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July 29, 2021 11:40 am

Remembering Leo Frank: Antisemitism Then and Now

avatar by Joshua Blustein


Photo of the trial of Leo Frank, shot on July 28, 1913. Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, standing at left, is examining witness Newt Lee, at right. Leo Frank who is seated in the centre, staring at the camera. The jury are in the foreground with their backs to the camera. Also in the picture are Lucille Frank, Leo Frank’s wife, and Mrs Ray Frank, his mother. ) Photo: Wiki Commons.

August 17th marks the 106th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jewish businessman who was falsely accused of murder and then kidnapped and executed by an antisemitic mob.

As the commemoration approaches, one cannot refrain from reflecting on the current wave of antisemitism in the United States. Although much has changed over the past 100 years, Jew-hatred remains an unfortunate facet of American life.

However, when comparing the history of American antisemitism to its manifestations today, a glaring divergence becomes apparent in the responses to it.

In the past, those who fought antisemitism appealed to classic American principles — liberty, tolerance, constitutionalism, and individualism.

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The country is different now. Many hold classic American principles in disrepute. American liberty, equality, tolerance are claimed to be racist lies. The Constitution? A veritable slave manual.

While the Jewish people once occupied a position of authority and high ground in our battle against hate, American Jews have now, sadly, often been reduced to pleading with progressives for tolerance. For example, many have tried to tie antisemitism with racism — but many progressives, and many in the Black Lives Matter movement, won’t allow that fusion. After all, American Jews are majority white-skinned and are linked to the “colonial, oppressor” State of Israel.

But consider the historical, non-progressive alternative to fighting antisemitism with strength and pride.

In the hot summer of 1787, as delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated, they received a letter from Jonas Phillips, who introduced himself as a “subscriber [of] one of the people called Jews.”

Phillips decried that Jews couldn’t hold public office in Pennsylvania. Referencing that Jews were denied the Declaration of Independence’s promise, Phillips argued, “That all men have a natural and inalienable Right To worship almighty God according to the dictates of their own Conscience … that no authority can or aught to be vested in or assumed by any power what Ever that shall in any Case interfere or in any manner Controul the Right of Conscince [sic] in the free Exercise of Religious Worship.”

In 1816, US Secretary of State James Monroe removed Mordechai Manuel Noah as Consul to Tunis because his Jewishness was an “obstacle to the exercise of his Consular function.” Jewish leader Isaac Harby wrote Monroe a seething letter, contending that “It is upon the principle, not of toleration … but upon … equal inalienable, constitutional Rights, that we see Jews appointed to offices. … They are by no means to be considered a Religious sect, tolerated by the government; they [constitute] a portion of the people.”

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No.11 (1862) in which “The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade … are hereby expelled from the Department [of the Tennessee].” A Jewish delegation charged into Washington to protest the matter, arguing that it was “the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” President Lincoln agreed and revoked the order.

After Leo Frank’s 1913 indictment, the Anti-Defamation League was created to — per its original charter — “put a stop to” the “most pernicious and un-American tendency” of antisemitism.

To many progressives today, these defenses would be appalling. But they are exactly what is needed.

Classic American values and institutions are now under assault from people claiming America’s founding is evil and must be overthrown. But those values are what have made Jews feel welcome and safe in America for more than 200 years. We abandon them at our own peril.

Joshua Blustein will be attending The University of Chicago Law School in the Fall.

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