By David Benkof
One hundred years ago, Southern Jew Leo Frank sat in jail, a year after his conviction of murdering a 13-year-old girl and a year before his lynching. To American Jews familiar with the case over the last 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.
In 1913, the 29-year-old Frank ran a pencil factory in an Atlanta suburb when he was accused of strangling 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. Frank’s lead attorney called Conley “a dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying nigger.”
This strategy made sense, as many Southern Jews were quite racist and capitalized on being above society’s lowest rung.
In 1915, 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 execution.
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 him. Thousands of Atlantans came to see Frank’s corpse. No lyncher 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 was lynched, unlike thousands of African-Americans, hundreds of Mexican-Americans, and more than a thousand whites of varying ethnicities. 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 J- and were uninterested in integration.
• In 1862, Union Major General 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 pleases… notwithstanding (the objections of) Moses and all his descendants.”
• 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, pick-pockets, 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 extended persecutions such 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.
An exception 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 Coughlin.
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. Also, groups like the Anti-Defamation League (originally formed in response to the Frank case) and the American Jewish Committee 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.
David Benkof 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. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.