The trial, conviction and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank a century ago is considered by some historians to represent a turning point in the history of Jews in America. In hindsight, we can acknowledge the irony in that assertion: A horrible incident of anti-Semitic injustice and violence led to a positive outcome, forging a powerful national Jewish identity that transcended geography, class and lived experience. The challenge now, 100 years later, is for American Jews to recapture that sense of unity without identifying only as victims.
Most Jews believe that Frank was innocent, that he did not, in fact, murder Mary Phagan, the 13-year-old girl who worked for his pencil manufacturing business in Atlanta and was strangled and left for dead in the factory cellar. Frank’s innocence is a sort of accepted truth — even though it is more accurately a complicated one. To this day, there are those who aren’t sure, and the ambivalence doesn’t come from only the ranks of Phagan’s family and the neo-Nazis who use the Frank story to maintain their hateful campaigns against Jews.
Still, there is no denying the ugly strain of anti-Semitism that Frank’s arrest, trial and conviction brought forth, in Georgia and beyond. It was enough to ignite the consciences of northern Jews like Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, and the Forward’s own Abraham Cahan, who used their influential newspapers to highlight what they saw as rank anti-Jewish hatred.
For Cahan, a Lithuanian-born, Yiddish-speaking, proudly socialist, pro-union editor, it was quite a leap to identify with Leo Frank and take on his cause. Frank was, after all, part of the economic and social elite, a well-educated German Jew, an effete factory owner who was known to exploit and harass his workers.
In another context, Frank might have been the target of Cahan’s pen. But religious identity and solidarity trumped all that.
As Cahan himself wrote in his memoirs, after returning from visiting Frank in his jail cell: “I had a deep interest in the story — as a ‘Forverts’ writer, simply as a human, as a Jew and as Frank’s personal friend. The impressions I returned with from Atlanta and those I formed later on in reaction to his ultimate fate are among the deepest and most painful impacts I’ve ever had.”
“That Cahan and Frank were both Jewish was enough to forge a bond between these two radically different men in a moment of extraordinary difficulty for American Jews,” the historian Jason Schulman wrote. “Frank’s experience in Atlanta served to unite German and Russian Jews in ethnic cohesion.”
That solidarity was further strengthened after Frank was brutally kidnapped from prison in 1915 and lynched by a posse of elite white Georgians whose identities were kept secret for decades and who were never held accountable for the crime they committed.
It is genuinely hard to imagine such outright hostility today. The Frank affair spurred the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, which a century later has become the gold standard of defense organizations. The ADL’s most recent annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents showed a 14% decline in assault, vandalism and harassment cases against Jews in America in just one year, continuing a three-year trend of incremental declines.
The ADL will be quick to point out that this welcome news is partly offset by the migration of anti-Semitism to the Internet, where neo-Nazis and other haters are allowed to roam free of detection and restraint. Indeed, as our Paul Berger reports, it’s as if the Frank trial were still going on for those who wish to use it an excuse to denigrate Jews and to shroud their white supremacist rants in the cloak of pretend journalism.
But such sentiment represents a distinct, discredited minority in 2013 America. To most Jews here, especially to most younger Jews, the Frank trial is ancient history, and for that we should rejoice. In the century since, Jews were drawn together by the agonies of two world wars and the promise of Zionism. Now we face challenges of a different sort, brought on by the growing economic, religious and political chasm that separates rich Jew from poor, Democrat from Republican, ultra-Orthodox from everyone else — in other words, absent the scourge of hatred from without, we are burdened by divisions within.
The unlikely alliance between Cahan and Frank could show us a different path. As Schulman wrote, “These two men, who were as different as any two Jews could be, put aside their German or Russian identities in favor of a Jewish one.” On the centenary of this tragic story, it is a model we can all emulate.