Charlottesville Echoes of Leo Frank

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By Bob Levi

Mount Carmel Cemetery is located in the borough of Queens, N.Y., just off the Jackie Robinson Parkway. In Section 1 of the burial grounds rests the remains of Leo Frank, a Jewish American icon whose lynching at the hands of southern white supremacists still resonates deeply within the conscience of American Jewry.

Leo Frank via Wikimedia Commons

For those unfamiliar with the tragic events leading up to Frank’s 1915 lynching, permit me to summarize. Frank was president of the Atlanta Chapter of B’nai B’rith and manager of a pencil factory in the city. Because of ingrained anti-Semitism, a Georgia court wrongly convicted Frank of killing a young girl and sentenced him to death. This reeked of a 20th-century blood libel. Due to questionable prosecutorial conduct at the trial and inconsistencies in witness testimony, Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

Subsequent to the commutation, members of the Ku Klux Klan broke into the jail holding Frank, kidnapped him and lynched him in Marietta, Ga. In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Frank a posthumous pardon.

The events leading up to and including the recent white supremacist-incited chaos in Charlottesville provides a clarion wake-up call to the American Jewish community. As an Orthodox Jew who occupies a leading position in a national Jewish organization, I am deeply concerned about the moral ambiguity that has been articulated by the leader of the free world. Jewish orthodoxy trains us to dismiss moral relativism as an explanation for vexing social issues. It should be a no-brainer to condemn anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

Asserting moral equivalence between American neo-Nazis, the KKK, Aryan Nations sympathizers, radical alt-right provocateurs and those who counter-demonstrated these anti-American front groups is frightening. The seeds of the anti-Semitism that plagued America at the time of Frank and prior to World War II are being resewn and cultivated by malignant denial and political enablement. American-nurtured anti-Semitism has been predicated on fringe America’s socio-religious disconnect with the Jewish community, as well as scapegoating Jews for regional impoverishment.

Nine decades ago, American nativism, political populism and religious sectarianism conspired to persecute Jews and created the toxic dynamic that restricted the European flow of immigration that could have saved countless lives at the outset of the Shoah. I am not saying the same factors are at play today; we learned from our American history — well, at least most of us did.  Our elected leaders — especially those who occupy our highest offices — must identify and condemn hate speech and hate groups. They must demonstrate clear-minded moral leadership, firm and stable conviction and competent command of the resources at their disposal to counter those who parade with torches, shouting anti-Semitic epithets. Willful equivocation is unacceptable. Those who “respectfully” march beside anti-Semites who bellow, “Jews will not replace us!” share the guilt. They are not “very fine people.”

If our elected leaders refuse to stand up to evil, fearing political blowback from their core base, then they have abandoned the essence of America. As American Jews, we must hold our elected leaders accountable for their failure to identify and condemn those who aid and abet anti-Semites. I would point out that Frank’s epitaph, engraved on his modest headstone, is semper idem, meaning “always the same.” His yahrzeit was on Tuesday, Aug. 29, the 7th of Elul. 

Bob Levi is a second cousin, twice removed, of Leo Frank. He is the chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel.