“If Frank''s rich connections [the Jews] keep on lying about this case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN… Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people.” Three months later Frank was lynched.
Introduction: Although rarely expressed in physical violence antisemitism has, as in Europe, been part of the American landscape from colonial times to present. What follows is not intended as a “history” of US antisemitism but separate incidents indicating a pattern. It is often suggested that the United States is exceptional in that antisemitism has never taken on the dimensions of its European parents. And to some extent this is so. Even in times of social stress and upheaval the Constitution and Bill of Rights have served as a legal firewall to institutional antisemitism. The closest the US came to breaching that firewall was in the decades immediately preceding the Holocaust, when popular antisemitism in this country, as in Europe, was running high and there was strong public sentiment for remaining neutral in the war. This was the period when Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, both populists and Hitler sympathizers considered or were considered as possible candidates for president. What protection would the Bill of Rights have provided the Jews in a world where the US remained neutral or worse, joined Hitler’s crusade against “the Bolsheviks?”
In 1519 Conversos among Cortez’s Conquistadores were tortured by the Inquisition, “and burnings at the stake became a regular feature of life in Mexico City,” and California, and Florida. In 1654 twenty-three Jews fled the Brazilian Inquisition for “liberal” New Amsterdam (later New York). They were greeted by Peter Stuyvesant who wrote the Dutch West India Company, “Praying that the deceitful race-such hateful blasphemers of the name of Christ-be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony.”
America’s eighteenth century Founding Fathers, steeped in Enlightenment liberalism, also struggled to accept the Jews. “John Adams… noted that ‘it is very hard work to love most of them…,’ looked forward to the day when… they would become ‘liberal Unitarian Christians’” Likewise Thomas Jefferson, “did not consider that a Yiddish-speaking Jew who knew the Talmud was equal in usefulness to society with a classically trained thinker like himself.”
After the Civil War Union commanding General Henry W. Halleck linked “traitors and Jew peddlers.” And general and future president Ulysses S. Grant shared Halleck''s prejudices, describing “‘the Israelites’ an intolerable nuisance.” On December 17, 1862 Grant issued his infamous General Orders No. 11 which described the Jews, “as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also [Army] department orders…” All Jews were ordered to leave his department “within 24 hours.”
By the end of the nineteenth century populist antisemitic political parties were gaining favor and votes and even fielded candidates for US president. Another indicator of growing racism was the emergence of the pseudo-scientific racist eugenics movement, dedicated to creating a blond-haired, blue-eyed pure-blooded Aryan American race
Antisemitism in the United States, as in Europe, became more strident and political with the twentieth century. At the funeral of New York Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph on 30 July, 1902 the funeral cortege was pelted with “wood, metal and garbage” by workers from the rooftop of their warehouse. When the police arrived they clubbed and arrested the mourners.
On August 17, 1915, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, falsely convicted in the murder of a young girl employee, was lynched in Cobb County Georgia. Even the lawyer of the states chief witness, following Frank’s conviction, concluded his client the real murderer. Tom Watson, Georgia’s future senator and twice Populist Party candidate for president of the United States kept up a constant drumbeat against the Jew in his publications, and was even implicated, along with the police, of evidence tampering.
“Local politician Tom Watson continued his campaign against Frank, warning in the Jeffersonian: "If Frank''s rich connections keep on lying about this case, SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN,” (Wikipedia)
Based on the evidence Governor Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence on 21 June, 1915. To which Watson stated openly what he meant by, “something bad will happen:”
“This country has nothing to fear from its rural communities. Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people.” Three months later Frank was lynched.
The lynch mob that hanged Leo Frank did not fit the stereotype. Its members included a former governor, a sitting state Supreme Court justice, present and former city mayors, and law enforcement officers including the serving sheriff of the lynch site, Cobb County.
Half of Georgia’s Jews left the state. In response to antisemitism both in Georgia and nationally Bnai Brith, created the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Three months after the lynching Georgia’s elite mob reconvened on Stone Mountain and burned a cross. Dormant since the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan was resurrected.
Ku Klux Klan rally, Gainesville, Florida, December 31, 1922 (Wikipedia)
By the 1920’s antisemitism had entered mainstream American politics. With the “expert” advice of the Eugenics Record Office congress passed several anti-immigration laws targeting the “unfit.” The 1924 Immigration Restriction Law limited new immigration to 2% of the number of European nationals in the United States in the year 1890. Since most Jews arrived after that year, Jews immigration was limited to 2% of the number before that year. The 1924 Law would become legal justification allowing the president to deny refuge to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Recent writings in this Series: