudice. They
excluded black jurors and elicited racism by shifting the blame to Jim Conley,
an African-American worker and witness against Frank.
attorney called Conley “a dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying
This strategy made sense, as many Southern Jews were quite
racist and capitalized on being above society’s lowest rung.
after a 25-day trial, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. He lost all
appeals, but new evidence implicating Conley convinced Georgia’s governor to
commute the sentence to life in prison the day before Frank’s scheduled
Soon, an elite group of Georgians (including the local mayor
and county sheriff) formed the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” seizing Frank from
prison. The mob then tied a noose around his neck and hanged
Thousands of Atlantans came to see Frank’s corpse.
was prosecuted, and for decades, souvenir shops throughout the South sold
postcards depicting Frank hanging from an oak tree.
Terrible stuff, sure,
but completely atypical for America. Only a miniscule number of American Jews
were lynched, unlike thousands of African-Americans, hundreds of
Mexican-Americans, and more than a thousand whites of varying
Frank’s death is one of a handful of incidents considered
evidence of a strong undercurrent of what American Jews called “rishus”
(wickedness) running through American history.
Some others: • Until
Maryland’s “Jew Bill” passed in 1826, all public officials in that state were
sworn into office with a Christian oath. The debate over the bill in the first
quarter of the 19th century included accusations that Jews were a “separate
people” who killed Jesus and were uninterested in integration.
• In 1862,
Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order #11, which expelled
Jews from parts of three Southern states, supposedly to fight the black market
during the Civil War.
Under community pressure, president Abraham Lincoln
soon rescinded the order.
• In a well-publicized 1877 episode, prominent
American Jewish banker Joseph Seligman was barred by judge Henry Hilton from
staying at his upstate New York hotel.
Hilton justified his decision by
pointing to his right “to use his property as he
notwithstanding [the objections of] Moses and all his
• New York City police commissioner Theodore Bingham wrote
a 1908 article claiming that half the city’s criminals were Jewish. He painted
them as “burglars, firebugs, pickpockets, and highway robbers.” This public
condemnation shocked Jewish residents into creating the New York Kehillah to try
to govern the Jewish community centrally.
• In 1991, Orthodox Jews in
Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood suffered three days of African-American
attacks after a Jewish ambulance accidentally struck a black child. Scores were
injured, and two men, including a yeshiva student, died. Rioters looted Jewish
stores and targeted homes with mezuzot. Some participants shouted “Death to the
Jews!” But these exceptional flare-ups prove the rule of Jewish welcome in the
United States. Anti-Semitism was unlike such extended persecutions as
African-American chattel slavery, the Jim Crow South, Native American removal
policy, the “Know-Nothing” movement targeting Irish-Americans, and the exclusion
acts specifically barring Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
is the interwar period, when Jews faced restricted neighborhoods and hotels,
quotas at elite universities, Henry Ford’s spiteful Dearborn Independent
newspaper, and denunciations by radio personality Father Charles
And sure, Americans have sometimes criticized, discriminated
against and even assaulted Jews for being different – and today’s attacks on
Zionism on campus and in the media are disturbing.
But most American Jews
avoided the brunt of the country’s hate, in part because there was always
another group even more disliked – most prominently African-Americans in the
South and, later, urban areas; and Irish and other Catholics in the Northeast
and Midwest. Brandeis Prof. Steve Whitfield has called American anti-Semitism
“the dog [that] did not bark.”
So why have so many American Jews felt
besieged? Perhaps the scars of European hatred made them hyper-vigilant for
signs of stigma. Moreover, certain Jewish advocacy groups raise more funds by
exaggerating dangers than by celebrating American hospitality. But
overwhelmingly, the experience of Jews in the United States deserves more
admiration and wonder than shame or fear.
The writer has a master’s
degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. He teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva in
Jerusalem and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle.
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