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Op-Ed: A century later, Leo Frank tragedy still resonates

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Abraham Foxman.

Abraham Foxman.

NEW YORK (JTA) — On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the trial of Leo Frank in Atlanta, let’s begin by stating for the record: No, the Leo Frank case was not the impetus for the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.

It is true that the organization, now celebrating its centennial, was founded the same year as the arrest and trial of Frank for the murder of one of his factory workers, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan. But the idea for ADL, conceived by Sigmund Livingston, a Chicago attorney, preceded the case.

Rather than being the catalyst for the organization, the trial served as a confirmation of the wisdom of Livingston that American Jews needed an institution to combat anti-Semitism.

America was a much different place in 1913. Compared to Europe, Jews here lived far more secure and stable lives, but stereotypes and name calling were still common. That’s what led Livingston to conceive of an ADL. As a Jewish immigrant from Germany, he assumed that in America the prejudices he experienced in Europe would not exist. That was not the case.

Still, the trial — and two years later, Frank’s lynching — were a shock to American Jews. Despite broad divisions between older immigrants from Germany and newer ones from Russia, the community rallied together in support of Frank and in anger at the biased trial.

Looking back, we can see this great tragedy as representing the two sides of America and the Jews that still exist today, but in a very different balance and form.

The trial and lynching demonstrated that America carried some of the historic stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews that had characterized European life for centuries. The blood libel charge — the idea that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes — was rare in America. But a related theme, of a Jewish predator attacking a young Christian female, surfaced in the Frank trial.

Also surfacing was the notion that in an extreme case like this, America’s legal and constitutional system might not be able to protect a vulnerable Jew from violence.

In the long term, one can argue that the reaction to the Frank affair set the stage for a dramatic improvement in Jewish life in America. Newspaper editorials across the country overwhelmingly supported Frank. Opinion makers commented about the degree of anti-Semitism surrounding the trial. Even early on, Jews understood that an influential public could be called upon for support when anti-Semitism reared its ugly head.

The opprobrium did some good, leading Georgia Gov. John Slaton to commute Frank’s sentence. However, the haters won out, as they so often did in those years in the case of African-Americans.

For American Jews, the Frank affair was seen as a low point in Jewish life in America. The truth is, however, that the most difficult years came later, particularly in the 1930s when anti-Semitic hate groups proliferated and when quotas in universities and other institutions abounded.

The lessons of the Frank affair played an important role in improving the quality of life for American Jews and in decreasing anti-Semitism.

If there were doubts about the need for an ADL, that evaporated among significant parts of the community after the lynching. And it set the stage for the fundamental practice used by ADL and others in combating anti-Semitism: Get the information out and rely on the good will of public figures and institutions to delegitimize hate and prejudice.

Clearly, America has come a long way in the last 100 years. A Leo Frank incident is unthinkable today. Attitudes, legal protections, education — all these speak to a qualitatively different America for Jews.

Yet the Frank affair still resonates. Anti-Semitism in the extreme, a completely biased trial and the lynching, may largely be things of the past. But the stereotypes that underlay that extremism are still alive. ADL surveys show that 15 percent of Americans — 35 million people — still have anti-Semitic attitudes.

One hundred years later, we are saddened by the memory that it could have happened here, pleased that America has come so far and recommitted to addressing those still living biases, some of which allowed the travesty that was the Leo Frank affair.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of “Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet.”)

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