Op-Ed: America has never been the haven Jews assumed it to be
The Latin inscription that graces Leo M. Frank’s tombstone at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York, declares: “Semper Idem” (Always the same).
The words link Frank’s lynching, just outside Atlanta in 1915, to the violent persecution of Jews in Europe and Russia during previous millenniums. The words also speak to the future: Always the same.
That future arrived at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue late last month, when a shooter mowed down 11 congregants with an AR-15. Upon his arrest, 46-year-old Robert Bowers told the police, “All these Jews need to die.”
For American Jews, the slaughter in Pittsburgh seemed to have come out of nowhere. Although the Anti-Defamation League had noted a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States during 2017, such reports were largely dismissed. This was not the Old World.
The sad truth, however, is that, as the Leo Frank case illustrates, the United States has never been quite the haven Jews assumed it to be.
Anti-Semitism typically flourishes when societies are in flux.
Not only did the lynching of Frank, a 31-year-old Jewish factory superintendent, jump-start the Anti-Defamation League (founded in 1913), but it was also a factor in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The hooded fraternity, which disbanded following Reconstruction, came back to life with a cross-burning atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain four months after Frank’s demise. Three members of the lynch party were said to have participated in the ceremony. In the realms of online hate frequented by Bowers, this is regarded as a red-letter day.
The events in Pittsburgh and those of the Frank case are in many respects different, of course. Where the worshipers at the Tree of Life were taken unawares, Frank’s lynching was the culmination of a two-year saga that began with his conviction for the murder of a child laborer, Mary Phagan, who toiled at the pencil factory he managed. As Frank’s verdict was appealed up to the Supreme Court, the affair became a cause celebre. A cadre of vigilantes abducted him from a state prison in rural Georgia and drove him through the night to the predetermined spot where he was hanged.
Nonetheless, the similarities between 1915 and 2018 are striking. For one, both incidents occurred at a moment when the times were out of joint. Just as the industrial age is today giving way to the information revolution, the agrarian era was then giving way to the industrial age. Anti-Semitism typically flourishes when societies are in flux. Jews are portrayed as the source of the anxieties that accompany change.
More important is this: A major precipitating factor in both cases was that each happened amidst concerted attacks on the press and objective truth. When facts are denigrated and consensus frays, doors to dark places open and malicious myth — and what is anti-Semitism but malicious myth — rears its head.
Just two days before the killings in Pittsburgh, President Trump tweeted: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
Trump’s tweet could have been authored almost verbatim by the chief antagonist in the Frank case, a figure whose assaults on the New York Times, the Pulitzer newspapers and Hollywood — charter members of the mainstream media — undermined the foundation of civic life to such a degree that the men who lynched Frank, far from believing they were committing a crime, saw themselves as warriors in a just cause.
The Ur Donald Trump was Tom Watson, a lawyer, former Georgia congressman and publisher of a weekly tabloid, the Jeffersonian. A polemicist nonpareil, Watson lambasted the press in an attempt to discredit evidence that exonerated Frank. “Adolph Ochs,” he wrote in an early jibe at the owner of the New York Times, “is a most useful servant of the Wall Street interests, who runs a Tory paper in New York whose chief end in life seems to be to uphold all the atrocities of special Privilege and all the monstrous demands of big money.”
Over the next months, Watson took it upon himself not just to counter stories about Frank but also to subvert the very idea of independent news sources and threaten that if they kept running their articles, “SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN.” It was as if a fissure had opened up inside his brain from which malevolent lampoons, bigoted maunderings, special pleadings, and, to give him his due, the occasional stinging insight convulsively spouted. He was like Trump, except instead of transmitting from a hand-held device, he relied on a printing press. The circulation of the Jeffersonian tripled.
After Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence, Watson, rather than confine his critique of the decision to the merits, wrote: “Lynch law is … better than no law at all.”
In the wake of Pittsburgh, as debate about the president’s part in creating a climate of hate roiled Jews, Abraham Foxman, the former director of the Anti-Defamation League, asserted, “Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite.” The president’s strong support for the state of Israel will forever protect him from the accusation.
Strictly speaking, Watson was not an anti-Semite either. He defended Jewish clients and assailed automobile manufacturer Henry Ford for his role in disseminating “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a bogus, early 20th century text purporting to reveal a Jewish scheme for world domination.
Anti-Semitism, however, is not the gateway threat to American Jews. Further describing Trump, Foxman said: “He’s a demagogue.”
So, too, was Watson. Demagoguery is the bludgeon that defies decency and defiles discourse, allowing anti-Semitism to breathe and encouraging anti-Semites to act. The mainstream media, for all its failings, is the main bulwark against demagoguery.
Primarily as a reward for his anti-Frank campaign, Watson was elected to the United States Senate, where he died in office. At his funeral, the largest floral tribute was an enormous cross of red roses from the Klan.
As for Trump, the alt-right pays him tribute by retweeting his attacks on the American press.
Steve Oney is the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.